Vandals' Runner makes instant impact after position switch

The Idaho senior changed positions from receiver to cornerback three weeks ago.

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comNovember 30, 2013 

Coach Paul Petrino chats with quarterback Taylor Davis, one of 17 seniors playing their final game. Davis began the season as the third QB, but injuries pressed him into duty Oct. 12 and he has started every game since. “He stepped up his focus as much as anything. He’s done some good things for us, and I'm proud of him,’’ Petrino said.

PHIL SEARS — The Associated Press

— Roman Runner’s number looks weird, just about as strange as how the final weeks of his senior year have transpired.

Sporting a jersey with No. 87 instead of the single digits or lower numbers preferred by other Idaho Vandals cornerbacks, it is a remnant of a major change he made earlier this month.

With only three games left in his collegiate career, Runner switched from receiver to cornerback Nov. 9 against Old Dominion. He’s already played his way into a starter going into Saturday’s season finale at New Mexico State.

“People tease me about the number,” Runner said. “I don’t mind looking ugly if I’m playing well. It stands out — maybe a few people go, ‘Who is that?’ ”

That was certainly a question for some fans watching No. 2 Florida State’s 80-14 rout of the Vandals last Saturday as the cornerback with a receiver’s number was one of the few Idaho defensive standouts.

Against the Seminoles in his first start at cornerback, Runner had a game-high 13 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack of Heisman Trophy favorite Jameis Winston and a pass breakup.

“He was physical … played with a lot of emotion and passion all night long,” coach Paul Petrino said of the 6-foot, 185-pounder.

Runner practiced a bit during fall camp at cornerback because of youth and a lack of depth at the position, with Runner’s special teams prowess part of the equation.

However, once the season began, Runner spent most of the year as a receiver — he had 12 catches for 106 yards in the first nine games. Before the 10th game, Runner came to Petrino.

“I needed to be on the field more,” Runner said. “I knew there was an opportunity to play ondefense, and I had to do it. I like knowing one person can make a play on defense. Most of the time on offense, you have to rely on the linemen to make the blocks and the quarterback to make the right throw.”

In that first game on defense, against the Monarchs, Runner had five tackles and earned the start two weeks later against the Seminoles.

“He came to me … very unselfish act, wanting to do anything to help us win,” Petrino said. “I couldn’t have been prouder and happier for him.”

A reliable presence, Runner has proven his versatility on special teams, playing on all kickoff and punt units. He threw a touchdown pass last season.

“I had a lot of teammates telling me I should have done it earlier,” Runner said. “I was a receiver most of my life, so it wasn’t the easiest thing, but (against Florida State) I showed myself I could play with the big boys. There was no fear.”

Hoping for a career in pro football, Runner will train on both sides of the ball, but said he’s going to emphasize the defensive side. His career as a receiver, he says, helps him recognize alignments and see the limited amount of routes to be run. Petrino noted in addition to that knowledge, Runner enjoys the physical side and coming up to make tackles — a rare treat for a guy once used to taking the hits.

“Roman’s tough kid, a competitor, and hopefully he can finish his senior year with back-to-back really good games,” Petrino said.

Dave Southorn: 377-6420; Twitter: @IDS_Southorn

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