Niyo: Michigan offensive linemen fed up with the abuse

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The way Jon Runyan Jr. sees it, it’s pretty simple, really. Michigan’s offensive line is tired of getting abused, on and off the field.

“We all have social media,” said Runyan, a rising senior tackle for the Wolverines. “No one thinks that stuff comes back to us. But we have Twitter just like everyone else does. We see everything.”

And quite frankly, they’re tired of seeing — and hearing — it.

“Everybody’s always talking trash about us, how we can’t block anyone,” Runyan said Thursday, after another “chippy” spring practice in Ann Arbor. “It’s kind of annoying, and pissing us off. We don’t want that anymore.”

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So it’s time to push back. And with a widely-respected line coach in Ed Warinner replacing a much-maligned predecessor in Tim Drevno this spring, the early returns are mostly positive.

Warinner, for his part, isn’t making any grand proclamations about his group just yet, though he did offer this unsolicited opinion: “I think we can be a very solid Big Ten offensive line.”

And for most of those trash-talking critics, that’d probably be a major improvement in Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season at Michigan. Even Runyan might agree with that assessment, acknowledging Thursday, “The past two years haven’t been up to the standards.”

It goes back farther than that, actually. But last season, the Wolverines ranked 110th nationally in sacks allowed, and 91st in tackles for loss. And while the shaky quarterback play weighed heavily in the offensive struggles that led to an 8-5 finish, the persistent breakdowns in pass protection sent two of those starting quarterbacks to the hospital. An inconsistent run game didn’t help matters much against the Big Ten’s best defenses, either.

“But there’s a lot of reasons for that,” said Warinner, who was hired as analyst in January and then quickly promoted when Drevno — Jim Harbaugh’s longtime assistant — abruptly resigned amid a major staff reshuffling. “I mean, I think (the offensive line) took a lot of blame for a lot of things from the outside. There were a lot of fingers pointed in that direction, but not always are the fingers accurate.”

Whatever the reasons for Michigan’s struggles up front, everyone seems to agree it was time for a change. And Warinner, a 35-year coaching vet who has spent most of the last two decades coaching lineman, seems to be the right man for the job, bringing new energy and more clarity — something Runyan says was “definitely” needed.

“I think we’ve simplified the offense a little bit more,” he said. “There’s not too much thinking when we get down (at the line) — you make a call and you go.”

Half a dozen returning

Watching last year’s offense go nowhere, at times, that probably was an easy call for Harbaugh to make. The harder job now will be finding the right starting five, particularly at the tackle position, which has been a soft spot for most of his tenure in Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines do return a half-dozen linemen who started games last season, however, and a few of them will be expected to anchor this year’s unit, with guards Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu flanking center Cesar Ruiz, a rising sophomore who has everyone raving this spring.

“He kind of has the whole package,” Warinner said, adding that he sees NFL potential there. “I know what they look like. I’ve coached ’em.”

Plenty of them at his most notable coaching stop at Ohio State, where Warinner spent five years building some dominant offensive lines, ranking in the top 15 nationally in rushing every season. All five starters on Ohio State’s line in the 2013 Big Ten championship game went on to become rookie starters in the NFL.

Of course, Warinner also told his share of jokes about the Wolverines and their fans at booster club events during his time in Columbus. ("If you're worried about those guys, just move your family out to Pasadena and you'll be fine — you'll never have to deal with them," he cracked back in 2014.) But that just goes with the territory, as everyone knows. He certainly does, this being his 10th different collegiate stop, completing a rivalry grand slam of sorts. Warinner also coached at Notre Dame and got his start as a grad assistant at Michigan State, where he met his wife, and where their son, Edward, will be a freshman linebacker in the fall.

“Jogging in those stadiums will be kind of interesting on this side,” Warinner said. “And it’ll be fun. But all that’s just part of the game. … All I know is everywhere I’ve been, I’ve loved it, I’ve given them all I had, and I’m gonna do the same thing here.”

Good-natured ribbing

Even if it means taking some good-natured ribbing from some of his former players. Not long after he took the job in Ann Arbor, Warinner posted a recruiting graphic featuring the names of some of those NFL draft picks he coached at Ohio State. And don’t think they didn’t notice.

“It’s kinda funny, That Team Up North claiming some Buckeyes,” laughed Jamarco Jones, Ohio State’s starting left tackle the last two seasons, when asked about it at last month’s NFL scouting combine. “But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.”

What he’s gotta do now, though, is to tackle the same task his players are facing, head on. To quiet the critics, and stifle the rivals’ laughter, they’ll have to do more than simply stand their ground. They'll have to push back — and hard. That's what all the noise is about at Michigan's spring practices, it seems. It's also why Harbaugh had to remind his team after practice Wednesday that personal fouls won't be tolerated.

“We’re a work in progress,” Warinner said. “We’re not a finished product at all. … But I like where we’re at, I like where we’re headed. We just gotta keep going.”