Before Brady Hoke took over last year and led the Wolverines to an unexpected 11-2 mark and a Sugar Bowl victory, Michigan had failed to win more than 10 games in a season since 2006. Under Hoke, an offense that had often looked stagnant in past seasons flourished, and the Wolverines ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging a robust 33 points per game.
The reason for the offensive explosion was a solid offensive line, anchored by consensus All-American David Molk.
Molk was named the 2011 Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year in the conference and was also named first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation, Associated Press and Sporting News.
With high expectations in 2012, the Wolverines are widely regarded as the favorites to win the Big Ten. But they will face a much tougher schedule this year. In addition to that, Michigan has lost a few key guys from last year, namely on the offensive line.
It is highly unusual to find a preseason top-10 team with so many question marks, but the Wolverines are looking to make do.
The key cog of the offensive line for the 2011 Wolverines, David Molk was drafted in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers, leaving a huge role to fill with some inexperienced talent backing it up.
So, who fills Molk's role at center? Fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum—a player who has spent most of his time at the guard spot and a player who has been riddled with injuries throughout his career.
Barnum's durability will be in question, as he has only appeared in nine games during his career at Michigan. His success, production and ability to get the ball into Denard Robinson's hands is paramount to the overall success of the team.
Michigan is not completely devoid of talent and experience on the line, though. The leadership role will now lie in the hands of the behemoth junior left tackle Taylor Lewan and senior right guard Pat Omameh. Both are stalwarts to the line and expect to be productive in protecting Robinson.
In fact, Lewan was named to the 2012 national watch list for the Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award. He earned All-Big Ten second-team honors last season as well.
With the spots at tackle solidified—with Lewan at left tackle and Michael Schofield at right—the only other real question is at left guard. It appears to be a crapshoot at this point, with true freshman Kyle Kalis, walk-on Joey Burzynski and fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer battling for the spot. Mealer has more experience, but Kalis has more upside.
It may be a role by committee until Hoke makes an unyielding decision on it.
So, with that said, durability, injuries and depth on the offensive line appear to be the biggest question marks on a team destined for great things. The focus will be on them to protect the talented Denard Robinson. For the only way he'll succeed and get points on the board is if the offensive line assimilates and gels in time.
What it all comes down to is this: The health, durability and ability to grow as a line will either spearhead another Big Ten title or have Michigan revert back to a mediocre team with empty promises and failed expectations.