Zen Michalski sees his window of opportunity to become a starting offensive tackle at Ohio State in the not-too-distant future.
Barring any unexpected setbacks, Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones will be Ohio State’s starting offensive tackles this year. However, Michalski is in position to be one of their top backups, as he’s been repping as the second-team left tackle in preseason camp. And since Johnson and Jones will both have NFL decisions to make after this season, a good year on the second team could put Michalski in position to be one of their successors next year.
That’s motivating Michalski to improve as much as he can this year and perform at his best whenever his number is called to prove he’s ready to be the next man up on the edge of the Buckeyes’ offensive line.
“That is something that I've thought about a lot, and I've talked to a lot of the coaches about, and just that I gotta really step up this year and I gotta get out of the bad habits of like a freshman player,” Michalski said this week. “I'm still pretty young as a player, like this is just my second camp, so I got a lot of stuff to fix, but I have a whole season to fix it. So I'm pretty confident.”
Michalski didn’t necessarily expect, nor did Ohio State necessarily expect him, to be in that position going into his second year as a Buckeye. After all, Michalski was a tight end until his junior year of high school.
While he more than looks the part of a Big Ten offensive tackle now at 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, he weighed just 215 pounds three years ago. Michalski laughed when asked if he envisioned himself becoming an Ohio State offensive tackle back then.
“Definitely not, definitely not,” Michalski told Eleven Warriors. “That was a surprise to me, for sure.”
Even last year as a 295-pound freshman, Michalski felt overwhelmed at times – particularly once he started running with the second-team offensive line.
“I didn't know what to expect last year,” Michalski said. “I remember last year, it around like week four or five, Enokk (Vimahi) who was our left tackle behind Nick (Petit-Frere) had hurt his knee or something, so I remember (former Ohio State offensive line coach Greg Studrawa) turning around and grabbing me and throwing me in with the twos and I was like, ‘Holy what is about to happen?’ So yeah, I was kind of still like in survival mode. But now, I'm trying to actually use these practices to get better.”
By the end of his freshman year, Michalski realized he still needed to get bigger and stronger, and he set his mind on doing so this offseason. He’s added 15 pounds since last season and feels “a lot stronger” than he did before.
“I remember just thinking like, ‘Man, after this, I'm taking this offseason for real. I'm not going in survival mode again,’” Michalski said. “I feel like now I can really anchor down and absorb people if I need to or when I'm setting, I'm not going to get driven into the quarterback like I would be as a 295-pound freshman.”
Ohio State’s other offensive tackles say they’ve seen substantial growth from Michalski going into his second season as a Buckeye. Johnson has been particularly impressed with Michalski’s work ethic.
“Zen has really made a lot of great strides,” Johnson said. “He’s really impressed me this summer as far as each day. I tell people all the time like I started last year, I was still out here every day of the summer, didn't matter what it was, doing extra reps with our GA or by myself as much as I could, and Zen was always right there – he was asking 1,000 questions – but he was still right there, doing every rep. If it wasn't exactly perfect, he wanted to do it again. And that’s the type of person he is. And not everybody's gonna be out there to do the extra stuff. It's not very common. But for Zen, you can tell he really wants it.”
Fellow second-team offensive tackle Josh Fryar said Michalski is “coming along unbelievable” and demonstrating a new level of maturity following his redshirt year.
“Just keep grinding and grinding and grinding. That's what I think I've seen out of Zen,” Fryar said.
“You can tell he really wants it.”– Paris Johnson Jr. on Zen Michalski’s improvement
While Michalski has his sights set on earning a starting job next year, his more immediate goal for this season is to prove the Buckeyes can count on him if they need him to step in at offensive tackle this year. Starting left guard Donovan Jackson also took some reps at left tackle during spring practice, an indicator that the Buckeyes could shuffle things around up front if anything happens to Johnson or Jones, but Michalski doesn’t want them to have to do that.
“In my spring ball meeting, Coach Day talked to me and was just like, ‘Our depth at O-line is something that is very crucial right now and that we're kind of nervous about,’ and I feel like it did put a lot of pressure on us,” Michalski said. “And I got with Josh and the other guys that aren’t starting and we were just like, ‘Man, we got to step up and like really help,’ because like if someone goes down, it can't be like last year where we gotta like move people around. We gotta have people like go in and fill those spots up.”
Day said Thursday that Ohio State hasn’t yet decided who would be the next man up at offensive tackle, but he’s hopeful both Michalski and Fryar can be counted on to play as needed.
“Between he and Josh, they’re working really hard to become that third guy,” Day said. “Those guys are both working every day, and that's the goal of both those guys. And hopefully it can be both of them.”
Since he is still relatively new to playing offensive line, Michalski still has a lot to work on. Specifically, Michalski knows he must continue to improve in pass protection, as he didn’t get much experience pass blocking in high school.
“Really just trusting myself with getting to my spot and then using my feet and not my arms and trying to push people,” Michalski said when asked where he most needs to improve. “That's like the biggest thing for me right now is I'll get to my spot good, I'll sit there and then I gotta use my feet to get in front of people and not my upper body.”
Athletically, though, Michalski possesses all the tools to be an Ohio State left tackle, which Day says is what has impressed him most about Michalski. While Michalski admits he doesn’t move quite as well now as he did when he was a 215-pound tight end, he’s still quicker than most 310-pound offensive linemen.
Zen Michalski with a really good rep, according to grad assistant Mike Sollenne. pic.twitter.com/7WhxKmxAEo— Chase Brown (@chaseabrown__) August 11, 2022
The redshirt freshman has also impressed his linemates with how well he uses his hands. Jones believes Michalski will be a great offensive tackle for the Buckeyes once he becomes fully confident in what he’s doing.
“He's improving every day,” Jones said. “I wish I had my hands like his. He's tight with them, and once he gets off the ball and starts rocking, I don’t think nobody really can stop Zen honestly. The only person that stops Zen is Zen. And so I think that's like a major key for Zen is to get out of his own head.”
Michalski knows he isn’t a finished product yet, but he is feeling more comfortable and confident as he continues to gain experience on the practice field and solidifies his place on Ohio State’s two-deep.
“I feel like over the offseason with the amount of work that I put in with (graduate assistant Mike Sollenne), I feel like I've been owning that spot,” Michalski said. “I obviously have a bunch of stuff that I gotta fix. I'm not perfect in any way right now. But I definitely feel like I have a lot more ownership than I did last year.”