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'Big Mike' ready to lend a hand

Michigan offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (50) plays against Iowa during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.
Michigan offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (50) plays against Iowa during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

During the early stages of the movie "The Blind Side," when young Michael Oher was just beginning his high school football career, he routinely knocked opponents to the ground with his sheer size and strength, then offered a hand to help pick them up.

The Patriots drafted another "Big Mike" who had a tendency to do similar things during his early years at the University of Michigan, only this one is even bigger than Oher.

Michael Onwenu, and yes he is often referred to as Big Mike, comes to the Patriots tipping the scales at roughly 350 pounds. Like Oher, he also wouldn't hesitate to offer a helping hand to a fallen opponent. At least that was before offensive line coach Ed Warinner put a stop to that practice.

By the time Onwenu's career with the Wolverines was over, he was taking care of opponents by "burping" them instead of lifting them up.

"Michael's a big man that's very athletic," Warinner began. "He's very strong. He's a smart player. He led our offensive line in knockdowns, but early on when he used to knock them down he'd help them up. And I was like, 'I don't think we should do that.' Then he got more and more physical. Then he liked to knock you down and fall on you, and 350, 360 pounds falling on you is pretty tough. He really started enjoying that. We would call those 'burping him.' When Big Mike falls on you, he burps you."

As Onwenu continued to develop, Warinner saw all of the athleticism bursting out of the 6-3 guard, and he believes that's what attracted him to the Patriots in sixth round (182nd overall). Each year he saw some improvement in Onwenu's game, from footwork and technique early to better hand and arm placement in pass protection last season.

Warinner feels Onwenu will continue to improve at the pro level. Ben McDaniels, brother of Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, has been the quarterbacks coach at Michigan the past two seasons, and Warinner explained that he'll be familiar with most of the concepts he sees in Foxborough as a result.

"We understand how the Patriots like to operate offensively," Warinner said. "My first two years we were a pro-style offense that Jim [Harbaugh] brought and the last couple we've been more spread, so he's had opportunities to run all forms of offense. We've been inside zone, outside zone, power, counter … all the core runs in the NFL are part of our repertoire. His skills translate well to what they're doing offensively. I'm sure that's why they drafted him.

"He has as much athletic ability as anyone I've coached. Being bigger, you just have to make sure you have good footwork. He can be dominant when his footwork is right. When it's not, it's like an 18-wheeler veering out of its lane out of control. It's hard to get it back under control when it's that big. When he focuses he's exceptional. He can do some freaky stuff in terms of throwing people around."

Onwenu, whose parents are of Nigerian descent, played his high school ball at Cass Technical in Detroit, a local powerhouse that routinely sends blue-chip prospects to Power 5 schools and beyond. That background was instrumental in his development, and Warinner understood immediately what he had on his hands when Onwenu arrived.

"Cass is one of best in the state at producing results and talent," he said. "It's a really good program. The head coach [Thomas Wilcher] is a Michigan grad. I knew Mike had a ton of ability from the first day I coached him. Then I had to try to figure out how to reach him and coach him, and his high school guys helped out in that way a lot."

Onwenu will not have an easy time of it once training camp arrives. He's one of three draft picks Bill Belichick used on interior offensive linemen, joining Justin Herron and Dustin Woodard. With Ted Karras having departed via free agency, there will be openings for backup spots on the interior but the competition figures to be tough.

Warinner believes Onwenu should get every opportunity to prove his worth based on a variety of factors.

"He's just so athletic for a man that size, for starters," he said. "I always say the hardest thing to do is move a guy against his will. Michael does that consistently. If a guy is determined not to be moved, I don't care how big the other guy is that's not easy to do. Michael makes it look easy sometimes.

"He also has a personality for the game. He's very quiet and studious. He's not going to get caught up in the trappings of pro life like some other guys can sometimes do. He takes care of his business and does what he's supposed to do. He's a really good person from a great family. Just a joy to be around. Like the perfect guy to coach. He's going to have the paper out taking notes and getting ready in the meetings. He's really detailed. Not a lot of highs and lows … pretty steady every day. Pretty much the same guy.

"I feel like his personality fits with the Belichick culture. He's just a business-like football player."

View photos of Patriots OL Michael Onwenu in action during his time at Michigan.

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