Legendary coach Vince Lombardi is the most famous football alumnus of Fordham University. Beyond that, the program’s list of recognizable NFL names is relatively short. Hall of Famer Alex Wojciechowicz, who played for the Lions and Eagles in the 1940s, is on it. So is Len Eshmont, who’d go on to play for the 49ers and become the namesake of their most prestigious annual award.
In modern times, the most prominent Fordham product in the NFL is easily running back Chase Edmonds, who just finished four years with the Cardinals and signed with the Dolphins. In 2017, when Edmonds was finishing four years of stardom at Fordham, he drew representatives from all 32 NFL teams to the school’s urban campus, which is tucked into the heart of the Bronx.
While watching Edmonds, whom Arizona picked in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, teams noticed freshman Fordham offensive lineman Nick Zakelj.
“When they came in to watch practice, they’d see this monster, puppy-faced kid who didn’t have facial hair yet running around like a son of a gun,” former Fordham assistant Ian Pace, who’s now the head coach at New Jersey’s Somerville High, said in a phone interview. “And they were like, ‘Who’s that?’ They thought he was a senior just because of how different he looked than everyone else on the team.
“And we said, ‘Well, that’s Nick.’
“And they said, ‘We’ll be back.’”
The 49ers indeed returned. They drafted Zakelj in the sixth round, at No. 187, in the recent draft. After making the pick, team brass noted they’d had their eyes on Zakelj for upwards of four years — or since his freshman year, when the lineman was an eminently raw prospect relatively fresh off a conversion from inside linebacker to offensive tackle.
The 49ers envision Zakelj, who’s 6-foot-6 and weighs 316 pounds, as a developmental piece for their interior O-line. They believe he has the smarts to potentially play center.
Zakelj’s rise from suburban Cleveland to Fordham to the 49ers has not been a heralded one. He was a zero-star recruit coming out of Brecksville-Broadview Heights High before playing at a small FCS college. But within that journey are details that illustrate what the 49ers covet about him.
‘He’s a sponge’: On Zakelj’s rapid upward trajectory
The clip from the first day of Senior Bowl practices isn’t pretty. Nose tackle Otito Ogbonnia, a fifth-round pick of the Chargers last week, bull-rushed Zackelj. He put him on skates. The O-lineman ended the one-on-one drill in the worst position possible: lying on his back in his own end zone.
“The first day, he was discouraged because he didn’t do well, and I was freaking out,” Lois Zakelj, Nick’s mother, said in a phone interview last week. “But he doesn’t dwell on it. He gets in this mindset of, ‘OK, this is what I’ve gotta do.’”
The task at hand was daunting. Zakelj, who’d played exclusively tackle in college, would have to show NFL teams he could learn a guard position that was new to him on the fly. And the competition Zakelj would face over the week at the Senior Bowl was a lot better than who he’d blocked in the Patriot League at Fordham.
“You take a kid who’s played left tackle for four years, you flipped his feet and he’s at right guard, and you put him at a position where everything’s moving a lot faster on the interior against some of the best defensive linemen in the country,” Fordham coach Joe Conlin said last week in a phone interview. “It was no shock that Day 1 was tough, and it was also no surprise that Nick got better.
“Because there’s no ego. He’s very self-reflective. He holds himself to a very high standard.”
By the time the Senior Bowl game rolled around a few days later, Zakelj was holding firm at right guard. The 49ers noticed, mentioning Zakelj’s improvement over that week in Mobile, Ala., as one of the driving forces behind their selection.
It turns out swift development has been a theme of Zakelj’s career.
He was only 5-10 as a high school sophomore when he was cut by the basketball team.
“He was too slow for a small guy and too small for a big guy,” Lois Zakelj said. “But by his senior year of high school, you saw it. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they cut that guy because he was too small?!”
Zakelj was 6-3 and nearing 250 pounds by then. He played inside linebacker at Brecksville-Broadview over his first three seasons, scurrying from sideline to sideline along with fellow ‘backer Mike Rose, who’d attend Iowa State and signed with the Chiefs last week as an undrafted free agent. A lack of athleticism quickly became a non-issue for Zakelj.
Zakelj developed into an exceptionally explosive big man — his broad jump of over 9 feet and his 10-yard split of 1.67 seconds rank above the 85th percentile of O-linemen. And the growth spurt, which would extend another 3 inches past 6-3, prompted a position switch to tackle.
New 49ers O-lineman Nick Zakelj is tall but doesn’t have long arms — that’s a big part of why the team views him as an interior offensive lineman. Zakelj’s broad jump of over 9 feet is exceptional, as is his 10-yard burst: pic.twitter.com/x3yddHHEwv
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) May 6, 2022
Pace, a former Fordham lineman who also grew up in the Cleveland area, looks back fondly on his several recruiting visits to Zakelj’s house. All featured a lot of food — on one occasion, Pace and Zakejl consumed entire pizzas by themselves — and insight into the prospect’s family background.
Zakelj’s father, Stan, is a systems manager for the state of Ohio’s court of appeals, and Lois Zakelj is a court reporter. (Stan’s parents came to the United States from Slovenia. That’s where the name “Zakelj,” which is pronounced zah-KELL, comes from.)
“His dad’s a blue-collar guy, works his butt off,” Pace said. “Mom’s one of the nicest women I’ve ever met. Father was more grateful than any other parent I’ve been around for us to be willing to give his son a full athletic scholarship. Just to see the manner in which he was raised, just see him interact with his family and his mannerisms — Nick’s just a reflection of (his) mom and dad.”
But behind the scenes, Zakelj’s recruitment wasn’t entirely smooth. His first three games at tackle during that senior season of high school were so rough that Fordham’s staff cringed upon seeing the tape.
“He didn’t know how to get out of his stance,” Pace said. “It didn’t look great. But I said: ‘Guys, the kid can move his feet. He can bend. We’ve gotta stay loyal to the kid.’ And by Week 8, the film looked amazing. He just kept getting better and getting better and getting better. He’s a sponge.”
By the end of that senior season, Bowling Green and Miami of Ohio — both FBS programs — had taken notice and offered Zakelj scholarships. But Fordham remained the lineman’s choice. Zakelj would continue his rapid ascent onto the NFL’s radar there.
“He was loyal to his word,” Pace said. “To his credit, he remembered who was first there for him, and he ended up sticking with us.”
Zakelj’s communication ability: A possible fit for center
Identifying talent capable of executing the center position at the NFL level isn’t easy. The position presents complexities — such as identifying safety rotations and communicating pre-snap alignment tweaks to the other four O-linemen — that aren’t part of the job description elsewhere along the front.
The 49ers, though, believe Zakelj has the brainpower to potentially handle center even though he hasn’t yet seen game action there.
“Nick got into Yale,” Pace said. “I bring that up just from an intelligence standpoint — he’s as smart as they get. He’s a cool customer. He doesn’t get stressed on the field. You take a smart kid who doesn’t let different looks confuse him in the heat of the moment and he’s able to communicate that efficiently and effectively.
“He was the leader. He was the communicator for the team at Fordham, especially up front. Any sort of combination call, any sort of communication, it was trusted through him — even his freshman year. Because he showed such an aptitude for the game. Fordham is a smart school, but some of those kids make football a lot more difficult than it needs to be. Nick was able to simplify the game for everybody.”
Conlin, who took over as Fordham’s coach in 2018, was an assistant at Harvard in 2011. He just so happened to coach a future 49ers fullback there that season.
“He’s very similar to Kyle Juszczyk,” Conlin said of Zakelj. “He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around. Nick and Kyle are very similar in how they approach practice and how they think about the game. Those guys just absorb it. It’s very important to them. He’ll take care of his body. He’ll be a great asset.”
— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) February 1, 2022
Zakelj didn’t miss a single game during his college career, and Conlin said he missed only one practice, a walk-through after the game. Pace credits Zakelj’s attitude for the durability he’s demonstrated, and that goes back to his eager embrace of the switch from linebacker to the trenches late in high school.
“Not too many people are thrilled to be in a car accident 75 to 80 times a week,” Pace said.
But Zakelj didn’t mind the physical rigors of O-line play, and that set his journey on its current trajectory.
Zakelj’s former coaches readily acknowledge he still has plenty of work to do. He must develop more bend in his knees. He must showcase more consistency with his lean, which can leave him especially vulnerable against technically savvy and powerful NFL defensive linemen. And he must show that he can consistently maintain the improvements that allowed him to better handle bull rushes as that Senior Bowl week moved along.
But the fact that Zakelj has improved so much already, and the fact that his best college tape came against Fordham’s strongest competition — a matchup versus Nebraska in the 2021 season opener — convinced the 49ers to make the pick.
“He’s a mauler,” Pace said. “He’s nasty. Nick’s going to give those guys everything he has. He’s going to show up every day and keep getting better. He loves to just take people over mentally as the game goes on. He loves to just out-will people and then end up finishing them. That’s what we loved about him.”
(Photo: Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)