Changing of the guards keeps UM offensive line fresh

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Throughout the season, but most prominently in the Big Ten opener last weekend at Purdue, there has been a rotation of Michigan’s right guards between starter Michael Onwenu and Jon Runyan Jr.

Onwenu has had the bulk of the snaps, but against Purdue Runyan was in on Michigan’s touchdown drives of 84 and 86 yards and Onwenu was in on the Wolverines’ other two scores. Onwenu, a sophomore, is a first-year starter on a line that replaced three starters from last season. Fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler is in at center and redshirt sophomore Nolan Ulizio is a first-year starter at right tackle.

“We were trying to keep Mike fresh,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game of the right-guard rotation. “We were platooning of the guards. Old school.”

Runyan was happy with his increased playing time.


“It’s awesome to get in there and get some real reps in a Big Ten game,” Runyan said after practice this week. “It just feels good to be out there and playing with everybody out there. That felt really good to be out there. On the first (touchdown drive), I was in for five or six plays. But it’s still good. I definitely felt I was getting into a rhythm out there.”

Runyan, who originally was in the mix competing at right tackle, is now practicing almost exclusively at right guard.

“Throughout camp it was a heated process moving everyone around and see who the best five people were on the left and right side, mixing people up, kicking (left guard) Ben (Bredeson) out to tackle sometimes,” Runyan said. “We’re still not sure. If anything happens we want some decent backups in there. I think we’ve got that now. We’ve got a good core of five, six, seven players who can go in there and play at any time, so that’s really helpful.

“Everybody’s competing for the job no matter what every week. Nothing’s set in stone, so you go out there and prove yourself every week in practice and in games. You get in there, trying to get in the rotation and see who the best five is.”

Naturally, Runyan wanted to earn a starting job entering the season, but he’s not discouraged.

“If anything, it helped me,” Runyan said. “Just got to play harder. Gotta keep going. Gotta keep pushing. Not discouraged at all. I’m gonna see how things play out in the future. I wouldn’t say it’s discouraging I’m not starting. Mike’s playing well, Nolan’s playing well, so we’ll see how it goes.”

There’s no predetermined rotation at right guard. Runyan said it’s “by ear” and offensive line coach Tim Drevno makes the call when he think it’s time for a switch.

“They do tell me to be ready,” Runyan said. “You’ve got to be ready all the time. There’s nothing really (where) they say, ‘You’re playing this rep, this rep.’”

Kugler said Onwenu and Runyan told him there are no hiccups when one leaves and the other enters the game.

“They’re both very talented,” Kugler said. “They’re both capable. There’s no drop-off when Jon’s in or when Mike’s in. They’re both very talented. No, doesn’t faze us as at all.”

It apparently doesn’t faze Onwenu or Runyan, either. They encourage each other, they share insights into what they’ve seen from the defense, and since Onwenu has been starting, Runyan gives him one not-so-subtle demand.

“Wear ’em down for me,” Runyan said he tells Onwenu. “It works out pretty well.”

Michigan calls this “improvement week,” and the offensive line has plenty of work to do. The Wolverines are 119th of 129 teams nationally in tackles for loss allowed, yielding an average eight per game, and 109th in sacks allowed, allowing an average of three.

“I know we struggled as a whole line, tight ends and backs in pass-pro this week, so we’re trying to clean that up,” Runyan said. “Specific blitzes Purdue was bringing in the run game, we had some trouble picking up, but that’s exactly what this improvement week is for.”