Out of all the players who will be competing for starting jobs this offseason, there might not be anyone who Ohio State needs to step up more than Zen Michalski.
With Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones both confirming this week that they will enter the 2023 NFL draft, Ohio State has openings at both offensive tackle spots. Josh Fryar is the frontrunner to fill one of those spots after serving as the sixth man on the offensive line and filling in as the starting right tackle against Indiana this past season. Who will fill the other spot remains a major question.
Ohio State’s initial plan for filling that spot appeared to be adding a transfer with starting experience, but every offensive lineman the Buckeyes have offered since the end of the regular season has now committed elsewhere. With no obvious transfer targets left in the portal, it appears unlikely the Buckeyes will add an offensive lineman during the current transfer window.
The Buckeyes could still potentially add a transfer offensive tackle when the second transfer window opens in May. Without knowing who will be available then, however, Ohio State will be hoping a pair of starting-caliber tackles emerges from its current roster this spring.
Opposite Fryar, Michalski is likely to get the first crack at earning a starting job.
Michalski was the only lineman other than Johnson to play snaps at left tackle for the Buckeyes in 2022, taking the field for 79 plays with the second-team offensive line. Although he did not play any snaps with the first-team offense, Michalski says the experience he got this past season was valuable to his growth.
“Getting my chance to play in games has been super fun,” Michalski said at Ohio State’s media day before the Peach Bowl. “Kind of just waiting my turn, it’s just been a really good experience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot.”
That said, Michalski thinks he’s learned even more from practicing with the Buckeyes for the past two years. Compared to practicing against Ohio State’s defensive ends, Michalski said it hasn’t been hard playing in actual games – though as he acknowledged, all of his offensive snaps as a Buckeye so far have come in situations where the Buckeyes already had a decisive lead.
“The games are easier. The games are a lot easier,” Michalski said. “When I get in the game, it could be it's the fourth quarter or whatever it is, Toledo third quarter and the guys that we're playing against are a little more, a little less morale to play. But I think it's definitely a big difference blocking our guys in good-on-good.”
Michalski watched Johnson prepare for his first and only season as Ohio State’s starting left tackle last offseason as he transitioned from playing right guard in 2021, and Michalski believes he can apply what he learned from Johnson to his own efforts to earn Ohio State’s starting left tackle job as a third-year Buckeye this year. Michalski said the biggest thing he learned from Johnson over the past year was patience, as he saw from their work together that Johnson wasn’t always the All-American player that he ended up becoming this past season.
“Just learning that like it’s not going to come all at once,” Michalski said. “A lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff that no one else saw, like I was watching him. We did all this stuff over the summer, I saw Paris grow in his game and how much better his body (became). So just like kind of not doubting yourself. Like, look at where he’s at now.”
Michalski, who didn’t start playing on the offensive line until his junior year of high school, says his overall understanding of how to play the position has grown over the past year since Justin Frye became the Buckeyes’ offensive line coach.
“How I use my body. How I guess break down the game systematically in certain situations or like certain plays, you need to be able to understand like the right technique to use versus this, versus that,” Michalski said of what he’s learned from Frye over the past year.
Considering his lack of time spent playing the position and that he was underweight for an offensive lineman when he arrived at Ohio State, Michalski was always expected to need some time to develop before he’d be ready to play a major role for the Buckeyes. Whether that will be in 2023 will depend on how he continues to develop this offseason. But he impressed his coaches and teammates with how much he grew from his true freshman year in 2021 to his redshirt freshman season in 2022.
“He's made great strides. And I'm excited to see now after a whole year of great technique work and everything under his belt, what he's able to improve on in the spring ball going into next season,” former Ohio State center Luke Wypler, who is also entering the 2023 NFL draft, said when asked in December about Michalski’s development.
Wypler said he saw Michalski step up in practices this past year with the knowledge that he could position himself to be a starter in 2023.
“It’s given him a little extra motivation to kind of put his foot on the gas pedal and push a little harder, because he knows the opportunity that he has in front of him,” Wypler said.
If Michalski is to be the starting left tackle this year, he’s going to have to earn it. While there aren’t any other clear-cut candidates to start at offensive tackle this year besides Fryar and Michalski, others who could get a shot to compete for a starting spot this spring include redshirt freshman offensive linemen George Fitzpatrick and Tegra Tshabola, redshirt sophomore Ben Christman and even true freshman Luke Montgomery. Moving Donovan Jackson from left guard to left tackle could also be an option, as Jackson took reps at left tackle with the second-team offensive line last spring when Michalski was sidelined by injury.
Should Ohio State end up adding a transfer offensive tackle at some point, Michalski says he won’t have a problem with it. Ryan Day has said anyone who transfers into Ohio State will have to earn the opportunity to start, too, so Michalski says he’ll embrace the competition with anyone who might join the roster.
“We have a lot of young guys. We don’t really have a lot of older guys … I can understand why they’re looking in the transfer portal,” Michalski said. “If we do get a transfer, it’s just more competition, more guys to work with. I don't think it'd be a bad thing.”
That said, Michalski plans to do everything he can this offseason to demonstrate he is ready to be a starter, even though he knows the ultimate decision of who will start is out of his hands. He plans to continue bulking up from his current weight of 307-308 pounds to 315 pounds while getting as strong as he can in the weight room, all the while spending extra time doing drills with Frye and offensive line graduate assistant Mike Sollenne to improve his technique and build his confidence.
“I’m going to do my absolute best to put in all the work I can put in and wait for the results,” Michalski said.