Ann Arbor — He has been “Big Mike” since arriving at Michigan in 2016 from Detroit Cass Tech.
But these days, as Michael Onwenu prepares during spring practice for his final college season, he wants people to know there’s more to him than just his massive physique. Onwenu is now listed at 6-foot-3, 350 pounds, down from the 375 he was listed — perhaps embellished on the low side — his freshman year, when he played roles on the offensive and defensive lines.
Onwenu has been locked in at right guard most of his college career, has made 21 starts in 33 games, and is among the four returning offensive line starters. The only spot, right tackle, has not yet been decided, as Andrew Stueber and Jalen Mayfield are fiercely competing to be the starter this fall.
He has long been considered the immovable object, but that can also suggest the individual also has some issues with his own movement and footwork. Onwenu had an epiphany after the bowl game, realized his Michigan career is nearing its end and started focusing on diet and workout to enhance his footwork. When spring practice began last month, coach Jim Harbaugh singled out Onwenu as a player who had made significant improvement.
“I think it was more so a maturity level thing,” Onwenu said recently about his decision to challenge himself in the offseason. “My younger years. it was just like me playing a role, me playing right guard. But when it comes around, this is my last year and as an offensive line, this is what we do. In my mind I have to take it more seriously as a right guard and an offensive lineman to take that role.”
Spring practice has coincided with Lent.
“I gave up red meat, sweets and all that,” he said. “Eating a lot of chicken, rice and broccoli.”
Just after the bowl game, offensive line coach Ed Warinner gave each lineman a paragraph describing what he believed they should work on during winter conditioning. Warinner wanted Onwenu to get leaner, so he did and dropped close to 20 pounds.
“He’s a big human,” Warinner said recently. “He’s leaner, he’s quicker. Oh my gosh is he moving. Playing better with his hands. Understanding little details. Practicing better. It all starts with his attention to detail in meetings. He’s improved in every area. Wow is he talented. His ceiling is so high. (He) can be unstoppable.”
Center Cesar Ruiz, who started the final games at right guard in 2017 when Onwenu was hurt and became the starting center as a sophomore last year, praised Onwenu for the transformation he has made.
“Mike, man, he took this winter completely to a whole new level,” Ruiz said. “The way he’s playing, Mike’s turning heads. I watch him do one-on-one pass rush or when me and him do combination blocks all the time, we’ve always been good at it, but we both have that extra fire on it. I see him do one-on-ones and he moves so well for a guy that size. You see a guy that size, you don’t think he moves that well. He’s like a ballerina.”
Onwenu, when discussing his improved footwork, also jokingly referred to himself as a ballerina and laughed when told Ruiz had said something similar.
“Just get me in a ballroom,” he said with a laugh.
Warinner, appearing on the Harbaughs’ Podcast recently, said Onwenu has been asking more questions, texting him at times to discuss small but important details like hand placement and technique and is watching game film on his iPad all the time. Onwenu understands now that he could be dominant in high school as just a big body, but now he knows to be a force, he has to hone his technique.
“You’re coming out of high school and you think you’re that guy,” he said. “I didn’t expect to play that quick in my freshman year. Over time, I learned footwork, but now it’s like, footwork is what takes you to that (next level). I mean, I have size, but if you don’t have footwork, you’re nothing.”
Onwenu has made a concerted effort to improve his run blocking and pass protection.
“My run blocking, even the Penn State game (last season), the 3-tech, he slanted inside, it was a sack,” he said. “Those things, I look back at old film, even working out and with my footwork, I can prevent those things in the future.”
He is practicing this spring with a rotating right tackle, but Onwenu says Stueber and Mayfield are so comparable, he can’t tell the difference most of the time.
“I really don’t know who’s next to me until I actually look up,” Onwenu said. “That’s a good thing. That’s showing I don’t really have to worry about who’s next to me because they’re doing the right thing regardless.”
With four starters back, including Big Ten First Team selection Jon Runyan at left tackle and veteran left guard Ben Bredeson, voted a co-captain last season, along with Ruiz running the show at center, Onwenu said the time was now for him to make personal improvements. Offensive line is a one-for-all, all-for-one approach in many ways, and this group feels it is the strength of the offense, a departure from the last few years.
“We want to be the emphasis of the team,” Onwenu said. “Whatever we want to do, we want it to start at the offensive line.”