ATLANTA — The attacks first came from a former player, Braylon Edwards, Michigan’s all-time leading receiver.
Then the criticism was everywhere.
Michigan’s offensive line was bad. Very bad, fans and observers argued. Just as bad as it was in 2017.
The Wolverines had just dropped their season opener to Notre Dame, 24-17, a game in which Michigan’s quarterbacks were sacked three times — including one that game on the team’s final drive of the game, dousing any hope of a comeback in South Bend.
“We saw that (Edwards) tweet, obviously, (and) coach Harbaugh addressed it,” starting left tackle Jon Runyan, Jr., said on Monday. “Then we also saw a feed on the Internet that said, ‘Michigan’s O-line is softer than toilet paper,’ and it was just a thread of attached tweets of people talking about Michigan’s offensive line.
“We all sent that together, and as a unit we talked about needing to meet with each other.”
They did, Runyan said. In fact, the line got together that Monday night after team meetings and had dinner.
They discussed the need to hold each other accountable.
“If one guy messes up, we all can’t mess up,” Runyan said. “We can’t be too down on it. We’ve got to put it all behind us, learn from it and that’s what we did.”
Michigan’s offensive line — with Runyan at left tackle, Ben Bredeson at left guard, Cesar Ruiz at center, Michael Onwenu at right guard and Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle — slowly showed progress as the season advanced. Over the next two games, against Western Michigan and Southern Methodist, the line only allowed a total of three sacks.
Then came the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, the unofficial turning point.
“I really think we started feeling ourselves to play really good,” Runyan said. “I think that was really the moment in the season when things started coming together.”
Michigan allowed a total of 12 sacks over the final nine games (for a total of 18), a remarkable improvement over last season when the Wolverines surrendered 36 in 13 games. Led by first-year offensive line coach Ed Warinner, the group remarked about how simplified things became in the offseason.
Between the new approach, different coach and a new, more mobile quarterback under center, Shea Patterson, the offensive line benefitted.
“We just started putting in good game plans (and) executing,” Runyan said. “Because Nebraska was the first time we played a three-down defense, and we started putting in good runs against that and taking out some that weren’t so good. I think we carried Nebraska game plan into the Wisconsin game plan too, so yeah, stuff like that.
“Kudos to coach Warinner for putting us in good positions.”
The seventh-ranked Wolverines will be without Bushell-Beatty on Saturday vs. Florida in the Peach Bowl (noon, ESPN), and will have to rely on redshirt freshman Andrew Steuber at right tackle. But the other four starters are set to return in 2019, as is Warinner, setting up the potential for another leap forward.
How far can they go? That remains unclear — but with most of the players on Michigan’s offense set to return, the outlook is rosy.
“It’s definitely exciting,” said Bredeson, a consensus second-team all-Big Ten selection. “It’s something that has crossed our minds a little bit in bowl prep, just kind of looking around the huddle.
“Four out of five — that’s almost as many as you can ask for. There’s going to be a lot of development going on next season, but we get to kind of skip over those new hurdles when you’ve got to build bonds between guys. It’ll be a nice jump start.”