Michigan football offensive linemen improved without practicing in pads. Here's how

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read

Playing college football during a pandemic is no easy task.

And it has led to many sleepless nights for Ed Warinner, Michigan football's offensive line coach.

As he enters his third season in Ann Arbor, Warinner faces a unique challenge: He must replace four starters along the offensive line without any spring practices and a shorter-than-usual fall camp.

“That was the biggest thing that kept me awake at night," Warinner said Wednesday. "That was the biggest thing for me for the whole offseason."

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Ed Warinner, right, during the 2018 loss against Ohio State.
Ed Warinner, right, during the 2018 loss against Ohio State.

The Wolverines aren't bereft of experience. They return right tackle Jalen Mayfield, who started 13 games last season and is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick by some, and veterans like left tackle Ryan Hayes, guard Andrew Stueber, center Andrew Vastardis and guard Chuck Filiaga.

But they have 17 combined starts between them.

The nation's COVID-19 outbreak brought a conundrum: How could Warinner get his players up to speed? They did not have spring practices, usually a crucial time to develop the offensive line and create chemistry with padded practices. And when the Wolverines were allowed to return to their football facilities, they could only work out, as full practices did not begin until the final week of September.

That meant Warinner had to get creative.

"We came up with some pretty good things," Warinner said. "I think we fell into some things that really started working for us, and we got a good rhythm in individual and our periods where we work by ourselves.

"I’ve been around long enough to know how to get a group ready in pads. But we had a shorter window. Normally we have a month of pads to get a team ready, this year, with the way they set up when pads could start, it was about three weeks. It’s all been good. Just have to be creative. Use different methods, different techniques."

According to Warinner, practicing without full equipment may have aided the development of his offensive linemen. He says it forced his players to improve their technique, as they weren't able to fall into bad habits of blocking with their shoulder pads and helmets.

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Ed Warinner speaks to the media Oct. 30, 2019, in Ann Arbor.
Ed Warinner speaks to the media Oct. 30, 2019, in Ann Arbor.

"You’re learning a safer way to play football before you put on the protective gear," Warinner said. "I think what we’ve developed is better footwork, better hand placement, better use of our hands, better eye tracking, using our eyes to find where we need to be.

"I think it taught them how to do things the right way and the safest way.”

Then, of course, there was the difficult task of keeping the offensive line healthy. Warinner oversees the biggest position group on the team, with 15 scholarship players alone. The offensive line has five starters, more than any other position on the field. Warinner had to consider the manner in which COVID-19 spreads and adjust his coaching methods.

“Those guys do operate in proximity in practice," Warinner said. "Now, what I’ve done in non-practice is split them up. So between the first team and the second team, they’re not all in the same room. There’s five of them between the first and second unit in one room and five between the first and second unit in the other room.

"If one room for some reason got COVID and they declared that room couldn’t play for three weeks, the other room I think could still win the game because there’s at least two or three starters in each room and then the next-best player. We have it all matched up. Hopefully that will never come to be the case."

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Other protocols include rotating the offensive line, so that younger players who might be called into action due to COVID-related issues have had opportunities to practice with the starting offensive line. During meetings, Warinner will stock the room with Clorox wipes and ask players to wipe everything down both before and after the meeting, while spacing his players out to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

"We’re doing such a good job at Michigan, internally and in this building, in terms of our training, medical staff, our protocols, our social distancing, our cleanliness," Warinner said. "We’re trying to do it right. I make them wear their mask at practice. They wear shields on their face mask. For spray, they wear a mask.

"I’m a pain in the butt about it. I only let three guys go to water at a time, so they’re not all over by the water at the same time. We’re trying to preserve our chances at playing with a full deck every week.”

Warriner likes the progress the offensive line has made over the past few months — and believes they'll continue to develop into the season.

“I like where we’re at right now," Warinner said. "Obviously, we’ll grow after the first game. Whatever happens, that’s a baseline of who we are and then we’ve got to build on it from there. Your first game, lots of things can happen.

"I feel confident about what the kids are going to do and how hard they’re going to play, and then we’ll just grow and learn from there. The most growth usually on any football team is between Game 1 and Game 2, in my experience, and same with offensive line. I’m hoping we can hit our stride pretty quickly, just because we’ve had a long build-up and a lot of time together. We’ll just have to see."

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football OL improved without practicing in pads. Here's how