Switch to center could be concrete for Mealer

Wauseon grad passes Barnum in starting role

University of Michigan offensive linesman and Wauseon High School graduate Elliott Mealer.
University of Michigan offensive linesman and Wauseon High School graduate Elliott Mealer.

ANN ARBOR -- Elliott Mealer can't remember exactly when he was told he'd have to go in at center. Against one of the nation's top defensive lines, there was Mealer, about to snap to quarterback Denard Robinson.

Prior to the season and even during the spring, Michigan's coaching staff touted fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum as the successor to graduated center David Molk, who is now a rookie with the San Diego Chargers.

In Saturday's 41-14 loss to Alabama, Mealer got the nod as the Wolverines' starting center. It's a position that Mealer, a Wauseon graduate, regards as the leader of the offensive line. Against the Crimson Tide, who were voted No. 1 in this week's Associated Press top 25 poll, he had little time to ease into the spot.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit nervous, especially as big of a game as it was," Mealer said. "But at the same time, the preparation, going through camp and everything, I felt like I was prepared as I could have been. After that first snap, everything was fine. I felt pretty comfortable out there."

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges praised Mealer's play at center and said the decision to start Mealer against Alabama came "not this past week, but in the middle of the week before that."

Prior to Saturday's 41-14 loss to Alabama, Mealer was listed as the starting left guard, while Barnum was listed as Michigan's starting center. However, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Mealer will continue to play at center this weekend against Air Force in Michigan's home opener at Michigan Stadium. Mealer is listed as the No. 1 center on Michigan's depth chart this week.

"The profile of center was perfect for Ricky, but we were struggling with the snaps and Elliott was getting it back there, so we figured, what the heck?" Borges said. "Let's get the guy who can snap it the best."

Both players, Hoke said, had been practicing at center and guard leading into the season opener.

Mealer didn't see it as much of a competition as it was splitting time between the two positions.

"It was really about equal," said Mealer, whose team dropped from eighth to 19th in this week's top 25. "It's just kind of one of those things, and I couldn't even tell you when [the coaches] told us but they said, 'Hey, you're going to be the center and Ricky's going to be the left guard.' For us, it wasn't like anything was switched, because we'd split so much time."

Hoke praised Mealer's performance at center, but Michigan's running game sputtered against the Crimson Tide, accruing only 69 yards on 29 carries. Left tackle Taylor Lewan was critical of his unit's performance.

"We didn't play good enough," Lewan said. "We need to play better. There's no excuse for that. I put a lot of that loss on the offensive line and how we played. As a group, we did not have a good day. And we can't have that."

In moving forward and in the middle of the offensive line, Mealer believes cohesion will be key for the unit.

"As the season goes on, you continue to get used to each other," Mealer said. "It's one of those things, you hope as the season goes on you get better as a team."

AVERY TO START: Hoke said Wednesday that Courtney Avery will start at cornerback in place of Blake Countess, who was lost for the season after tearing his ACL in the first quarter of last Saturday's loss. Hoke said Countess does not yet have a date set for surgery.

Hoke also said Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was reinstated to the team earlier this week, could start against Air Force.

"Most likely, there's a good chance he will," Hoke said.

Contact Rachel Lenzi at: rlenzi@theblade.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.