Michigan’s plan to ‘run it back’: Blake Corum, a new O-line and a fresh start

On Jan. 8, roughly a week after Michigan stumbled in the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season, a sports marketing agency based in Ann Arbor and tied to the university made a financial appeal to fans of the Wolverines.

“Let’s run it back!” the Valiant Management Group wrote on its Twitter account. “Join us in helping bring back key Michigan football players for the 2023 season with the One More Year Fund. 100% of fund proceeds go to the players in the pursuit of the 2023 National Championship. #OneMoreYear #GoBlue”.

A graphic attached to the fundraising campaign included pictures 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 futures but whose potential returns would bolster what should be another loaded roster next season. All four players were starters or key contributors the last two seasons as Michigan claimed back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time since 2003-04 and consecutive outright championships for the first time since 1991-92. Along the way, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team became just the second Big Ten program to notch multiple CFP appearances alongside Ohio State.

The player fans were most eager to sway was Corum, a consensus All-American who ran for 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns despite missing the final three games with a torn meniscus suffered against Illinois. Had Corum remained healthy, there’s a good chance he would have been invited to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist, if not been the eventual winner. When Corum announced his intention to return to Michigan during several media appearances earlier this week, the Wolverines vaulted into the top three of nearly every article previewing the 2023 polls.

“Made it to the College Football Playoff, beat Ohio State finally, won the Big Ten, couldn’t finish,” Corum said in an interview for the athletic department’s podcast. “This past 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. I love being here. So, you know, it was a tough decision, but I will be coming back for my senior year, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win it all.”

With Corum in tow, the focus has shifted to an offensive line that will face legitimate scrutiny as Michigan attempts to reach the CFP for the third consecutive season. The Wolverines were given the Joe Moore Award recognizing the best offensive line in college football each of the last two years as co-offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, who continues to oversee that position group, saw his coaching stock begin to soar. Not only is Michigan the only program to receive that honor in back-to-back seasons, Moore’s unit is also the only multi-time winner since the award’s inception in 2015.

But postseason thrashings against defenses from Georgia and Texas Christian on the sport’s biggest stage have called into question the veracity of Michigan’s perch 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 because of the incredible talent on a Georgia defense that produced five first-round picks. When Moore’s unit was gashed 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 about all week leading up to the game how important it would be to play physical,” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes said after his team’s 51-45 win over Michigan, a team that spoke openly about its ability to dominate any opponent at the line of scrimmage. “And I thought we were definitely the most physical team on the field tonight.”

Moore’s challenge between now and next winter is to diagnose why his offensive line flopped against Power 5 opponents from beyond the Big Ten and craft a solution to avoid a third straight semifinal implosion if the Wolverines return to that stage in 2023. He’ll have to do so without the two best linemen from last year’s team in center Olu Oluwatimi, who won the Rimington Award as the nation’s best center and the Outland Trophy as the best interior 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 (exhausted eligibility) — all of whom are excellent blockers — shouldn’t be overlooked in an offense that places tremendous responsibility on their position.

The unit received a significant boost Thursday evening when Keegan, another two-time All-Big Ten selection, announced he is 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 by Friday afternoon. The ‘One More Year Fund’ designed to incentivize players like Zinter to return has raised nearly $90,000 from more than 900 donors.

“I talked to them a lot,” Corum said when asked if he’d conversed with his offensive linemen. “And I’m like, ‘Listen, it’s just one more year. Let’s go 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 as me. They might wake up one day and the NFL might be the best decision. Wake up another day, you know, and (think) ‘I’ve got to come back to Michigan. I’ve got more to prove.’ 

“So it’s up to them. I’m not sure what they’re going to do. But best believe, you know, hopefully, once they hear this (about my decision to return) and we can find out a way to give them a little bit of dough, they’ll come back and be ready to pave the way and keep this thing pushing, man.”

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Regardless of what Zinter decides to do, Moore has secured 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 graduate student from Stanford: 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 graded out as a 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 allowed one sack and three quarterback pressures without being called for a penalty. His pass-blocking grade (77.1) was significantly higher than his run-blocking grade (62).

The influx of transfers proved necessary in part because of Moore’s recruiting misses in the current cycle. Moore, who earned a promotion to co-offensive coordinator after Gattis departed for Miami, took swings at some of the highest-rated tackles in the country given Michigan’s remarkable on-field success in 2021. He pursued six of the top 14 offensive tackles in the 247Sports Composite — all of whom are rated among the top 175 prospects — and failed to close the deal with each of them.

Kadyn Proctor, the No. 12 overall prospect, is expected to be a day-one starter at Alabama after flipping his commitment from Iowa. Samson Okunlola, the No. 20 overall prospect, signed with Miami. Charles Jagusah, the No. 49 overall prospect, signed with Notre Dame. Cayden Green, the No. 80 overall prospect, signed with Oklahoma. Spencer Fano (No. 149) and Caleb Lomu (No. 172) both signed with Utah.

The highest-ranked tackle in Michigan’s class is four-star prospect Evan Link, the No. 269 overall player and the No. 24 offensive tackle in the country.

Still, there is plenty of time between now and the season opener for five first-string linemen to emerge, a prospect that would be greatly accelerated if Zinter remains in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines retained their bell cow when Corum made the surprising decision to come back, and now it’s up to Moore to find — and fine-tune — the right combination of blockers for another Heisman Trophy-level campaign.

“I didn’t like the feeling of getting injured in the Big House and leaving like that,” Corum said. “I want to finish off my legacy, finish what I started. So after the game, I thought about it, thought about it, prayed about it, and I think this is the best decision. So I hope everyone is 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 an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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