FARGO — The Division I FCS train at North Dakota State that has consistently produced NFL prospects on the offense line is moving as fast as ever. This year’s pro candidate is showing he can be versatile at the craft, too.
Zack Johnson, a right tackle for most of his Bison career, has made a position switch to right guard count in multiple ways in the early going. For one, he’s a 6-foot-6, 315-pound road grader for the NDSU running game.
And, two, it may benefit him down the line.
“He can be a swing either way as a prospect at the next level,” said Bison offensive line coach A.J. Blazek.
There’s proof with former Bison players in that theory. Billy Turner, who finished his Bison career in 2013 as one of the greatest left tackles in program history, is the starting right guard for the Green Bay Packers.
Joe Haeg, who was predominantly a left tackle at NDSU, has played everywhere with the Indianapolis Colts. He’s the backup at left guard and right guard this week. Center Tanner Volson, who made it to the last cut with the Los Angeles Chargers, played more than one position at NDSU.
“I think getting more knowledge on anything will help down the road,” Johnson said. “But as of right now, it comes down to rules and principles and how well I can do my job.”
He did his job well last week against the University of North Dakota. He graded out at 98 percent and was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Lineman of the Week.
Johnson was a consensus FCS All-American last season in helping the Bison to a 15-0 season and seventh national title in eight years. He started 30 straight games at right tackle heading into this season, but Blazek said the Bison coaches experimented with the lineup last spring in an effort to get the five best offensive linemen on the field.
The Bison graduated their three interior players from last year in left guard Colin Conner, center Tanner Volson and right guard Luke Bacon.
“Zack was a guy mentally one of the sharpest in the room and able to make the move,” Blazek said.
Being a perfectionist has been Johnson’s practice reputation throughout his career. Blazek said it’s not uncommon for Johnson to go through a particular play over and over until it feels right to him.
“It’s frustrating at practice sometimes with your footwork and your aiming-points type of deal,” Johnson said. “You figure it out. When it comes down to it, everything is faster.”
The Bison offensive line is hoping to figure Delaware out on Saturday afternoon. The noon (CST) kickoff at Delaware Stadium stands to be a good road test for NDSU, which is ranked No. 1 in both the FCS coaches and STATS.com media top 25 polls.
Most likely, Johnson isn’t the only offensive line pro prospect on NDSU’s roster. Junior left tackle Dillon Radunz has been getting some attention.
It didn’t take Blazek, who is in his first year at NDSU, long to figure out why. Every offensive line in the country works hard and touts being physical, he said, but the good ones take it further with strength and conditioning.
“The way they train, the way they condition,” he said. “They lift heavy, which a lot of places do, but they condition and there’s a pride in the way they play. I think there’s a thick skin built here because do you come in and play as a true freshman? No. If that’s what you’re about, you’re probably not going to fit into our culture anyways.”
Johnson redshirted in 2015 and played sparingly in eight games as a redshirt freshman the following year. It wasn’t until his third year in the program did he make a real difference.
“So the guys that come in with the understanding that 'I’m going to eat, I’m going to lift, I’m going to sleep, I’m going to develop and after their redshirt year, hey, it’s game on; let’s go see who can win a job,'” Blazek said. “And a lot of times they aren’t ready at that point.”
As for Johnson at right guard, he’s proven he’s ready.