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April 26, 2006

Best cornerstones coming from Michigan

Not many colleges can say they produced two players who rank among the best and the most durable at their position in the NFL. Michigan can claim four.

Jon Runyan has started 144 consecutive games, one of the top five longest active streaks in the NFL. Runyan was also selected to the Pro Bowl in 2002.

Jon Jansen started 82 consecutive games with the Washington Redskins before an Achilles injury forced him to miss the 2004 season. Jansen returned last year, started all 16 games, and helped pave the way for Clinton Portis to run for 1,516 yards.

Jeff Backus has started 80 consecutive games for the Detroit Lions. The Lions recently used their franchise player tag on Backus, meaning he will be offered the average of the top five salaries from the previous season at his position. The team also has the right to match any other offer before he can sign.

Maurice Williams has started every game for three of the last four years for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The club made him one of their highest-paid players before the start of last season, signing him to a five-year, $21 million extension.

All four players are offensive tackles. All wore the maize and blue.

For that reason, Rivals.com has awarded Michigan the honor as Offensive Tackle U as part of its NFL Draft Position U series.

So just how did one school manage to produce four of the best offensive tackles in the NFL? Longtime Michigan assistant coach Mike DeBord, who was the position coach for Runyan, Jansen, Backus and Williams, believes he has the answer.

"We have always done a good job of evaluating offensive linemen," DeBord told Rivals.com. "But more than anything, I think their success at the pro level has to do with the pro-style offense we run. We have used a mix of the run game and pass game for several years now and guys are forced to develop in both areas."

Despite having a handful of stars come through the program on the offensive side of the ball, Michigan has remained committed to calling a balanced set of offensive plays.

Position: Offensive tackle
School that rules: Michigan (Jeff Backus, Jon Jansen, Tony Pape, Jon Runyan, Maurice Williams).
Coming attractions: Adam Stenavich, Jake Long.
Runners-up: Alabama (Wesley Britt, Shawn Draper, Dante Ellington, Chris Samuels); Florida State (Brett Williams, Ray Willis, Walter Jones, Tra Thomas, Alex Barron); Illinois (Sean Bubin, Brad Hopkins, Tony Pashos, Fred Wakefield); Kansas State (Barrett Brooks, Jon Doty, Damion McIntosh, Todd Weiner); Notre Dame (Jordan Black, Mike Gandy, Jim Molinaro, Luke Petitgout, Mike Rosenthal); Stanford (Brad Badger, Kwame Harris, Will Svitek, Bob Whitfield); Virginia Tech (Chad Beasley, Anthony Davis, Joe Dunn and Dave Kadela).
Sleeper school: Purdue. The Boilermakers have managed to produce four NFL tackles, including three starters. Matt Light (a second-round pick in 2001) isn't a surprise, but few expected Brandon Gorin (a seventh-round pick that same year) or Kelly Butler (sixth-round pick in 2004) to make it in the league. Light and Gorin account for each end of New England's offensive line when healthy. Gorin started the final 13 games during the Pats' run to the Super Bowl title in 2004. Butler started all 16 games for the Detroit Lions last season. Former Boilermaker Pete Lougheed (an undrafted free agent) has earned a spot on the Cincinnati Bengals roster.
Why Michigan is Offensive Tackle U: The quality of the four former Michigan offensive tackles in the NFL is unmatched. All rank among the best and most reliable players at their position. Jansen went five years without missing a start until suffering a season-ending injury 2004 and bounced back to have one of his best seasons last year. Runyan, who earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2002, hasn't missed a game since 1997. Only Brett Favre, the NFL's Ironman, has a longer active streak. Williams showed enough promise in his first three years in the league to earn a five-year, $21 million extension from the Jacksonville Jaguars before the start of last season and the Detroit Lions used their franchise tag to lock up Backus to a long-term deal.
In 2002, running back Chris Perry and receiver Braylon Edwards both broke the 1,000-yard barrier. In 2003, the duo did it again.

That well-rounded production has attracted the interest of the nation's top offensive tackles, regardless of where they live. From 2002-04, the Wolverines signed at least two of Rivals.com's top 25 tackles, including players from Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico and New York.

"It doesn't matter if you are considered a run blocker or pass blocker," DeBord said. "If you are an offensive linemen you want to come to Michigan and you feel like you can fit in here."

Longtime Michigan offensive line coach Jerry Hanlon, who was at the Big Ten school from 1969-91, is heavily responsible for creating that environment. During his tenure, the program produced a handful of tackles who went on to have long NFL careers - including Hall-of-Famer Dan Dierdorf and All-Pro Mike Kenn.

It was under Hanlon that Michigan began to change how it went about developing O-linemen.

"At first, we emphasized the ability to knock someone off the line of scrimmage because at the time running the ball was considered the most important," Hanlon said. "But, to be honest, we had to be more balanced and get away from the 'three yards and a cloud of dust' in the 1980s. We had super athletes like Anthony Carter (a three-time All-American receiver from 1980-82) that we wanted to get the ball to downfield and pocket passers like Jim Harbaugh. We started emphasizing pass blocking more and more and that has continued with the game changing in recent years."

When Gary Moeller hired DeBord away from Northwestern to be his offensive line coach in 1992 he started placing extra responsibilities on the talented players he inherited. Each O-lineman was expected to know what the tackles, guards and center were doing on every play. They also needed to be aware of the skill players' assignments.

That approach remains the same. Former Michigan quarterback John Navarre, who played with Backus and Williams, believes it better prepares the O-linemen for the pro level, which often creates a bigger demand on the cerebral parts of the game.

"A lot is dependent on the offensive linemen and their knowledge of the schemes," Navarre said. "It's not just, 'What is my job?' (They are taught) how are they affecting the guy next to them and the quarterbacks and the whole offense. They have to know the entire offense and guys excel in that system."

Position U.
Interior O-Line
Boston College
Def. End
Tight End
Ohio State
Def. Tackle
Wide Receiver
Ohio State
Southern Cal
Off. Tackle
Running Back
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