For Ryan Nall, the NFL is just another challenge he’s long been prepared for
By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – Wherever he’s gone, Ryan Nall has always been the biggest, strongest, and fastest guy on the field, in the room, you name it. From Central Catholic High School in Portland, Oregon to Oregon State, Nall is used to consistently shining a cut above his peers. None of his success has been gifted to him either, aside from abilities he’s endowed with that’s he’s maximized. He’s a player that’s driven to thrive and succeed.
What this boils down to is that there isn’t a task or athletic objective Nall hasn’t succeeded in once he’s put his mind to it. With Nall, it’s always been ask and you shall receive in tremendous spades. The 22-year-old simply does not fail, especially once there’s any investment.
That goes double for Nall’s mental processing as a three-time Pac-12 All-Academic selection during his tenure with Oregon State. A genius in and away from football, through and through. Nall is the best example of every naturally talented human being putting their gifts to good use with an added boost of hard work, due diligence, and common sense.
The NFL, though, and a camp shot with the Bears as an undrafted free agent this year is a completely different animal.
Growing up, how much different Nall was from his friends and classmates was abundantly made clear early on. How he was destined to accomplish the remarkable in a game like football that churns out stories with less than happy endings all the time. That’s in no small part thanks to his family and the people that crafted a hardened mindset.
Nall’s parents, Fred and Teri, instilled the necessary discipline and dedication it took to stand out. They were the catalysts to molding the hunger Nall displays on a regular basis. The people that gave Nall a pride he effusively injects into every inch of his work. His brother, Jacob, was a similarly talented player at Portland State. Football runs in the Nall family bloodline, that’s for sure. It’s a tradition and a way for Nall to express his gratitude at how far he’s come in his career.
This pieced together a childhood spent in the tiny Portland suburb of Sandy, Oregon that was marked by the young Nall becoming one of the greatest football players in Oregon prep history. As a senior in 2013, Nall was named the Oregon Sports Awards Prep Football Player of the Year after making history by leading his school to their first title in 60 years.
At the highest levels, football players don’t really play on both sides of the ball anymore. There are too many complexities and responsibilities to take into account that most coaches reasonably deem to be overwhelming. In high school, Nall was an all-worldly linebacker and running back by necessity and by the fact that he was the best player any time he stepped on to a field.
It’s not easy to blaze trails, nor do you realize that you’re actually a pioneer in the moment. But once you do, it’s difficult not to notice your impact.
Somehow, someway Nall managed anyway. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When life gives you the lemonade first, as it did with Nall, you ration and drink it in small, appropriate portions so as not to be wasteful.
The foundation built in a childhood emblazoned with football and people invested into Nall prospering is the reason he’s received his opportunity with the Bears. It didn’t come as envisioned – the 2018 undrafted free agent is firmly on Chicago’s roster bubble – but it’s still a shot he appreciates.
A chance the running back and fullback is determined not to let go by the wayside however long it lasts as he settles into a fresh environment. Find your way into the league, grab hold, and take everything positively in stride.
“I like it, the fans are great, the atmosphere is great,” a loose Nall told me about his impressions of Chicago. “I’m having a great time.”
If there was any stress or reservations about Nall’s bubble situation, you can’t sense it peering through. He doesn’t see a need to adjust as he’s been through these obstacles before. He’s taken himself through the ringer time and again. Making a monumental leap to the NFL’s stage is nothing when you’re prepared for the gauntlet and have gone through comparable struggles.
“It’s pretty similar honestly,” Nall said of his transition to the Bears and professional game. “At Oregon State we went over to this place called Benton and the camp is out there. It was the same routine of wake up and either go to practice or meetings, and then come back and you have meetings again. Then you have a walkthrough, what have you. I think the staff at Oregon State did a great job of preparing me for these long, heavy days and moving forward this is what I expected going into it.”
Nall can say this because he didn’t psyche himself out before joining the Bears. He understood the coming challenge and has channeled his past experiences into a talented player making a name for himself.
“When you get to the next level, there’s going to be better competition,” Nall said. “I mentally prepared myself knowing this going into it. I made sure I wasn’t going to be starstruck and say ‘oh my god, I’m in the NFL’. I’m going to come out here and show that I belong.”
The reason many NFL rookies fail, particularly those of the fringe roster variety that are fighting an inherent uphill battle from the get-go, is that they suffer from sensory overload. Most guys that make it to the league have the talent to shine and make plays. The rub is that they they can’t process an intricate and nuanced playbook fast enough. On top of understanding your on-field responsibilities properly without a hitch, they then have to get used to the punishing rigors the league demands.
Sandwich these mental and physical concepts together and you have the recipe for an emotional draining no well-functioning person can reasonably withstand. You have the mix of a player failing to contribute in any meaningful fashion and eventually summarily being released once they’ve shown no value to the organization that’s taken a flier on their mold.
If you’re not prepared for the heavy undertaking, pro football grinds you up and spits you back out before you can blink twice.
Luckily for Nall, nothing of how the Bears have tried to break him down so far this preseason has taken it’s toll on him because the 6-foot-2, 237 pounder has been through the two-a-days and live tackling already. The best display of Deja Vu possible. Nall’s not daunted by the increased speed and size he’s had to face from defenders as they all have their own limitations just like him.
Once you understand that concept, guys like Nall can rise above and transcend anywhere.
What’s gone most in Nall’s favor is that Matt Nagy’s fresh Bears offense is akin to what he ran with the Beavers at Oregon State. The objectives the Bears ask of players in their backfield like Nall in this hybrid spread concept attack is everything the bruiser’s previously seen as an amateur.
So, naturally, the mental processing has long been churning without any pitfalls. This is a rookie ahead of the curve.
“It’s very similar in that we’re often spread and in the gun,” Nall said. “But we also have some downhill runs and blocking concepts. I’ve often been able to say so far ‘this play reminds me of this play’ and that’s helped me see this playbook as not so complicated.”
You wouldn’t expect any less from an All-Academic extraordinaire such as Nall in quickly grasping what the Bears are asking of him. The playbook was never going to be the main issue. It’s more as Nall says, checking off every box with every teammate every single snap. That progression can be jarring at first.
“As an offense, you have to know everyone’s position,” Nall said of what strikes him cognitively. “You have to know what the line is doing, what the quarterback is supposed to do. The running back, receivers, tight ends, you have to know what everyone is doing.”
“That’s the biggest difference from college to the NFL. You can get away with just knowing your position in college and you don’t have to worry about anything else. At this level, you have to know everybody because it not only helps them, but you too. You’re able to identify what the formation is, what you have to do on your route, because you understand everyone else’s responsibilities.”
As has constantly been the case, Nall doesn’t remotely exude a vibe that this jump in mental proficiency bothers him. He entered the NFL by setting proper goals and expectations. He saw the trials on the horizon. The fact that’s he come to grips with these obstacles so soon is already an excellent foreboding sign of his potential impact with the Bears.
It’s here where Nall can especially rely on Bears veterans to help himself ingratiate into Chicago’s firmly established team culture. Find a mentor or a few friends and you’re well on your way towards morphing into one of the “guys”. Into being battle-tested and creating a resolve it takes to flourish with high stakes.
Nall has no issue finding shoulders to lean on, from that respect.
“Benny Cunningham, Jordan (Howard), Tarik (Cohen), all of them,” Nall said of the help he’s found. “If I have a question, I’m not afraid to go up to them and ask them because I know they’ll try to help me and give me the right information.”
“And that’s with any of them, it’s not limited to the running back vets. Trey Burton with special teams deals with me on technique there too, because he’s been there. He knows what’s going to happen. I’m able to go to anybody on this team because everyone wants you to ask and learn.”
These Bears, who are still learning a lot about each other, have a strong open-door policy. Nall would be remiss if he didn’t take advantage of the ample support they provide.
Talk is cheap, and so is less than high intensity action in much of training camp.
If Nall is going to make the Bears’ final 53-man roster come the end of August, he knows he’ll have to make his mark through the rest of the preseason. A fierce march that sometimes will feel like it’s never-ending. A substantial workload of practice carries for a position in fullback the Bears aren’t even sure if they’ll retain pales in comparison to showing versatility in game environments.
Until or if he starts to shine consistently, Nall can only take his growth day-by-day with whatever opportunities that come across his lap. There are situations out of your control sometimes, which is when you have to latch on to the pieces you can rein in with the entirety of your strength.
“I like to think I’m doing well. The confidence in me is coming out and I’m trying to show that I’m one of the best out here,” said Nall of his early camp rise. “I’m hoping that the coaching staff and fans see that as well. I’m going to try to put my best foot forward every day, try not to be too flashy, stay within my skill set, and finish.”
No has ever looked back on giving their best effort and had painful regret if they failed. With a Bears up-and-comer like Nall, you indeed do miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.
“I’m just going to try my best, and hopefully my best is good enough.” – R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.