ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The situation could be viewed in two ways: Either Michigan’s offensive line has experienced a fair amount of growing pains throughout the first two-plus weeks of practice, which could lead to a long year; or the young ones in the trenches have been set up to flourish by way of a crash course in Elite Linemen 101 courtesy of two of the best in the nation, Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary.
“We can’t even block Mo Hurst right now,” said coach Jim Harbaugh, laughing, during Friday’s availability. “It’s been tough to block Mo Hurst and Rashan Gary, and Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich — all of those guys have been really good.”
In fairness, Hurst has earned a No. 1 position ranking from NFL pundits. Gary, an all-Big Ten freshman, could be on the verge of really gaining some (more) national attention.
During the same media session, Mone was asked if Gary had turned up the intensity.
“Hell yeah,” the senior said with excitement.
The D-line will be a strength of the Wolverines in 2017. That much has been made clear.
However, though young and without three all-Big Ten starters, the Wolverines have the building blocks of a respectable offensive line, starting with Mason Cole, who’ll likely start at left tackle during his team’s season opener Sept. 2 vs. the Florida Gators at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
He’s held his own.
But again, some have struggled.
“I don’t have to play them this year — this year, I’m on the team with them,” said tackles and tight ends coach Greg Frey, formerly the offensive coordinator at Indiana, who also laughed while praising the pair of defensive tackles.
Good?! Nah. They’ve been great, he added.
“You know, it’s the old saying, ‘Iron sharpens iron,’ ” Frey continued. “When you’ve got guys, and they’re coming in and you’re trying to prepare them to play — who you’re practicing against plays a big part of (getting them ready). And while you can’t go every single snap every single day against Rashan or Mo. … But what does happen is that it becomes competitive.”
“Competitive” meaning that those who been had beaten in the past by Hurst or Gary or Winovich or Mone, find themselves pushing even harder the next time. This past weekend, the Wolverines cranked up the position battles, likely narrowing down candidates for the two-deep roster.
“When it becomes competitive, it brings the level of play up for guys,” Frey said, adding that Cole “may not need that.”
WATCH: Frey gives impression of OL learning curve, effectiveness of the DL (1:20)
With that said, others such as incoming freshmen and former backups need to roughed up a bit in order to get acclimated with what’s to come.
By all accounts, Ohio State has one of the best — and proven — defensive fronts in the country. By the final Saturday of November, there won’t be time for mistakes.
Make the slip-ups right now, not on game days. That’s basically been the message.
“Being able to get in there and compete against game level-intensity reps helps,” Frey said.
For now, Cole seems to be the only publicly confirmed starter on the offensive line. The 6-foot-5, 292-pound (as listed on 2016 MGoBlue roster) senior hasn’t missed a game since arriving at Ann Arbor in 2014.
However, the other starters have yet to be determined — or so Michigan coaches have said during public media sessions.
Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan Jr. have battled for the top right tackle spot, yet neither has comparable experience to their predecessors. Bushell-Beatty has appeared in 11 games as a reserve lineman and eight on special teams. Runyan hasn’t touched the field since redshirting in 2015.
Chuck Filiaga, Cesar Ruiz and Andrew Stueber, all true freshmen, have thrown themselves into the two-deep mix — but, of course, they’ve yet to play a Saturday in a winged helmet.
Patrick Kugler, a fifth-year senior, likely will be the starting center — but he only has five games to his credit … and just one start (left guard vs. Hawaii in 2016).
“We love it, going against them,” said Frey. “We win some, we lose some. But the biggest thing is that we’re stressing ourselves to become a more cohesive unit.”
Dealing with Don Brown’s defense has been stressful, in a good way, for the Wolverines O-liners. Eventually, the rough preseason lessons will pay dividends.
“You’ve got to think. You’ve got to be powerful. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to react,” said Frey, who sees players quickly developing their “knowledge bank” thanks to trial by fire. “You’ve got to pick up stunts. You’ve got to pick up blitzes. You’ve got to see safety rotations. There are like a million things to do in order to be successful against it.”