COLUMBUS, Ohio — Basketball wasn’t for Michael Jordan, but maybe that’s for the best.
The Ohio State left guard is the first true freshman to start on the Buckeyes offensive line since Orlando Pace in 1994 and he already has coaches raving about his potential. Through five games, he’s looked just as capable as his more experienced peers on one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
He got the job because he looked and played like he belonged from the moment he set foot on campus as an early enrollee in January, but it goes much deeper than that. Although he had a standout prep football career and ended his recruitment as a 4-star prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings, he credits the three seasons he spent on the wrestling mat with developing his work ethic and improving his technique.
As a high school freshman, he didn’t even have a natural inclination towards wrestling. He was looking for a winter sport to fill the void when football season ended, and his coordination hadn’t quite caught up to his 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame. Instead of following in the footsteps of the superstar with whom he shares a name, Jordan found himself on the wrestling team.
Opponents who got him that first year in the 189-pound weight class should count their blessings. Rail-thin and still learning the sport, Jordan got abused at a weight that is populated by upperclassmen who are strong but also not too big to worry about losing their quickness or athleticism. Quinn Guernsey, who coached Plymouth, said Jordan’s first-year record was 4-23, with a couple of those wins coming via forfeit.
“I got my butt kicked every time,” Jordan said.
Guernsey didn’t see much of Jordan after the school year ended and couldn’t believe his eyes when he returned to school as a sophomore. He’d added at least 50 pounds after spending the summer in the weight room and looked like a completely different person. He was more comfortable in his body, and he was also able to compete in the heavyweight division (spanning 216-285 pounds) where nobody could match his athleticism.
He went 38-16 as a sophomore and 33-10 as a junior, completely turning around his performances from his overmatched freshman campaign. Even though it was becoming clear that his future was in football, he worked tirelessly to get better.
“He wanted to be good and he worked hard to be good,” Guernsey said. “The struggles he had as a freshman kind of made him realize that it’s not all natural ability and athleticism. He definitely struggled, and a lot of kids who have his athleticism don’t struggle a lot.”
Michael Jordan junior wrestling highlights (courtesy of Quinn Guernsey)
Meanwhile, he was developing into one of the nation’s best prospects on the gridiron. As three-time Ohio state wrestling champion and OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell can attest, the wrestling mat is one of the best ways for football players to improve or refine their technique in the offseason.
For Jordan, the grappling paid off in big ways.
“The two biggest changes were his leverage and footwork,” Guernsey said. “His freshman year, he couldn’t be the pulling guard. His blocking assignments were basically to block the guy in front of him. If you made him get out and move around a little bit, he’d trip over his own feet. If he was bigger or stronger than his opponent he’d push him, but against guys that were as strong as him he wasn’t always that good at leverage and understanding the concept of getting low.”
On Saturday, Jordan will face No. 8 Wisconsin on the road in the sixth start of his young career. It could very well be the most hostile environment and stiffest test to date, but the Ohio State coaches don’t worry about him. Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa called his progress “unbelievable” and said he’s been pleased with how quickly Jordan has acclimated.
For the freshman, it’s a pretty easy explanation.
“The reason I play the way I play is because of wrestling,” he said.