June 28, 2016
ANN ARBOR — If Michigan started the season tomorrow, Tim Drevno would have no trouble filling out his offensive line starter sheet.
Junior Mason Cole would be the center. Seniors Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden would be the guards. Senior Erik Magnuson would play right tackle and sophomore Grant Newsome would play left tackle.
But, of course, the season doesn’t start tomorrow. It’s not even August yet. And while Drevno — Michigan’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach — does return more experience up front than any other Big Ten team in 2016, he’s not putting anything in concrete just yet.
When Michigan opens fall camp Aug. 8, the program will welcome three freshmen offensive linemen into the fold: Tackle Stephen Spanellis, guard/tackle Ben Bredeson and guard Michael Onwenu.
And with his past serving as a guide, Drevno continues to insist that he’s not afraid to start a first-year player up front.
So long as that player earns it.
“They’re going to have an opportunity to come in and compete for a starting job,” Drevno said this month. “Every day you want to come out and be the best.
“And everyone in that room understands that.”
On paper, Michigan has the most experienced offensive line in the Big Ten. The Wolverines return a total of 105 offensive line starts between Cole, Kalis, Braden and Magnuson. Newsome didn’t earn a start last season as a true freshman, but he was able to see some meaningful playing time.
Among power five teams, only North Carolina and USC have more returning experience than Michigan.
At the same time, though, experience doesn’t always equal results.
A year ago, UCLA ranked first nationally in offensive line experience with 131 returning starts. The Bruins ended the season No. 58 in rushing offense, averaging about six yards more per game than Louisville — a team that returned exactly zero offensive line starts in 2015.
By contrast, South Florida returned zero offensive line starts last season and finished the year No. 10 nationally in rushing with 247 yards per game.
Experience isn’t always everything and it certainly isn’t the only thing, especially if the players earning all those starts are only receiving them due to a lack of talent behind them.
Drevno knows this first hand, of course. In 2014 at USC — his only year away from Jim Harbaugh — injuries and other circumstances saw him start three freshmen on the offensive line. Two of those true freshmen — Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao — earned freshman All-America honors at the end of the season.
In 2009 at Stanford, Drevno started redshirt freshmen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. Both ended up in the NFL.
It has happened before. But at the same time, it takes a special type of player to crack the lineup early — especially when this much experience sits in front of them.
“I never refer to them as a freshman, I refer to them as a football player,” he said. “Guys who (need) to come ready to compete at a high level. It has to be a guy who likes to compete and the venue and platform aren’t too big for them.
“It has to be a guy who can think on his feet.”
Harbaugh’s philosophy on redshirts basically reads as follows: He doesn’t have one. He’d prefer to redshirt a quarterback if he can and he says he understands when an offensive lineman might need to take the first year off. But overall, he wants every player who reports to fall camp to be a guy who is ready to compete and take a job.
Which is why Drevno consistently walks back any talk of Michigan having a firm, concrete starting five up front. Odds are the team will enter the season with that aforementioned five, but players like Bredeson (a five-star recruit at one point), Onwenu and Spanellis will all have an opportunity to make a splash.
They’ll also have an opportunity to get into the rotation, as Newsome did last season — passing older teammates to sit as Michigan’s sixth offensive lineman in heavy power formations.
Michigan’s returning plenty of experience up front in 2016. But no one’s name is being written on the depth chart in ink right now.
“Those who can (play) as true freshman ultimately become the best players, (because) you get better at football by playing football,” Harbaugh said last season. “The ones that are mentally and physically ready to do that as true freshmen end up having better careers. College careers, pro careers. I haven’t done a study on that, that’s my own personal experience.
“That’d be a good study for people to do.”