With the 49ers making nine draft selections and signing a handful of undrafted free agents, there are a number of new faces to get familiar with. My goal over the next few weeks is to provide as much insight as possible into the newest members of the 49ers. I started with a player who I believe is the hidden gem of the 49ers 2022 class, offensive lineman Nick Zakelj out of Fordham University.
We have some solid statistical data readily available, such as Zakelj’s beyond impressive relative athletic score, or RAS for short. That RAS score ranked 23rd among over 1200 interior offensive linemen dating back to 1987.
We didn’t have a large amount of background into who Zakelj was as a player, as a teammate, and what kind of intangibles he brings with him on top of his eye-popping athletic ability. To help get a better sense of this, I reached out to someone who has worked closely with Zakelj for years.
That would be Fordham offensive line coach Alex Huettel, who was gracious enough to give me some time to share his experiences from his time working with Zakelj. Coach Huettel provided some great insight into the kind of player Zakelj is and the kind of person and leader he is.
We went in-depth to help familiarize 49ers fans with a player who has the potential to be a key member of the offensive line for years to come. Started out with the basics and expanded a bit from there. Hope you enjoy!
How would you describe Nick as a teammate?
Nick is everything you want in a teammate. Football first guy, He’s going to put the team first. He is going to put the standard and the culture of the team first. He’s a guy you can count on in every aspect whether it’s his day-to-day preparation, how he’s going to take the practice field, how he is going to attack meetings, or the leadership he sets in the locker room being the voice of the team.
In the offensive line room, I tell those guys it’s his room. He was in charge of it, I’m the voice of it, but I’m big on player-led teams win. Nick ran with that full speed, took charge, never had any issues, the guys respected him, but that’s all through his work and preparation and how he handled himself.
How would you describe Nick as an offensive lineman? Is he someone who is more on the physical/nasty side, or is he someone who won more with his cerebral ability?
I think he was both. He was a technician. In terms of everything he did was technique. Where’s my hands? How’s my leverage. Where should my first step go? Is that too big, is it too small. Everything was technique with him, but at the same time, he had that chip on his shoulder. Going into his senior year, He kind of let it loose in terms of having that chip and being overlooked, but now getting his shot, and he wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.
As of now, the 49ers have some real question marks on the interior of their offensive line. Who will replace Laken Tomlinson? Is Alex Mack going to retire? While it may not be 100% accurate to say outright there is a pressing need at the moment, there certainly is room for an impact player to stake a claim to one of those three interior spots.
I asked Coach Huettel if he thought Zakelj could play on the interior if that were a role the 49ers envisioned for him. Here’s what he had to say :
Yeah, absolutely, I do. You know we threw him in at center a few times in summer camp just for fun. He wanted to play center, he’s been working his snaps in the offseason leading into his senior year just because he understood you gotta be valuable in the NFL, you gotta be able to do all five.
So he really took it upon himself to work interior footwork, even just getting it down quicker. And he looked really good at center. You know, we even thought about moving him in there in a few games just to expand the A Gap even more, but he was a natural at tackle for us in our league, in the FCS.
I do think he’s going to excel on the inside, he’s quick twitch, he’s going to get his hands on people, he can bend, he can play with the leverage, he’s going to strain to finish guys because it’s a phone booth game on the inside. But I do think Nick is athletic enough and long enough to kick out to the outside and save the day if needed.
That kind of foresight is admirable, to say the least, as Zakelj clearly went above and beyond to ensure he was as versatile as possible to help increase his chances of making it to the next level. I wondered was that extra work something Zakelj insisted upon himself or was he guided in that direction by the coaching staff?
Were the reps on the interior something that you as a coaching staff approached Nick with, or did he come to you with the desire to do so in the hopes of making himself as versatile as possible to make himself more appealing to NFL teams as he prepared to take that next step
It was a bit of both, me and Nick had conversations going into his senior year about you have to be able to snap, so you might as well start working on it now. He understood that Nick is very smart, he’s a football guy, he understands that process that you’ve got to be able to do it all.
We had the conversation, but to tell you the truth, when it came to fall camp, he was like, “coach can I go in at center?” and I was like yeah, go ahead. So he wanted to do it, he wanted to get some reps at it, and again he looked really good. Snaps were beautiful, right in the chest of the quarterback, didn’t have to take his eyes off it, it was something special.
Wow. So you have a player who looked fantastic on the outside, who also flashed an incredible ability to be the anchor as the center as well. Now that we know Zakelj is more than capable of playing anywhere on the offensive line, the question becomes where specifically he would excel the most in the NFL.
If you had to make a projection based on your time working with him, where do you think he would fit best at the next level?
That’s tough. Personally, I think he can be an interior guy. Again I think he’s big enough to hold it down in there, go one on one with three techniques, combo the heavy nose guards. He has the ability and the technique to play low, drive his feet, strain to finish in there.
I do think he will excel on the interior. I think he’s very smart, and he’s proven that in the meeting room with the questions he asked and just the way he prepares himself that he can go out there at center, I.D. defenses and call it all out and be the voice of the offensive line.
Interested on what kind of ground attack Fordham deployed, I asked coach if they were a team that was gap scheme oriented or more zone blocking based offense.
We’re more of a zone scheme team, a lot of man blocking. We’ll get into a little bit of gap scheme, little bit of outside zone, but a heavier inside zone team.
I also asked coach if Nick’s responsibilities within the offense at Fordham has adequately prepared him for a role in the Shanahan scheme that is heavily predicated on aggressive outside zone concepts.
Yeah, I do, I do. I think it’s pretty universal, too, to an extent. Nick’s going to work his tail off to pick up anything you put at him. It doesn’t matter what scheme he goes into, he’s a hard working guy, and he wants to be successful at this, and he’s not going to stop until he is.
After a year of Trey Lance on the team, 49ers fans are no strangers to the slights that get directed at players coming out of the FCS. I’m always curious to know if being overlooked because of that is something that adds a bit of fuel to the fire as these FCS players make the transition to the NFL.
Is the disrespect that gets directed at FCS players something that you felt put a chip on Nick’s shoulder?
Yeah I think it does a little bit. I think you nailed it with the disrespect. I feel Nick thought, and rightfully so, he thought he was one of the top offensive linemen in the country well before he got the recognition of the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine getting the buzz out there about him.
So I definitely do think there is that chip on his shoulder, and I think that dates back to even his high school days. He was under-recruited, It’s funny; I was a Graduate Assistant at Bowling Green when he was coming out of high school, and we found him late, and we offered him really late, but he was already committed to Fordham.
He didn’t have many offers, and I think that stuck with him through his college experience. And then once he started to put on the weight and really get stronger in the weight room and change his body up, he realized, oh shoot, I can do this no matter what the level of competition is.
While Fordham plays in the FCS, they opened their 2021 season against a power-five opponent when they took on Nebraska. That had me wondering if that was a game Zakelj had circled on the calendar to really show scouts he belonged in the conversation among the best players at his position in the country, despite playing at the FCS level.
I asked coach Huettel about this, as well as if he noticed any extra level of focus from Zakelj going into that game, knowing the stakes that were at hand for him.
Was there any extra juice for Nick, knowing this was an opportunity for him to showcase his skills against a power-fivez opponent?
Yeah absolutely. I think anytime you play those type of games, there’s always some sort of extra motivation. “I was overlooked in recruiting, or we shouldn’t be out here,” or all the stuff you hear about “we shouldn’t be playing these guys.” As an offensive line unit, we did a really good job, Nick leading that, we went into that game with our backs against the wall.
The cliche saying, “there’s only one way out, and that’s to fight forward.” I thought that our guys took the field the right way in that game. Obviously, it didn’t go as we wanted it to, but Nick played a heck of a game.
For him, he knew that was the game. He knew that one game was going to be the make or break to be undrafted to a drafted guy.
Was that pressure for Nick something that was spoken about leading up to that game?
It wasn’t said, we don’t talk about that kind of stuff. That’s outside noise to us, we just get ready week to week, whoever we play, but Nick knew. He understood what the assignment was, and he had to handle his business.
Was there an extra gear where Nick was a bit more locked in with the preparation and film study leading into that game?
Yeah definitely. The second coach Conlin announced that we were playing Nebraska week one, I get a text from Nick “when are we going to have Nebraska film up?”. He was ready to start watching, he was ready to start seeing what they were doing.
While the Nebraska game was the coming-out party for Zakelj on a large scale, those close to him likely saw his potential to be an NFL caliber lineman well before he truly appeared on the radar of scouts and NFL front offices.
I asked coach Huettel if had a moment where it really clicked for him that this was a special player with a special skill set and desire to be great that was going to propel him to make that leap to the NFL.
Was there a time where you were working with Nick where you had a moment of realization where you thought to yourself, this guy has a chance to play on Sundays in the NFL?
The time for me was the whole covid shutdown. The way he was working, he was back in Cleveland, there was snow on the ground, he had half the driveway shoveled. He was doing footwork drills in the driveway, doing pass sets in the driveway. He was sending me videos working out just getting after it, sending videos squatting almost 600 pounds for reps, heavy benching, just changing his body.
When he came back after that, 4,5,6 months that we were gone, his shoulders were wider, they were like bricks. His biceps were more defined, triceps were more defined, more of a barreled chest, flatter stomach, bigger butt. You just saw him take that so serious. The videos, texting me about film and everything.
Over that time, all the work he put in and all the input he wanted from me was just great. And then when he came back, thats when I really noticed this guy is serious, and how do I not mess this up.
What would you say is Nick’s best trait as an offensive lineman?
I’d say it’s his desire to be a great offensive lineman. I know when you get to this level, everybody has a desire to be great at playing. But you do run into some guys who think, oh, I’m just an offensive lineman. But to Nick, it was a prideful thing, like I AM an offensive lineman. It was a lot different to him, the work he put in.
He really dove into studying offensive line play, how do you become better? Getting your target, hand placement, leverage, everything it entails.
Zakelj is joining an offensive line that has a hall of fame caliber left tackle and a center who has made numerous pro bowls over a decorated career. Coach Huettel made it clear that Zakelj is a player who is going to go the extra mile to hone in on his craft, which naturally led to me asking if he felt Zakelj was someone who would be going out of his way to seek advice and guidance from players like Williams and Mack.
I do, Nick’s going to be quiet, he’s going to know his role. It’s to come to work everyday, make the team better, make himself better. But as he gets comfortable in there, he’s going to be eyeing them like a hawk. He’s going to watch how they drink out of the water coolers, he’s going to watch how they prepare for meetings, he’s going to watch them in every rep.
He’s not only going to watch his film, he’s going to watch their film, to learn from them and to study from them. He’s a student of the game.
He did something so great during the season every thursday night, he would take the entire offensive line and bring them over to his dorm room, and he’d pull up a video or a cutup of the opponent and lead meetings. So he’s a leader in that aspect.
He’s going to come in, he’s just going to just work hard, and once he gets comfortable, then he’ll start asking those questions. Until then, he’s just going to mimic everything that those guys do.
To conclude, I asked coach Huettel if there was anything else about Zakelj that maybe people don’t know about, but they should.
He only played offensive line his senior year in high school. He was a middle linebacker all through high school. Came to Fordham and was a five-year starter because of the covid year, four-time All-Patriot league, two-time captain for us. Just a rock-solid guy that’s been All-Patriot league academically been All-Patriot league athletically.
Never an issue off the field, great character kid that just wants to be successful and is going to give the Bay Area everything that he has.
To summarize, the 49ers now have a player who is extremely physically gifted, but who also clearly has the drive and desire to not only be great but shine specifically in his role as an offensive lineman, something he takes tremendous pride in.
It will be very interesting to see how the 49ers decide to utilize Zakelj going forward. Is he the heir apparent to Mack at center? Will he slot into one of the starting guard spots? Either way, he gives the 49ers tremendous flexibility as a great building block to fill out their offensive line for the foreseeable future.
One more thing that was pretty neat. Coach Huettel mentioned that he spoke to Zakelj the day after the draft concluded, and Zakelj mentioned that star tight end George Kittle reached out directly to him, which according to Huettel, Zakelj thought was “pretty cool.”
That level of leadership from one of the foundational pieces of the roster speaks volumes to the kind of culture the 49ers have cultivated and echoes even more what we already know about how special of a player and person Kittle is.