Inserting a sixth offensive lineman is often a tell.
Unless it’s an obvious passing situation, the defense knows what’s coming. The offense — with the addition of yet another giant, mobile blocker — wants to run the ball.
That was certainly the case when Stephen Spanellis entered the game Saturday afternoon.
The redshirt freshman guard is usually a backup. In Michigan’s 35-14 win over Rutgers, though, he worked in tandem as the first lineman off the bench with the starters — especially right guard Michael Onwenu.
On 2nd-and-8 from the Scarlet Knights’ 34-yard line, Spanellis lined up on the right side of the line, two spots over from Onwenu. When the ball was snapped, both set off for their assignments. Onwenu pulled across the formation to block one edge defender; Spanellis stayed on his side to seal the other.
It worked well, as most of Michigan’s running plays did, and Ty Isaac burst through the hole for a nine-yard gain and the first down.
Several plays later, the two worked together once again. Michigan was facing 1st-and-goal from the one-yard line. This time, Spanellis lined up in the backfield as an H-back. Onwenu blocked his man. Spanellis barreled into the same gap. Khalid Hill followed their lead, and the Wolverines put six on the board.
Spanellis is still relatively anonymous. It probably didn’t help that he had a new jersey number without his last name stitched across the back.
But if Saturday was any indication, Spanellis is on a path to earning more playing time — just like his two classmates, sophomores Ben Bredeson and Onwenu, each of whom quickly found his way onto the field.
According to Jim Harbaugh, Spanellis may have the best academic grades on the team, and has the same intelligence when it comes to playing football. Like many young offensive linemen, Spanellis has also changed physically and is “on his way to being a real physical specimen.”
Most importantly to Harbaugh, Spanellis has the requisite desire to improve.
“Stephen Spanellis, I mean, he is a go-getter,” Harbaugh said Monday afternoon. “The passion for playing and wanting to be good, seeing it. Seeing him get better and better and therefore he’s out there. And if he gets his opportunity, plays well, you’ll see more Stephen Spanellis as we go forward.”
Added fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler: “He’s a very physical offensive lineman. One of our strongest, if not our strongest, offensive lineman, and you know what you’re going to get out of him. He’s just going to try to bench press people and try to move them off the ball, and that’s what we need out of our line.”
If anything, Spanellis can look at the path that Onwenu took.
At this point last year, Onwenu played sparingly. He was a backup who saw time mostly in jumbo packages and special teams, and sometimes, even on defense as a nose guard.
Those roles might have been unconventional. But like Spanellis did against Rutgers, Onwenu was still getting into the game — valuable experience for a younger player.
After earning a starting job, Onwenu struggled at times early this season. But he progressed quickly and is one of the main reasons the team’s rushing attack, which posted a season-high 334 rushing yards against Rutgers, has anchored the offense.
Harbaugh commented that Onwenu has been one of the team’s top linemen, just behind senior left tackle Mason Cole. Kugler, meanwhile, thinks Onwenu can be one of the best linemen in the country if he continues improving at this rate.
“(Onwenu’s) understanding the game a lot more,” Kugler said. “We all know that he’s an athletic freak. I mean, he’s 360 pounds and can move the way he does. Just the understanding he’s getting of the offense — it’s incredible compared to what it was last year.”
Added fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray: “He’s so big, and to be that big and be able to move that well at that size, that’s an asset for him. … That helps our offensive line create space. Strong, big powerful guy.
“It’s kinda hard to get around him. You’ve just got to be stout, really. Don’t let him push you back. But it’s hard, 350-pound lineman who can move, it’s pretty hard to beat.”
Spanellis may not be as athletic as Onwenu. But he has, as Harbaugh called it, football smarts — and as his performance Saturday showed, he’s still able to be effective, especially when working with Onwenu.