College football and college basketball writer
On Jan. 8, about a week after Michigan stumbled into the college football playoffs for the second straight season, an Ann Arbor-based sports marketing agency tied to the college issued a financial appeal to Wolverines fans.
“Let’s get him back!” the Valiant Management Group wrote on his Twitter account. “Join us in helping bring back Michigan’s top football players for the 2023 season with the One More Year Fund. 100% of fund proceeds go to players in pursuit of the 2023 National Championship. #OneMoreYear #GoBlue.”
A graphic attached to the fundraising campaign included photos of running back Blake Corum, wide receiver Cornelius Johnson, right guard Zak Zinter and left guard Trevor Keegan – a quartet of players weighing their NFL future but whose returns potentials would bolster what should be another busy roster next season. All four players have been key starters or contributors over the past two seasons as Michigan won back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time since 2003-04 and back-to-back championships for the first time since 1991-92. Along the way, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team became only the second Big Ten program to earn multiple CFP appearances alongside Ohio State.
Player fans were most eager to sway Corum, a consensus All-American who rushed for 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns despite missing the last three games with a torn meniscus suffered against Illinois. . Had Corum remained healthy, chances are he would have been invited to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist, had he not been the eventual winner. When Corum announced plans to return to Michigan in several media appearances earlier this week, the Wolverines ranked in the top three in nearly every article featuring a preview of the 2023 polls.
“Reached college football playoffs, finally beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten, couldn’t finish,” Corum said in an interview for the Athletic Department Podcast. “Last year we did the same thing, you know? So we know what it takes, right? I’m a Michigan man through and through. I love Michigan. J love being here. So, you know, it was a tough decision, but I’ll be back for my senior year, and I’m ready to do whatever it takes to win it all.”
With Corum in tow, the focus has shifted to an offensive line that will come under legitimate scrutiny as Michigan attempts to reach the CFP for the third straight season. The Wolverines received the Joe Moore Award recognizing college football’s best offensive line for the past two years as offensive co-coordinator Sherrone Moore, who continues to oversee that group of positions, saw his coaching stock begin to to skyrocket. Not only is Michigan the only program to receive the honor in consecutive seasons, but Moore’s unit is also the only multiple winner since the award’s inception in 2015.
But postseason beatings against Georgia and Texas Christian’s defenses on the sport’s biggest stage have called into question the veracity of Michigan’s pole vault atop the offensive line community. When Moore’s group was ravaged by the Bulldogs for 30 quarterback pressures, four sacks and seven tackles for loss in the Orange Bowl, the poor performance was largely excused due to the incredible talent of a Georgia defense that produced five first-round picks. When Moore’s unit was notched for 20 quarterback pressures, four sacks and 13 tackles for loss by a group of horned frogs who finished the year 95th in total defense, the legitimacy of the trophies was rightfully probed.
“We talked all week before the game about the importance of physical play,” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes said after his team’s 51-45 win over Michigan, a team that spoke openly about his ability to dominate any opponent at the line of scrimmage. “And I thought we were definitely the most physical team on the pitch tonight.”
Moore’s challenge going into next winter is to diagnose why his offensive line has failed against Power 5 opponents beyond the Big Ten and find a solution to avoid a third straight semi-final implosion if the Wolverines return to this stage in 2023. He will have to do so without the two best linemen from last year’s squad at center Olu Oluwatimi, who won the Rimington Award as the nation’s best center and the Outland Trophy in as the top inside lineman, and left tackle Ryan Hayes, a two-time All-Big Ten selection. The additional losses of tight ends Luke Schoonmaker (NFL), Erick All (transfer to Iowa) and Joel Honigford (eligibility exhausted) – all of whom are excellent blockers – should not be overlooked in an offense that places enormous responsibility on their position.
The unit received a significant boost Thursday night when Keegan, another two-time All-Big Ten selection, announced he was returning for a fifth season. Zinter, who was once described by former offensive coordinator Josh Gattis as the team’s best offensive player regardless of position, had yet to reveal his plans as of Friday afternoon. The “One More Year Fund,” designed to keep players like Zinter coming back, has raised nearly $90,000 from more than 900 donors.
“I talked to them a lot,” Corum said when asked if he’s had conversations with his offensive linemen. “And I’m like, ‘Look, it’s just one more year. Let’s finish what we started. Let’s stick together because this team is something special. And I talked to them and they kind of had the same thoughts I did. They might wake up one day and the NFL might be the best move. Wake up another day, you know, and (think) “I gotta come to Michigan, I got more to prove.
“So it’s up to them. I don’t know what they’re going to do. But believe better, you know, hopefully, once they hear this (about my decision to come back) and we can find a way to give them some dough, they’ll come back and be ready to lead the way and move this thing forward, man.”
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Regardless of what Zinter decides to do, Moore got a trio of reinforcements through the transfer portal after hitting a home run with Oluwatimi in 2022:
— Center Drake Nugent, a 6-foot-1, 300-pound Stanford graduate student: The former three-star prospect allowed four sacks and 10 quarterback pressures in 12 games last year, according to Pro Football Focus. He was a better run blocker (84.1 score on PFF) than pass blocker (77.2) for the Cardinal and was penalized five times.
– Offensive tackle Myles Hinton, a 6-foot-7, 320-pound senior from Stanford: The former No. 74 overall prospect appeared in just seven games last season with seven starts at right tackle. He was charged with two sacks and five quarterback pressures. He ranked better pass blocker (63.1) than run blocker (42.7) and was not penalized.
— Guard LaDarius Henderson, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound freshman from Arizona State: The former three-star prospect started six games at right guard before suffering an injury in 2022. He has allowed one sack and three quarterback presses without being called for a penalty. His pass blocking rating (77.1) was significantly higher than his run blocking rating (62).
The influx of transfers proved necessary in part because of Moore’s recruitment failures in the current round. Moore, who earned a promotion to co-offensive coordinator after Gattis left for Miami, has taken hits on some of the top-rated tackles in the nation given Michigan’s remarkable on-court success in 2021. He has chased six of the 247Sports Composite’s top 14 offensive tackles — all of which are ranked among the top 175 prospects — and failed to complete the deal with all of them.
Kadyn Proctor, the No. 12 overall prospect, is expected to be a day one starter in Alabama after spilling her commitment from Iowa. Samson Okunlola, the No. 20 overall prospect, has signed with Miami. Charles Jagusah, the No. 49 overall prospect, has signed with Notre Dame. Cayden Green, the No. 80 overall prospect, has signed with Oklahoma. Spencer Fano (#149) and Caleb Lomu (#172) have both signed with Utah.
The highest-ranked tackle in Michigan’s class is four-star prospect Evan Link, the No. 269 overall player and No. 24 offensive tackle in the nation.
Still, there’s still plenty of time between now and the start of the season for five frontline linemen to emerge, a prospect that would be greatly accelerated if Zinter stayed in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines retained their cowbell when Corum made the surprising decision to return, and now it’s up to Moore to find — and refine — the right combination of blockers for another Heisman Trophy-level campaign.
“I didn’t like the feeling of hurting myself in the Big House and leaving like that,” Corum said. “I want to finish my legacy, finish what I started. So after the game, I thought about it, I thought about it, I prayed about it, and I think this is the best decision. So hopefully everyone’s ready. We’re coming back stronger than ever, and it’s going to be a fun ride.”
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with a focus on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.
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