ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It seemed like something of an impossible task: revamp an offensive line that was essentially a sieve to opposing defenses a year ago. Yet, first-year Michigan OL coach Ed Warinner has taken his unit and shown tangible progress from where the squad was a year ago.
Last year’s offensive line was near the bottom metrics in sacks and tackles for loss allowed. Teams that weren’t good at getting to the quarterback had historically good days in many cases.
No matter who was under center, they were running for their lives the moment they got the ball in their hands. That’s no longer the case for this Michigan team.
Shea Patterson has had ample time to go through his reads and his progressions. The run game is averaging 5.2 yards per carry on the season. As Warinner notes, “We have one holding call in five games. We have two illegal procedure penalties in five games. So I would challenge anyone to say who has less penalties on their offensive line in five games. We have three. That’s pretty good. Our negative yardage plays are down. Our sacks are way down. So those things show you that good things are happening and you’re making progress.”
And Ed Warinner knows a thing or two about coaching offensive lines.
Warinner oversaw Ohio State’s offensive line in 2014, arguably the best in the country that year. The OL helped propel the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff, where Michigan’s arch rival won the national championship. All five players on that line are now playing on Sundays.
With a 30+ year track record, there’s one consistency: Warinner’s offensive lines improve and play at a very high level. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t growing pains from time to time.
In order to achieve success, there’s something of a rubric that Warinner has to follow. He has to earn the players’ trust. And then? He has to push them to be the absolute best they can be.
Expectations at Michigan are extremely high. And Warinner knows that. His players know that. With those expectations comes a lot of responsibility, and it’s a challenge that Warinner & Co. don’t shy away from — they embrace it.
“Number one: how hard can I push them?” Warinner said. “Because you’ve got to push people and make them uncomfortable, and make them do stuff they really don’t want to do. That comes with trust. So they have to trust that what you’re doing and what you’re telling them will make them better and help them be a better player of our team, be a better team. So you develop trust, then you push them to challenge them to do more than they’ve done in the past. Do it better than they’ve done it in the past. And you hold people accountable.
“Never let a rep go by where a guy does something that’s not correct. Either effort-wise, or not correct assignment-wise and let it go. Because the minute you let something go, you’ve just reinforced that it’s okay. ‘Well, I did that yesterday, and he didn’t say anything, so it must be okay.’ No. So, they don’t ever have a play off. They don’t ever get a play off in practice where somebody isn’t coaching them or evaluating them or making sure that if you see it live in practice that it gets addressed. And then it definitely gets addressed when we watch video. But there’s no, ‘Well, I’m not going to say anything to Ben about doing that. I’m not gonna say anything to Cesar about that.’ No, no, no, no, no. Everything’s addressed. Everything. If it’s not a championship level play in practice or the games, it gets addressed.
“In a positive way to help them get better, to understand what the standard is. The standard is, we’re trying to win every game. We’re trying to be at a championship level to compete for a Big Ten title. That’s how we coach them. It’s not about who we’re playing against, it’s about how they’re performing. To get kids to do that, they have to see themselves getting better.
“The most inspirational thing as a player is when you improve. You can say what you want: the scoreboard talks about the team and the program. The individual playing well and getting better is what really resonates – because we all – I have kids. I’ve coached lots of kids. ‘I had a great game!’ I know, but you lost by two touchdowns. ‘I know, but I had a great game!’ That’s all that, in today’s society, that resonates with kids is – ‘How did I play? Am I getting better? Am I doing what I’m supposed to do?’ And they are connected to the team and to the program, I don’t mean that, but you know what I’m saying. Deep down in their heart.
“But, anyway – I think we’re just challenging them to continue to grow and to get better. I think they trust me and I trust them. I think we have fun together. I think we work hard together. I think they know if they show up not ready to work, it’s gonna be an uncomfortable day. If they show up and dow what they’re supposed to do, then it will be a really joyous day of everybody working hard. They get to decide that. Because I’m not changing. Because I can’t. I can’t let them have days off, I can’t let them not practice well. I can’t lower the expectations, or we won’t be what we need to be. But that’s success in any profession – corporate, sales, medical – whatever it is, you’ve got to be challenged to be at your best or you’ll take days off, take practices off. And that shows up in the bottom line, so we don’t let that happen.”
With those great expectations, sometimes, there can be some push-back. Players can question what they’re being asked to do, especially if the going gets a lot tougher than what they’re accustomed to.
However, at Michigan, Warinner hasn’t experienced that. He’s experienced the opposite.
His players have bought in, and the very tangible results that his unit has gotten on the playing field has only worked to continuously reinforce that which he’s been preaching.
“I just think that until something you tell them shows on film where they can see themselves doing that against our team or against somebody else, that’s when it really becomes reinforced,” Warinner said. “Like, ‘Whoa. I haven’t given up a sack this year! These pass protection drills – because we didn’t do these drills last year.’ Or, ‘I never did these before!’ You know what I mean? Things like that, that’s where trust is developed. That’s where what we’re asking them to do is reinforced by, does it work for them when it counts. I think that’s been really good.
“They’re a great group of guys. Everybody wants to be good. Everybody wants to be the best. But not everybody knows how to get there, and that’s my job – to help them go where they can’t take themselves. I always say two things as a coach that I’m responsible for: take a player where he can’t take himself and make the complicated seem simple. And if I’ve done those two things, I’ve done my job and we’ll be better.
“Because it is complicated playing offensive line – very complicated. But, somehow, you have to present it and teach it in a progression that makes it simple in their minds so they can play fast and have confidence. And, somehow, you have to make someone uncomfortable enough to make someone work hard to go beyond, to strain, to do extra that will end up making them better.
“Those are the two things that I think are the primary role of a coach, other than whatever the head coach wants, I do as hard as I can do. That’s my role as an assistant to him is what does he want, how does he see this thing going and how do I do that to the best of my ability. But, to the players, those are the two things I do for the players.”