NCAA Football News
The Michigan Wolverines return five experienced players on the offensive line, but Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff need the big blockers to step up in 2015.
Mason Cole, Ben Braden, Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson—who combined for 47 starts last season—each return to a unit that was slightly above average. The running game tallied 4.6 yards per carry, good enough for 49th nationally and up 66 spots from the dismal year prior.
However, according to Football Outsiders, Michigan managed 2.73 yards in standard-down situations, ranking 94th in the country. Setting the tone on first down will be a key focus, especially under Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno.
The Wolverines' new coaching staff is the biggest reason expectations must be raised for the offensive line. Good coaches expedite development, and Michigan's NFL-caliber coaches bring even more knowledge to the practice facility.
Now, it's not like the linemen have magically become marionettes that Harbaugh and Drevno can manipulate mid-play. The pressure remains on the players to heed the advice and translate it to their on-field performance.
But here's the thing: Thanks to spending countless hours involved with the team, focused college players improve from year to year.
For example, Cole broke into the starting lineup as a freshman. The 6'5", 287-pound sophomore left tackle is heralded as the program's next great lineman, and with or without the new staff, he'd be closer to attaining that status in 2015 than 2014. It's that simple.
Yet it certainly doesn't hurt to have what Michigan boasts on the sideline.
Drevno—who doubles as the line coach—has worked under Harbaugh for 10 of the last 11 years. During Drevno's three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, the team's rushing offense finished No. 8, No. 4 and No. 3 in the league. That followed three straight top-20 campaigns at Stanford.
If Drevno was a part of tremendously successful offensive lines in both the NFL and college, there's no reason Michigan's players won't be taught the proper tools to dominate.
And that, per MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner, is Harbaugh's ultimate goal for the offensive line anyway.
"I'd like it to be dominant," Harbaugh said.
Barring injury, Cole shouldn't leave his post at left tackle. While the rest of the offensive line isn't locked into certain positions quite yet, Michigan should have a solid idea of how the first-team spots will shake out.
Glasgow is the most versatile player, considering he can occupy any interior position. The senior logged 24 starts over the last two seasons. Consequent to Jack Miller's abrupt retirement, though, Glasgow will likely take over at center.
Kalis, Braden and Magnuson should each earn a No. 1 role, but at which position remains a small question. Kalis could play either guard spot, while Braden—the right tackle in 2014—was moved inside, opening a place for Magnuson at right tackle.
On media day, in a video captured by Isaiah Hole of 247Sports, Drevno called the starting five "a work in progress."
The reserve did take a notable hit recently. According to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press, Chris Fox elected to retire following a couple of injury-riddled seasons. Fox only appeared in one game while in Ann Arbor, but perhaps Drevno could've utilized that 4-star talent.
Nevertheless, Logan Tuley-Tillman, David Dawson, Patrick Kugler and Juwann Bushell-Beatty provide much-needed depth at tackle, guard, center and tackle, respectively.
Michigan enters fall camp with five clear starters and four others competing for playing time, all under one of college football's best run-focused coaching tandems. The blockers will do the dirty work so Derrick Green, Ty Isaac, De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson (when healthy) can receive the glory.
It's up to Drevno and his experienced linemen to provide the running backs with that space on a more consistent basis than a year ago.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Nick Saban wasn’t talking about how well he thought the summer went, injured running back Bo Scarbrough’s four-game suspension or how he’s someday going to write an autobiography, he established Alabama’s most pressing priorities during his first press conference of training camp Thursday.
While most would think picking a starting quarterback would head that list, it didn't as Saban is pretty confident that competition will eventually work itself out. Instead, his top area of emphasis was something else entirely.
“The last couple of years we have not done very well in turnovers,” the coach said. “We had a minus-two turnover ratio last year for a team that won 12 games—almost unheard of.”
While stressing the importance of turnovers isn’t necessarily new for the coach—Saban made it a team priority in both the spring and summer—the first practices of the fall are when he’ll start seeing if his months of effort are starting to paying off.
He doesn’t just want turnovers to be something that's talked about. He wants the pursuit of turnovers to be ingrained in everything the Crimson Tide defense does.
“Stripping at the ball, running backs falling to the ground, trying to strip the ball,” junior defensive end A’Shawn Robinson said about turnover drills, which have become a bigger part of practice.
A steady decline in the Crimson Tide’s statistics, which culminated with last year's 11th-place finish in the Southeastern Conference in turnover margin (71st nationally), led to Saban's renewed focus on this aspect of the game.
Texas A&M (five), Vanderbilt (six) and LSU (10) were the only SEC teams with fewer interceptions than Alabama (11) in 2014. The Tide's 11 picks were less than half of what they recorded during their 2009 national championship season, and the total brought the program’s average during the Saban era down to 16.6.
In comparison, Saban’s LSU teams averaged 15.2 picks per year (with a high of 21 in 2003), and his Michigan State squads averaged 12.4 (with 15 in 2003).
Moreover, Alabama’s defense only recovered nine fumbles in 2014, tying for No. 68 in the nation. Again, that was low for the Crimson Tide overall, though it was actually up from the previous season’s eight.
"A lot of people weren't really stripping at the ball in the past year," said senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, who led Alabama in forced fumbles with three last season. "We had a down year for turnovers really, so coaches gave an idea for guys to really just start trying to get at the ball and get the ball out."
Actually, they had numerous ideas.
It started with Saban hiring former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker as Alabama's defensive backs coach and promoting Tosh Lupoi to outside linebackers coach. Among other things, both were tasked with making their position groups more of a ball-hawking force.
“I think he’s kind of reestablished the standard for expectation in terms of how we play back there in terms of the effort that we give,” Saban said about Tucker.
Next was the creation of the continuous “Ball Out Champion” award, a boxing-style belt that will regularly be passed around among defenders who make big plays. It was on the move a lot during Alabama’s A-Day scrimmage, in which they tallied six interceptions, a fumble recovery and broke up eight passes to go with 19 tackles for a loss, including eight sacks.
Then, Saban changed the messenger. He’s big on having guest speakers regularly address the team, and one of the reasons why is that sometimes some things sink in more if they come from someone else. (Saban compares this to a parent telling a child the same thing over and over, but as soon as another person says it they believe it.)
So during the offseason, Saban called upon one of his former assistant coaches, Jason Garrett, the current Dallas Cowboys head coach who was his quarterbacks coach with the Miami Dolphins and had an invitation to follow him to Tuscaloosa.
“He had NFL stats from five, 10, 20 years,” Saban said. “When you are plus-one in turnovers you have an 80 percent chance to win. When you’re plus-two in turnovers you have a 95 percent chance to win, and it goes up from there.”
Finally, the coaches decided that the members of their defensive front seven needed to come into training camp leaner and ready to go, and all indications Tuesday were that they did just that. Among those who appeared a little trimmer were All-SEC preseason selections Ragland and Robinson, and Robinson told reporters that his weight was down to 314 pounds.
That’s down from a year ago when he played at 320, and Robinson’s hoping to be closer to 310 when the season starts Sept. 5 against Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas (8 p.m. ET, ABC). Jarran Reed, who is often next to him on the defensive line and is listed as 313 pounds is also trimming down.
“He’s a lot better,” Robinson said about Reed. “He’s lighter, he’s quicker. He’s faster off the ball, can convert and run the pass just as well as anybody on the team. And so he’s been working on that and just about everything.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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