Jon Runyan Jr. was a household name among the Michigan offensive line. But along that front, being talked about is everything to avoid.
Runyan was the obvious scapegoat after the redshirt junior’s first collegiate start at left tackle Sept. 1 at Notre Dame. Michigan’s offensive line wholly struggled keeping its flashy, new quarterback upright. His shortcomings headlined the Wolverines’ only loss to date.
Runyan, one of two new starters on offense, got the preponderance of flack.
During Jim Harbaugh’s Monday press conference following the game, he fielded four questions about offensive line play. Harbaugh said his line looked improved and expressed confidence in his starting five. Elsewhere, Runyan and the rest of his line were pilloried. Messages from angry fans flooded Runyan’s social media profiles, and there was plenty more said indirectly about his play.
“It was difficult, there were people coming after me from all angles,” Runyan said. “For two or three weeks after the Notre Dame game, I put my phone down and took (social media) off my phone and tried not to pay attention to it.”
He remembers the number of fans who directly messaged him online with harsh criticisms — four people on Facebook, five on Twitter, 10 on Instagram.
As much as Runyan attempted to avoid that noise and move on, he still knew his performance wasn’t adequate.
“It was a little bit rough, and I told him right after the game,” said his father, Jon Runyan Sr. “He played high because he wasn’t used to it. (He needed) better footwork, footwork with purpose so he didn’t have to rely on his athletic ability to recover.”
Added the younger Runyan: “I felt sick because, going back and watching it, it was just kinda a bad grade — like you don’t want to show your parents. But you know that it’s there and they’re going to find out. You try to hide from them but you can’t because you know that it’s there.”
For most student-athletes, parental advice is complementary to the day-to-day grind. When your father is a former All-American lineman at Michigan, NFL Pro Bowler and New Jersey state representative, the advice is gospel.
So with Runyan Jr. finding himself on the wrong end of football commentary, change was needed — an especially tall order for a veteran.
But it wasn’t an unusual task. Behind the fame of his father, he’s been doing it his whole football life.
Playing football was more of a rite of passage than a calculated decision for Runyan — nothing out of the norm for the model football family.
He starred as an offensive lineman at St. Joseph’s Preparatory High School in Philadelphia, catalyzing an offensive line and team that celebrated two Pennsylvania Interstate Athletic Association state championships.
It was a drop in the bucket for Runyan.
“Jon, despite coming from a dad with such success, was a shy kid,” said his high school coach, Gabe Infante. “I think it was really big shoes to fit into. I think everyone expects a young man like that to be his father from the moment he steps on a football field. But Jon was like any other 14- or 15-year old kid: basically a boy trapped in a man’s body.”
No accolades would help Runyan escape the shadow cast by his father. Not coaches’ visits, state titles or even the popularity of being attached with football notoriety.
The weight of the last name on the back of his jersey was an insult flung in the middle of games, a foot-in-the-door for an opponent’s animus.
“People like to talk about me as a sophomore, junior in high school how I’d never live up to my dad,” Runyan said, reflecting on a Catholic League championship game. “Stuff like that just in the game. It didn’t confuse me, but it kinda angered me. Coach Infante was always there telling me that I’m not my dad, I’m my own person. It’s not fair to judge someone like me going off what my dad has done.
“Judge me off what I’m doing, not what — like I’m my own measuring stick. You don’t have to measure me up to my dad because he’s a completely different person and player than me.”
To call it a burden would be a mischaracterization. He plays in the footsteps of his very father after all. Winning can solve problems, too.
It seems like an obvious observation: the son of Jon Runyan Sr. is not Jon Runyan Sr., and that’s not a bad thing. The sooner that Runyan Jr. reconciled that, the more he stood out on his own.
Runyan can point to the exact moment things changed for him this year.
It was on an outside zone play during Michigan’s second drive on week four against Nebraska. Runyan pinned his matchup and knocked the Cornhusker defensive end backwards and into the ground before Karan Higdon even approached the line of scrimmage. And when Higdon did, Runyan and junior guard Ben Bredeson had created such a massive gap opening to nothing but turf — and the endzone — in front of the senior running back.
“Ever since then, I’ve really started feeling good in the left tackle spot in the run and pass game,” Runyan said. “I can really narrow it down to that play.”
It was a welcome realization for Runyan, beyond performing at a career-best level. His first career start was in the Outback Bowl loss last season. The three games after falling short in a prove-yourself start in South Bend stood to mend a broken reputation. Breaking through against Nebraska displayed what being a collegiate standout could be like.
Runyan pinpoints that game as when the switch flipped. But the ghosts of the season opener still find themselves cozy in Runyan’s mind. Through four more weeks without a hiccup in his play, including benchmark wins against Wisconsin and Michigan State, Runyan took time to look directly into his mistakes.
He was off to the film room.
“And going back into it, I watched that because it was during the bye week,” Runyan said. “I just wanted to remind myself where I started and where I’m going to go, and how I don’t want to have that feeling anymore that I had with the Notre Dame game.”
With two weeks left in the regular season, the feeling hasn’t seemed to return. Through 10 weeks, Higdon is the first Michigan running back to reach 1,000 yards since 2011. Junior quarterback Shea Patterson has only been sacked once a game on average, and boasts the second best passer rating in the Big Ten.
First year offensive line coach Ed Warinner has garnered much of the praise for the resurgence of an oft-criticized front. The simplification of schemes that Warinner has introduced have been crucial according to Runyan. Warinner just calls it focusing on each of the lineman’s strengths.
“We ask him to do what he’s really good at and do it really hard,” Warinner said. “And so that’s made him a very confident player. There’s nothing more defeating as a player than to ask me to do something I know he can’t do.”
Fans can surely look for a scapegoat, but there isn’t one.
Jon Runyan Sr. was known for his roughhouse attitude on the field.
His son being bullied by the Fighting Irish could certainly besmirch the family name. But Runyan Jr.’s skill sets vary from his father’s; it’s consistently reinforced.
“As a parent, you understand the pressure, how he’s going to compare,” Runyan Sr. said. “But I feel he has his head on straight. He blazes his own trail, and we’re all different and we have different talents. I’ve told him since he was in high school, he is a better athlete than I was.”
Added Runyan Jr.: “My dad was known as one of the nastiest people. I try to emulate that watching little clips of him knocking Michael Strahan down. I don’t know if I’m there, but hopefully I’ll be able to get there.”
In his fourth season, walking back-and-forth in front of images of his father plastered in Schembechler Hall, the road following his father’s legacy seems to be winding down.
Contingent on College Football Playoff or Big Ten championship success, Runyan Jr. could be known just for anchoring the left side of the line.
He isn’t his father, and that doesn’t bother him. He’s been berated in high school because of it, despite success. He was put on a stake after Notre Dame, and silenced critics for the next 11 weeks.
It doesn’t mean the pressure of being a Runyan is gone. It just means Jon Runyan Jr. is being himself.
“This name kinda carries a lot of weight,” Runyan Jr. said. “I’m proud to have it, and I don’t pay too much attention to what everybody says about me. I received a lot of criticism from people on the outside after the Notre Dame game. But my father was right there backing me up. A bunch of my friends I went to high school with, my teammates, they would lift me up.
“We’ve been having a good season, and those people talking trash about us at the beginning (have) all come crawling back like, ‘Oh, maybe this offensive line is good. Maybe Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Jon Runyan Jr. are good tackles.’ I just take it all with a grain of salt.
“I don’t really care. I just stay level-headed and don’t let it faze me at all.”
Daily Sports Editor Mark Calcagno contributed to the reporting of this story.