Forget about Devin Gardner, the high ceiling of potential for the running backs and the improved stock of wide receivers. While those are certainly factors that will help the Michigan Wolverines, the true motivator will be the offensive line, led by will-be senior left tackle Taylor Lewan.
The push up front wasn't what most expected it to be in 2012, and the Wolverines' running game suffered from the lack of dominance in the trenches. Quarterbacks weren't exactly shielded as well as they should have been, either.
South Carolina Gamecocks star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney rocked Vincent Smith with the weight of a freight train during the Outback Bowl in front of a nation of eager New Year's Day bowl game viewers.
That hit will live forever because of its ferocity, but it'll also serve as a reminder of just how badly Michigan's O-Line struggled.
Smith, of course, lost his helmet—and a clear head. As Clowney slipped behind the left side of the Wolverines' front, Smith was left vulnerable and paid the ultimate price.
Michigan won't get very far in 2013 if its line takes time off during plays or relaxes.
Those types of highlight-reel hits happen. Programs with NFL-caliber fronts like Alabama and Florida aren't immune to them, either. Michigan's O-Line was average at best, but it'll have to plug up holes in 2013 if the Wolverines are to have any type of sustainable ground attack and adequate protection for Gardner.
Those woes won't be cured by Lewan alone, but his presence absolutely provides a breath of confidence. Now that Kyle Kalis, Erik Gunderson and Erick Magnuson working their way up the depth chart's ladder, the Wolverines should be better prepared for the rigors within the depths of the front line this fall.
The 2013 class is also loaded with talent, so replenishing and reloading with Patrick Kugler, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Kyle Bosch and Chris Fox won't be an issue.
The real push begins this fall and, as mentioned, it'll be on Lewan, one of the elite tackles in college football, to spearhead efforts.
Breaking Down Numbers
Michigan had the 42nd-ranked total rushing offense in 2012—that mark wasn't very Michigan-like in any form or fashion. The Wolverines have long been known as a hard-running team. Creeping into the top 25 of the category in 2013 should be a goal.
The Wolverines averaged about 37 totes per game, and that was with Denard Robinson's statistics figured into the equation. Gardner won't run nearly as much, but expect similar frequency if Fitz Toussaint works his way back into the No. 1 role.
Will-be juniors Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes will likely see an increase in carries, and soon-to-be freshman sensation Derrick Green will get plenty of opportunities to work too.
If Michigan runs the ball about 40 times per game this fall, the line holds together and running backs progress, a 2006-type season could be on the horizon.
The fall of 2006 is being used as a comparison because, well, it was a great year for Wolverines football and the team was effective on the ground. The statistics were alike in many areas, but the efficiency of the offensive line allowed for desired results, unlike what was put forth by the 2012 line.
In 2006, the Wolverines—who were No. 15 in terms of total rushing—rushed for 117 first downs compared to 100 in 2012. That's a noteworthy decline, and it's an area that the Wolverines will surely address.
Both teams also share a common thread at left tackle. Having a steadfast lineman like Jake Long greatly benefited Michigan in 2006. Lewan has been compared to Long and will have an immense impact for Team 134.
A fraction of a yard per carry isn't worth fretting about, nor are a couple hundred of total yards—it's all about efficiency, and the 2006 line was reliable. Getting five per tote and running for about 2,500-2,700 yards will likely happen for Michigan this fall.
Don't get too caught up in the numbers. The real issue and concern is just how those stats will be produced.
Lewan and the O-Line hold the key that will drive Michigan in 2013. The others will just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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