By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – Ask any offensive lineman about the difficulty of switching positions and you’ll elicit a groan, sigh, and eye roll. Not necessarily in that order. Moving from center to guard, or tackle to guard, and or sometimes moving to the other side means relearning muscle memory from scratch. It means taking everything you know and often starting over.
Now imagine switching from defense to offense, having to embody controlled aggression and balance instead of pure instinct. Having to realign how you think and shifting your entire football mentality ingrained in your mind for years.
That’s the challenge not-so-new Bears offensive tackle Rashaad Coward is facing this year. A daunting task to say the least.
Coward, 23, was a three-year featured nose tackle for Old Dominion from 2014 to 2016. Coming out, scouting reports touted the 6-6, 320 pounder as a strong point of attack defender with enough flexibility to move across a defensive line. That upside was enough for Coward to sign with the Bears as undrafted free agent in 2017 under the assumption he’d receive an opportunity to eventually crack a crowded defensive rotation.
A practice squad stint for the majority of his rookie season and lone minutes against the Bengals in an early December game later, and it was clear Coward wouldn’t stick for long on the Bears roster in that defensive capacity.
Enter Matt Nagy and a renown front line guru Harry Hiestand, who knows offensive line talent when he sees it. That made it a seamless call for Coward to forget everything he’s ever learned defensively. A memory erasure done to potentially become a foundational piece for the Bears on offense.
Coward is an offensive tackle now and he’s embraced the transition with open arms. That’s regardless of the early bumps in the road thus far in his initial offensive training camp. This is a Bears project to get wholly invested in.
“It’s been decent, the coaches have really been working with me,” Coward told me of the coaches’ teaching with his move in camp. “I’ve been making little mistakes, but they’ve been patient with me.”
Patience is important for a player such as Coward who has to morph his mindset. No longer is he the pin-your-ears-back reactive ball of immovable energy. On offense, he holds the longest straw. He dictates his matchup with pass rushers and defenders. And it’s rooted in focusing on building his technique quite literally from the ground up.
“I’m just learning how to pick up blitzes right now, and making sure I know everything protection-wise,” Coward said of his early schooling.
Coward would be remiss if he didn’t acknowledge the difference himself. You have to adjust how you feel and play completely moving from defense to offense. You have to play smarter too.
“It’s understanding the defense and different defenses that come out,” Coward said. “It’s knowing what I’m doing right away instead of hesitating and not coming off the ball.”
Defensive play is about instincts and attacking continually with reckless abandon. Offensive play is rhythm and working in harmony with 10 other men in sync. This contrast is no better exemplified than the constant tug and pull up front. Defensive linemen are head hunting, and offensive lineman work backwards to contain them while understanding the ultimate goal immediately.
This isn’t to say that defensive linemen are less refined, but more that they almost always operate on what the offense does first. That means hopeful anchors like Coward have to check every box not to give way an advantage accidentally.
“Defense is more reactive and coming off the ball quickly,” said a familiar Coward. “When I’m on offense, I gotta recognize the defense so I know who to block. So I’ve been studying more to account for that.”
Already having come a long way since organized team activities and minicamps in the spring, Coward is still firmly in the tackle adjustment period. It’s been reiterated to him that every minute detail of his technique counts. From purposeful pass protection steps to knowing how to line up.
Every piece of a routine. Every single day.
“At first, it was getting a comfortable stance, that was the first step,” Coward said. “Then, working on being balanced with the kick step. Now they’re telling me I need to work on my punch. My punch needs to be more consistent.”
For as slow as this developmental process has been, Coward appreciates his relative quick progress. He’s slowly starting to understand where he’s ascended and where he has yet more work to do: a crucial acknowledgement for him to triumph.
“My kick step has been good, it’s way better than when I first started. I’m more comfortable,” Coward said. “Harry (Hiestand) told me to trust the technique and that’s all I did during the game, rely on my technique while I’m on learning. Inside weave and punch.”
It could be jarring to hear that a professional needs to learn how to even line up in a balanced fashion before going against some of the most freakish athletes in the world. But it’s not as if there’s any rush with Coward. He’s almost certainly not going to start or feature much in 2018 barring an emergency as the Bears view him as more of a long term project.
That’s why those little snippets such as last week’s mentioned Hall of Fame Game against the Baltimore Ravens in Chicago’s preseason opener mean everything to the second-year transitional tackle. They’re where he’s going to get solid game action. Chances not lost on Coward because he’s already diagnosed what he did and didn’t do well.
The first directive was not to lose physically, something you don’t hear a 300-plus pound man ever say.
“Don’t get bull rushed, that was all I was worried about. Making sure I have the anchor,” said Coward. “After the game Harry (Hiestand) told to me work on my anchor after practice to slow the bull rush. And working on getting my eyes up to my target, a small target on the pass rusher.”
If Coward’s at the stage where he can clean up and see his small missteps on a dime, then he’s farther along in his tackle switch than originally believed. That’s thanks to the man he keeps calling “Harry”, meaning the aforementioned Hiestand: a coach Coward respects in spades.
“He’s a drill sergeant, so I know when he’s yelling at you, it’s because he wants you to be doing well and better because he wants you to succeed,” said Coward. “I take it in a positive way when he yells ‘Rashaad you know this, you could get this right’.”
It’s Hiestand’s hands-on but patient demeanor that most rubs Coward the right way. It’s that coaching stance that helped Coward relax in his first ever game at tackle and what will help him play even better moving forward.
“In the game he just told me to calm down and relax and play ball,” Coward said of what Hiestand told him to think in the game. “He always says back to basics every play. So he said, do a routine, get to the line, make sure you’re comfortable in your stance. Get your eyes on your target. Hear the protection. And get back.”
Simple enough. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.
If Hiestand succeeds into molding Coward into a fine tackle, it’ll merely be his latest project that paid off with incredible dividends. Especially for a Bears team that could seek a starter on the right side in the coming years with no other youthful talent in the pipeline.
Hiestand is known for coaching up young offensive linemen at the college and professional level, so anything he sees with Coward isn’t a shock. That’s a comforting thought for any young tackle attempting to make a name for themselves.
“He told me about a couple of guys that he coached at Notre Dame and how they’re really good students of the game,” Coward continued about Hiestand’s style. “He said he wants me to study more so I can understand and grasp concepts faster like they did and do.”
Those players at Notre Dame? Why none other than 2018 NFL Draft top 10 picks in the Colts’ Quenton Nelson and 49ers’ Mike McGlinchey. And, not to be outdone, Cowboys’All-Pro Zack Martin as well as a solid Ravens starter in Ronnie Stanley. A murderer’s row to choose from that Coward could very well emulate in due time if the natural athlete puts his mind to it.
Before there is any huge leap in the future though, the best advice Coward has received from any of his mentors in the Bears offensive line room so far is staying positive. Making this position switch isn’t easy, and it can be grating. Good and bad days will stack on top of each other.
One of the Bears’ offensive linemen who has been through a ton of adversity in recent years with injuries in Kyle Long, has continually insisted the young tackle just plug away at his craft.
“Kyle’s (Long) been keeping me positive,” Coward said appreciatively. “He’s been giving me a mindset that you can’t get it all in one day.”
For now, that’s what Coward can do. Instead of unrealistically switching to tackle and succeeding in one day, he has to refine his craft meticulously day by day. The glory will come eventually, so long as he keeps the end of the road in the back of his mind. Greatness, and an eventual starting slot, may await Coward if he doesn’t veer off track.
“Rome wasn’t built in one day. You have to stack it brick by brick.” R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.