Up to me: Ian Bunting’s persistence defines Cal football

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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Ian Bunting, standing at 6’7” and a svelte 255 pounds, doesn’t look like a football player out of central casting. On a Cal football team that has managed to succeed with a lot of physical misfits, however, he still stands out. He looks a lot more like a player from a ground-and-pound Midwest school. That’s because, really, he is.

After four years of absorbing knowledge (and sometimes seeing the field) for one of the nation’s most esteemed college football programs at the University of Michigan, Bunting took college’s closest approximation to free agency and made the call to suit up for Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. And perhaps, for the man who lists himself as an “aspiring beach bum” in his Twitter profile, coming out to the West Coast was a benefit as well.

With the Bears suddenly and dramatically bowl-eligible and looking like they have the best chance to knock off Stanford in recent memory, Bunting’s call doesn’t look too bad. And currently sitting on his career-best season statistics, he’s also making sure he stands out on more than just stature.

You’d likely think Bunting had football coursing through his veins from a young age, but that’s not quite the truth. In fact, he claims his first spoken word was “basketball,” and that wasn’t the last time the sport would factor into his life.

“When I was younger, I had hoop dreams, as we all do,” Bunting says. “Us football players, I think a lot of guys thought they were going to be basketball players, and that’s me included. But I was much better at football than I was at basketball.”

Bunting’s choice of first word may seem a bit less strange when considering that his father would go on to work for the Miami Heat as a team physician. For his first Christmas, Bunting received the classic Little Tikes basketball hoop, so his interest in basketball was fueled right from the comfort of his living room.

Indeed, football wouldn’t come into the picture for quite a while, despite Bunting’s frame, which made him noticeable immediately in any sport. Soccer and basketball all occupied space in the meantime, with a tad bit of serious thought put toward the latter.

“I was really good defensively,” Bunting says. “I kind of played basketball like a football player, I’ve been told. I would set hard screens and get tough rebounds and clear the garbage under the basket. I was definitely more of a football player, but I loved basketball.”

Ian’s father, Stephen, was from Illinois, and after his stint working for the Heat, he moved his family back to Hinsdale, a suburb of Chicago. While football is popular in Florida, in Big Ten country, it’s simply on another level.

Bunting had played just one year of youth football before high school, but the way he tells it, he always knew that the gridiron was where he’d end up. With his frame, high school football was simply an inevitability, and he was self-aware enough to know it.

“I knew I wanted to play in high school because I had grown out of soccer,” Bunting says. “I was pretty tall, and soccer lends itself to a smaller stature. There’s only one (player with my size): Ibrahimovic.”

With his frame and speed, Bunting could plausibly line up pretty much anywhere on the field. Defensive end was a fit, but like most who have the luxury of choosing, Bunting moved toward the skill positions, initially playing as a wide receiver.

His move to tight end only occurred in his senior year, and even then, not for the reasons you may expect. Because of a quarterback injury, Hinsdale High was short of a passing game that could do much outside of the hash marks, so there was little sense in having such a premier athlete playing where no one could get him the ball. With the knowledge that college programs were already viewing him more as a tight end prospect than as a receiver, he made the switch.

Bunting’s high school stats aren’t gaudy but were apparently enough to make his entire region of the country take notice. He had offers from every school within a 300-mile radius, and a few more on top of that. But with his pick of the litter on the line, Bunting had one crucial factor to consider in deciding where to go.

His father was now suffering from brain cancer, and the ability to get home in a hurry and spend as much time with family as possible was at a premium. As is unsurprising for the son of a doctor, academics were also as important as any other factor, and the decision came down to Notre Dame, Northwestern and Michigan.

In the end, Ann Arbor and Brady Hoke’s coaching staff won out, and Bunting became a Wolverine. But during his redshirt freshman year, Michigan finished under .500 for just the third time since 1968, and Hoke was ousted as head coach. In came Jim Harbaugh, simultaneously one of the most notorious and beloved hardasses in a profession full of them.

The highly touted Wolverines never quite put it together in their first three seasons under Harbaugh, failing to obtain a Big Ten title. Bunting’s career also never quite got off the ground at Michigan, as he was blocked for two years by one of the country’s best tight ends in Jake Butt and played in just two games in 2017 after Butt departed for the NFL.

“Everyone coming into college football, you were probably the best kid on your team in high school, or one of the best,” Bunting says. “When you come to college, everyone was the best. You go back to the bottom of the totem pole, and you have to work your way up again, which is a fun challenge. You learn a lot of lessons.”

His father died in February of his freshman year, and Bunting says that in the aftermath, he became closer than ever with his mother and sister, and he could count on them to follow wherever he went. Going into his final year of NCAA eligibility already with his degree in organizational studies, Bunting got ready to become a graduate transfer and control his own fate. He wouldn’t be making the trip alone.

wide receiver Moe Ways shares some of Bunting’s “beach bum” vibe with a casual demeanor, but just like Bunting, he’s a Midwest boy who ended up sporting the famed maize and blue and not seeing the field all too often. Unsurprisingly, their personalities clicked, and the two became pals quickly in Ann Arbor, ultimately becoming a package deal for their final year of college football on the West Coast.

“There are things off the field that we experienced together, and we definitely appreciated each other being here because of it,” Ways said. “It would probably be a different story if we weren’t here together.”

The two are a perfect pairing. Ways also stands at an impressive 6’4” and brings a Big Ten attitude to the field while being completely disarming. With the strange transition of coming to a new program for just a single year, the two took the logical next step of living together.

“Day one coming in, it’s different than coming in as a freshman, because at least you have your whole freshman class and nobody knows anyone,” Bunting says. “Moe was here, too, which made it a little easier. … It’s always good to have someone you know and is there for you.”

So far, the transfer seems to be paying dividends. Bunting has gotten on the field in every game and has posted career highs for season catches and receptions. There’s no doubt he provides a size and physicality that the Bears are seriously in need of.

KAREN CHOW/SENIOR STAFF

KAREN CHOW/SENIOR STAFF

“It’s exciting to get anyone who can add something different,” said offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. “Ian has provided that and will continue to, … and it’s not just the number of catches or the blocks he’s making. He’s a fit in the locker room, a fit with the teammates, and I appreciate that so much in Ian.”

Coming up this week against Stanford and its notoriously physical brand of play, you can be sure that Bunting is going to come in handy for the blue and gold. And that’s because he has built a life out of making himself handy wherever needed: the pitch, court, beach, field, home, East Coast, West Coast and Midwest. He’ll be making his final statements on the football field soon, but considering the long journey from his first words to today, what comes next could be anything and anywhere.

Andrew Wild covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.