'We know who we are': Michigan offensive line erecting wall of confidence

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Offensive linemen work as a group, and they speak of themselves that way. While technique and execution are critical, the operation of five players working together in unison each play is absolutely vital for strong production from the offensive line.

Michigan left guard Ben Bredeson said that last year the offensive line was trying to prove what they weren’t.

“This year we’re trying to prove what we are,” he said in July at Big Ten media days.

“This year we’re trying to prove what we are,” says Michigan offensive lineman Jon Runyan.

The line has taken the brunt of criticism of the offense for several years. Last season, after Ed Warinner arrived to take over as position coach, the line shaped up confidence-wise, initially, then showed improvement on the field.

This year, the line wants to carry the offense, and with four returning starters, the Wolverines are confident. But the line suffered a significant loss when Andrew Stueber, who was competing for the starting job at right tackle with Jalen Mayfield, suffered a leg injury this week. Stueber started the last two games last season, and now Mayfield will move into that role with Ryan Hayes as backup.

“It’s unfortunate, but stuff like this happens in this game,” left tackle Jon Runyan  said Friday. “Hate to see a guy go down like that. He was going to be a major contribution to us upfront. There’s really not much you can say in the moment. It’s kind of disbelief watching him walk off the field. It’s really hard. Saw him after. There really were no words. It’s a really painful thing.”

Mayfield, 6-foot-5, 310 out of Grand Rapids Catholic Central, had been pushing Stueber since spring practice for starting right tackle. Coach Jim Harbaugh, at Big Ten media days last month, raved about Mayfield and said several times how much he likes “watching 73” on tape. Harbaugh said Mayfield had gotten stronger and is extremely athletic with good balance.

“We think that upfront we’ve had six starters, it’s just gonna be who pushed himself right at the end,” Runyan said. “By default, it’s Jalen now. We see no problem with Jalen going out there and taking the reins at right tackle. Really looking forward to him proving himself on this offensive line and helping us achieve the goals that we have.”

Runyan explained the type of lineman Mayfield is.

“Jalen’s a quick-twitch, athletic guy,” he said. “When he gets in a bad position, he can escape that using his feet and his hands. He’s got good eyes. He’s put on a lot of weight this offseason, but you can’t really tell. He’s looking really good. It’s really that athleticism. Him being so young, I kinda feel old now, this is my fifth year here. He’s got those fresh legs and he’s looking good out there for sure.”

The offensive line as a group began to feel more confident shortly after Warinner’s arrival. He said their overall confidence was what he sought to build first. And then he simplified the scheme, and suddenly, the linemen were playing without the pressure of too much on their plates.

“We kind of had this mindset whole time, even the beginning of last year and actually manifested itself toward the end of the season and carrying that into this year,” said Runyan, who was All-Big Ten first team last year. “We know who we are, we know what we’re capable up front as an offensive unit, just everybody playing the way we’ve been playing. We know everything is going to fall and how we want it. Just got to keep our head down and keep grinding through camp and eventually start preparing for the first game. We’re all really excited. We’re all looking forward to it.”

They’ve had to learn offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ new offense, which has been challenging. It’s a no-huddle, hurry-up, pro-spread, and even Bredeson admitted that initially he was “skeptical”. But that very quickly changed, and the linemen adapted.

“This year compared to last year we kind of have sort of the same concepts,” Runyan said. “We had some of the concepts in right now with Gattis that we had last year, but we didn’t necessarily run in games. I don’t know if it was because we just didn’t feel comfortable with it yet. A lot of the concepts are the same, but it’s just different verbiage and language we have associated with it. So far, the transition’s been seamless for us. It’s kind of new for the offensive line.

“Instead of going back and having the quarterback read off the wrist band to us, we’re all up there setting the offensive line and we get a play call signal from the sideline. It’s only us up there, and we’re talking and communicating with ourselves. There’s no connection to the quarterback besides the cadence or snap count. Everything’s been going well. We’re really liking the change. Just the versatility the RPO (run-pass-option) offense brings to us. It’s kind of difficult being offensive linemen because it’s hard to get your fits right because you don’t really know if it’s going to be a run or a pass and sometimes you’re blocking and you think the run’s coming to you but then you see the ball the way down the sideline at the end of the play. It’s really interesting. It’s been fun.”

How good can this offensive line be? Runyan didn’t hesitate. He said the linemen all respect one another and “genuinely love each other.” Perhaps that doesn’t factor into how they’ll block this fall, but a cornerstone of strong offensive line play is chemistry.

“Try not to talk about it too much because last year’s last year,” Runyan said. “It was a good season in our eyes, but it needed to be better, obviously. Most programs in the country would do anything for 10 wins, but we’re not most programs in the country because we’re Michigan. We’re doing our best working every day to get that 11th, 12th win, 13th win. Every day we just focus on that. And just the next game going in each week, doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’re playing a faceless opponent, you’ve got to play your best, doesn’t matter. That’s how we’re taking this. The most important game is the next game.”


Twitter: @chengelis