Michigan has one returning starter on its offensive line this fall. Starting Saturday at Minnesota, the new line, namely the new interior, will have to immediately prove itself worthy. The Wolverines simply can’t afford a sluggish exit out of the gate during this shortened season — especially a stumble from the guy responsible for smooth exchanges with the quarterback; the one depended upon to set the tone at the line of scrimmage.

However, if one thing has been evident during Jim Harbaugh’s going-on-6-year-tenure in Ann Arbor, it’s that the Wolverines have remained committed to brute-style football — one bolted to the turf by an always-improving offensive front and top-tier centers such as NFL players Mason Cole and Cesar Ruiz, and even back to Graham Glasgow, to name a few examples.

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Though returning just one starter, Michigan’s offensive line incites interesting conversation when it comes to potential. Photo: Andy Shippy/@AndySaidGoBlue

Whether it was with former offensive coordinator and OL guru Tim Drevno, or current OL coach Ed Warriner, the Wolverines have had a history of fielding solid tackles, guards and centers — and then refurnishing the stock with more talent after the draft.

The Wolverines will be led — in terms of pure talent and combined experience — by projected first-round NFL draft pick Jalen Mayfield at right tackle, and fellow redshirt sophomore Ryan Hayes at left tackle. Hayes played in 12 games in 2019 and is the closest thing to a returning starter, next to Mayfield, who started every game at right tackle for 9-4 UM in 2019.

Hayes is 6-7 and 302 pounds, while Mayfield comes in at 6-5 and 302 pounds.

Good bookends, no doubting that.

In addition, Michigan’s offensive will have a more-than-qualified anchor: Fifth-year senior Andrew Vastardis, who, in addition to becoming a first-time, full-time starter at center, is also a team captain. Despite a lack of in-game experiences, he’s been praised by the coaching staff and recognized as an on-the-cusp player for the past couple of years.

Don’t forget, these “new” O-liners have been practicing for 3 and 4 years against the likes of Rashan Gary, Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich, along with current stars and team captains Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye and Carlo Kemp — a trio that is destined for Sundays like their predecessors.

They’re not new to this.

Vastardis has taken as many, if not more, reps against the aforementioned group as anyone. For the past handful of years, his battles have helped mold one of the top defensive lines in college football.

Sure, it’ll be Vastardis’ first time in a primary role — but it’d be a mistake to assume that he’ll need an extended learning period before getting comfortable and handling himself against Big Ten defensive lines.

He’s been preparing against NFL talent for 5 years.

During a recent Zoom video conference with reporters, Kemp expressed a great deal of confidence in Vastardis.

“Whatever happens during a play, he’s going to make sure he finishes to the best of his ability through the whistle, to the whistle. And that’s not an understatement, because it’s every play consistently — no matter what,” said the 6-3, 286-pound tackle who’s been with Harbaugh since 2016. “We like to think of Andrew as a Mack Truck; he just drives his Mack Truck to work every single day and just kind of pours his concrete. And that’s kind of the guy Andrew is. Being that center position, you’ve got to lead the rest of those O-linemen — and he’s done a tremendous job getting the rest of those guys rallied up, fired up every single day to go out there and practice and work on the things we want to accomplish this season.”

That’s a lot on Vastardis’ plate — captaincy, final season, first year starting for a program that’s always under the microscope, and high praise from a veteran standout — and, of course, all of it is magnified by the fact Michigan is ushering a new interior.

“Inside, Chuck Filiaga [LG] has really made a lot of strides — he’s playing extremely well,” coach Jim Harbaugh said during a recent Zoom video conference with reporters.  “He’ll be in there for us at guard along with Andrew Stueber [RG], who had an ACL last year in camp but did a great job rehabbing. He’s back healthy and been very good, consistent. Andrew Vastardis is the starting center, so we are excited with our offensive line. Them jelling and coming together has been a good, a good process. I’m excited to see them let it rip, too. I’m excited to watch all our guys compete. That’s probably the bottom line.”

Filiaga, a 6-6, 345-pound senior, has made 8 appearances on the O-line, with 4 coming at the LG position. At 6-7 and 339 pounds, Stueber brings considerable mass to the front, along with 14 appearances and two starts at the RG spot.

Vastardis has 11 cameos under his belt, with 5 coming in 2019 and 6 in 2018.

The 6-3, 296-pound trench specialist is also a 3-time All-Big Ten Academic honoree, so it’s safe to say that the scholar quickly grasps concepts and understands coaching. Just a hunch, but here’s wagering that he’s one of the most intelligent players on the Wolverines’ roster, making him a perfect candidate to essentially serve as the “brain” of the O-line.

Don’t overlook the 5th-year senior. His lack of in-game experience doesn’t suggest a lack of talent. He’s been behind Sunday-caliber two-deeps since arriving as part of Michigan’s talent-laden 2016 class — and as a walk-on, no less.

This year, he’s getting his chance.

“I’m just really soaking it all in and trying to improve myself to get to this point,” Vastardis said. “I’m going to continue to grow as the season progresses and wouldn’t want to this opportunity with any other group of people.”

Quotes obtained from Michigan Zoom video conferences

Photos courtesy of Andy Shippy (@AndySaidGoBlue)