Rugged attitude for Michigan football's offensive line originated with this drill

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For two straight weeks, Michigan football has done little more than unleash tailbacks Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum until the opposing defense cried uncle. There was no need to rely more on quarterback Cade McNamara, who attempted only 26 combined passes in two games, because neither Western Michigan nor Washington stopped Plan A.

That seems unlikely to change this week when Northern Illinois takes its turn in the trenches of Michigan Stadium. The Huskies rank 120th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing defense through two games — they’ve allowed 464 rushing yards to Georgia Tech and Wyoming — and should see plenty of Haskins and Corum because of it.

As left tackle Ryan Hayes said in the aftermath of the win over Washington, “we’re going to keep running the ball as much as we can and as well as we can.”

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It makes the buildup to Saturday’s game feel a touch stale, both in terms of U-M's predictability and the likelihood that it will work. Assuming everything unfolds as expected with the Wolverines as 27-point favorites, a third consecutive throwback performance seems inevitable.

Michigan running back Blake Corum celebrates after his touchdown during the 31-10 win over Washington on Saturday, Sept 11, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan running back Blake Corum celebrates after his touchdown during the 31-10 win over Washington on Saturday, Sept 11, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

“Last Saturday night, we chose to grind it out on the ground,” coach Jim Harbaugh said at his Monday news conference. “And we were also able to get our mission accomplished.”

The origin of this sudden attitude shift by the offensive line is rooted in the team’s commitment to an ultra-physical nine-on-seven drill. The exercise, which is used by teams in college and the NFL, pits a nine-man offense against a seven-man defense with nothing but running plays on the menu.

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“It’s who can block a man and who can get off a block,” Harbaugh said. “You’re running basically three different types of running plays and one or two defensive fronts. It’s something that our offensive line and defensive line have really embraced.

"That has become a drill of emphasis and they look forward to it. There’s excitement."

Harbaugh said the Wolverines ran the drill every time they held a padded practice during fall camp and have continued it on Mondays and Tuesdays during the regular season. Carrying such a contact-intensive drill from camp into the season is not a strategy all coaches employ, as hitting is generally reduced once meaningful games begin.

Harbaugh’s description of the excitement surrounding this particular drill reinforced what Hayes and outside linebacker Aidan Hutchinson said following the victory over Washington. Both players credited the brutality of the nine-on-seven drill with sharpening the mentality of U-M’s offensive line that was on display in the first two weeks of the season. It’s a big reason why the Wolverines rank fourth in the country in rushing yards per game.

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“We get after it in practice, especially in camp with our nine-on-seven drills,” Hutchinson said. “They were physical. Super loud music and just dudes getting after it. It’s fun to watch in practice.”

Michigan Wolverines wide receiver A.J. Henning (3) runs for a touchdown during second half action against the Western Michigan Broncos Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.
Michigan Wolverines wide receiver A.J. Henning (3) runs for a touchdown during second half action against the Western Michigan Broncos Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Expect a change at punt returner

In Week 1, defensive back Caden Kolesar assumed the punt returning duties following a season-ending knee injury to wide receiver Ronnie Bell and maintained his spot atop the depth chart last weekend against Washington.

Whether using Kolesar as a punt returner was in the best interest of the team is a question Harbaugh wondered aloud during his weekly news conference two days after the opener against Western Michigan. Kolesar, he said, is so valuable to the punt return unit as a rusher and as a hold-up player on the perimeter that conversations needed to be had about where to utilize him in the coming weeks. Harbaugh was then open about his desire to see wide receiver A.J. Henning step into the punt return role.

It was a bit surprising, then, when Kolesar trotted onto the field for punt return duties against the Huskies, finishing the game with 24 yards on a pair of returns. He also misjudged a punt early in the game and allowed the ball to go over his head.

This week, Harbaugh once again weighed the pros and cons of using Kolesar as the team’s primary punt returner. And once again he expressed his belief that Henning will eventually take over the role.

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“Like I said last week, (Kolesar) is so valuable at the other positions on punt return that we really need somebody else to step up,” Harbaugh said Monday. “And I think A.J. is really close. Had a good week of practice last week and he’ll have another one this week. But A.J., Andrel Anthony, D.J. Turner, Donovan Edwards are the guys in the mix there.

“We’re going to be a better punt return unit if Caden is rushing or holding up because he’s just so good at those things. It happened to be he was the best guy at catching the ball, and that was a factor this past week. But going forward, we’re going to be much better if we have him play the other positions and somebody else stepping up returning punts.”

Corum receives Big Ten honors

Sophomore running back Blake Corum was named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Week following a career-best performance against Washington.

Corum set new career highs in rushing yards (171), all-purpose yards (231) and touchdowns (three) during his second stellar performance in as many weeks. He became the first Michigan player to score three touchdowns in a game since wide receiver Nico Collins in 2019.

The last Michigan player win this conference honor was quarterback Shea Patterson on Nov. 25, 2019.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan football's offensive line found its rugged edge