Two weeks ago, Stephen Spanellis walked into the offensive line room, expecting another normal day of preparation to kick off game week.
But offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Tim Drevno approached the sophomore and asked a simple question.
“How would you feel about playing as a sixth lineman?”
Spanellis recalled feeling a rush of excitement build up inside him. He had seen how Jim Harbaugh utilized an extra lineman on past teams. When he found out Harbaugh wanted him to play the role, he quickly said yes.
“That was something that really caught my eye in recruiting,” Spanellis said. “So it was a bit of a dream come true.”
For the past two Saturdays, Spanellis has performed well in the role. So has the line as a whole.
Though linemen usually rely on continuity — remaining on the field for every down — Spanellis has handled the challenge of bouncing on and off for specific plays or series with ease.
“Just rolling with the punches. When your name is called, you go out there and you give 100 percent effort,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to worry about being tired on the next play because you might not be out there.”
The unit showed substantial improvement against Rutgers and Minnesota, paving the way for an explosive ground game.
Against the Scarlet Knights, the Wolverines’ run game gained a season-high 334 yards. They topped that against the Golden Gophers one week later. Junior Karan Higdon and sophomore Chris Evans combined to rush for 391 yards and score four touchdowns.
For as much praise as the duo received, Harbaugh also lauded the line for its ability to create gaping holes for them to run through, calling it a “memorable game” for the unit on Monday. Spanellis received his share of the plaudits.
“Very physical player, very smart player, highly motivated player, very sharp and focused,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a guy who’s really changed his body over the last year. Some do, some don’t, but the ones that are really motivated do.”
It wasn’t the first time Harbaugh has called attention to Spanellis’ physique. Last week, he called the sophomore one of the strongest players on the team.
Spanellis said he followed the instructions of the strength coach and nutrition team closely in his first year at Michigan, spending a significant amount of time working in the weight room while tweaking his diet.
“I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “… Good things come when you do what you’re supposed to do.”
He first started noticing the difference in his strength last year, when he went up against fifth-year senior tackle Maurice Hurst. Eventually, Spanellis became capable of competing in a “toe-to-toe battle” where he could hold his ground against Hurst, one of the nation’s best defensive linemen.
“He’s a big, strong kid,” Hurst said of Spanellis. “He’s one of the people who’s been getting a lot better over the past year and has been really good at developing.”
In addition to his strength, Spanellis’ intelligence has stood out. Last week, Harbaugh also called the sophomore one of the smartest players on the team.
“Football is a cerebral game,” Spanellis said. “You have to be very smart to understand offense and analyze defenses. I think it helps me out because when I go out there I know, generally speaking, what the look is — I don’t have to think about it — I just go out and I see what the front is and then I know exactly what to do.”
With his mixture of brains and brawn, Spanellis has forced his way into the rotation, providing another dimension to the Wolverines’ line. The unit has been gelling of late, and he has been a part of it.
Spanellis had to adapt to a unique role, and Michigan is better off because of it.
“You gotta put the team above yourself at all times,” Spanellis said. “The team is really the most important thing, and you have to (submit) yourself to it in order to succeed.”