ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mason Cole is up in the club.
Cole has joined a long legacy at Michigan, where he has a shot to close his career with the most starts by an offensive lineman in school history after beginning it as the first true freshman to start at left tackle for the Wolverines. Cole is set to start his 42nd straight game when the eighth-ranked Wolverines (3-0) open the Big Ten season with their first road game against Purdue (2-1) on Saturday.
Michigan will be without receiver Tarik Black against the Boilermakers. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said Black needs surgery to repair a “crack” in his foot. The freshman had 83 yards receiving and a touchdown in his debut, a win over then-No. 17 Florida and leads the team with 11 receptions and 149 yards receiving.
Cole’s value is difficult to measure as an offensive lineman, but he’s moving up the charts for durability.
The senior is on pace to pass standouts such as Steve Hutchinson, Taylor Lewan, Jeff Backus and Jon Jansen, who started a record 50 games from 1995-98, on the list of starts by an offensive lineman for college football’s winningest program. To Cole, those are names of some of his mentors, not just names in the record book.
“They reach out to help us anyway they can to show their confidence in us and they’re pride for the University of Michigan,” Cole said Monday. “That’s just one thing that makes offensive line here so special is the unique fraternity you are in and how many great players before you have played here.”
Jake Long, drafted No. 1 overall pick by the Miami Dolphins, has become one of Cole’s big brothers of sorts. Long talks with Cole while on campus, and sends messages when he’s not around.
“I shot him a text when he got the captaincy this year and I’ve been in touch the last few weeks,” Long said in a telephone interview Monday night. “Playing offensive line at Michigan is a special thing. It spans for generations, going back to Dan Dierdorf and continuing on with guys like (Steve) Everitt, Hutch, Backus and Lewan.
“We have a cool bond that is a brotherhood.”
And like family members do sometimes, players have to make sacrifices for the greater good of the group. Cole did that when he was moved from left tackle to center, where he started all 13 games last season. Harbaugh moved him back to left tackle this season, a move that should help the Wolverines and potentially Cole, too, because the coveted position is more valuable in the draft.
“After pulling off the feat of starting at left tackle as a freshman, Mason showed how unselfish he was when they moved him to center,” said Long, who retired from the NFL in April because of a torn Achilles tendon. “The fact that he’s so versatile bodes well for his NFL stock.”
Right now, though, Cole’s concern is helping an offense that is struggling overall and in the red zone in particular.
Michigan has had 10 drives reach opponents’ 20 or closer to the end zone, and it has scored only one touchdown on those possessions and has settled for a slew of field goals.
“If we score a touchdown on all those red zone trips, it’s a different score, a different game,” Cole said. “There’s an emphasis on finishing those drives because those make a big difference in games.”
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm expects to see Michigan emphasize its ground attack against his team if it can.
“I think they’re going to control the ball,” he said. “They’re going to try to continue to pound the ball at you, not do things to beat themselves. So while they may not be scoring, I don’t know if they’re beating themselves. That’s kind of the key to winning.”
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