Michigan offensive lineman Nolan Ulizio on how he became a starter. Angelique S. Chengelis
Ann Arbor — About a week before Michigan’s season opener, Nolan Ulizio, who had been rotating more and more with the first-team offensive line, got word he would be starting.
Ulizio, an under-the-radar high school recruit, is now a redshirt sophomore who has never doubted he could win the job.
“That was one of my biggest goals,” Ulizio said Monday, two days after his start in Michigan’s 33-17 victory over Florida. “I never gave up on myself. I knew it was going to happen, so I kept pushing.”
He was one of three new starters when the offensive line was unveiled, joining center Patrick Kugler and right guard Michael Onwenu. The line is not expected to change when the Wolverines face Cincinnati on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Ulizio was a lightly recruited tackle out of Lakota West, a school just outside of Cincinnati. Youngstown State was the first to show interest and then Connecticut, to which he had committed until Jim Harbaugh became Michigan’s coach and was recruiting in early 2015.
“One day my high school coach texted me and was like, ‘Michigan is going to call you,’” Ulizio said. “I answered the phone and it was coach Harbaugh and he was like, ‘Hey, we want you to come up to Michigan to take a visit.’ I came up here and pretty much couldn’t say no.”
Lakota West coach Larry Cox likes to ask his players a simple question: “Do you bark or do you bite?”
“Nolan doesn’t bark, but he bites,” Cox said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
While Division I coaches would drop by the school to see another Lakota West offensive lineman, George Asafo-Adjei, now a starter at Kentucky, Cox tried to convince them that Ulizio was worth a serious look, too.
“I always thought Nolan was right there,” Cox said. “Most people would look at me and say, ‘You can’t have two linemen that good.’ I’d tell them, you don’t understand, he’s really good. He’s really nasty on the field. He’s a nice kid, but he’s mean on the field. He led the team in unsportsmanlikes. You know he fights a little, doesn’t just bark.”
About those unsportsmanlike penalties, Ulizio held that title his junior season.
“He sort of got that reputation,” Cox said. “He just went to whistle. If he found somebody was standing around and the whistle hadn’t blown he’s going to hit him. He enjoys the contact of the game. Most of his penalties, I couldn’t be mad at someone playing to the whistle. He never did anything dirty. He just plays hard. This kid gets it. He’s going to be special.”
Ulizio said the way he plays the game is what appeals to coaches.
“One of the things I do well that the coaches really like, I play physical,” Ulizio said. “In high school, I played really physical and it showed on my tape.”
Cox has enjoyed watching Ulizio evolve from the “obstinate” sophomore he coached.
“He knows this, but he was a pain in the rear,” Cox said of that season. “He was sort of obstinate to work with. He was a big kid, but he was sort of a pain in the butt. It was always the little things. He was just skating being eligible. I even told my line coach after his sophomore year, ‘Ulizio is a pain in the ass. I’m really getting tired of dealing with his crap.’
“Junior year, he came around. George, his buddy, started getting early offers and George was a kid who did everything right. Nolan decided, ‘If I’m going to get what he’s getting, I’m going to have to knuckle under,’ and after his junior season I could see he was all in. You saw it coming. George and Nolan worked hard their junior season. Every day if they weren’t in the weight room, they were doing something else to get better. They had the intensity and desire to be great, and I think they’re both NFL caliber.”
An illness at the start of last season slowed him until midway through the year. The 6-foot-5 Ulizio dropped to 280 pounds. He’s back to 296 pounds and reshaped his body, trimming body fat while adding muscle.
He said while the playbook was intimidating, about 200 pages, which a whole lot different than high school. He now has a solid grasp of it now.
“It’s a huge difference,” Ulizio said. “It takes time to adjust to this.”
Cox hopes to get to Michigan Stadium to see Ulizio play at least once. He was so excited for his former standout when he got word he would be starting, that Cox wanted to tweet the news. Ulizio laughed and told him to refrain because he didn’t want to jinx the start.
“I’m proud of the kid from where he’s started to where he’s finishing,” Cox said. “You feel his pride when you talk to him. I feel how much he loves the University of Michigan and how much pride he is that he’s a starter. He understands what that means. He knows it’s a huge deal that he’s a starting offensive lineman at the University of Michigan.”