For guard Rashaad Coward, his first career start against the New Orleans Saints brought things full-circle.
As a high school senior in Brooklyn, Coward played on both sides of the ball. Though relatively new to the sport, Coward's athleticism attracted interest from several schools in the northeast: Buffalo, Syracuse and UConn. Every FBS team that came calling had the same intention: to turn the 6-6, broad-shouldered Coward into a full offensive lineman.
The teenage Coward wasn't interested in blocking, preferring life on the defensive line. For that reason, he traveled south to Norfolk, Virginia, where then-FCS powerhouse Old Dominion would let Coward play his preferred position.
The move worked out for Coward. He became a four-year starter at defensive tackle and helped ODU transition to the FBS level. The Monarchs began scheduling more games against high-level opponents, and a matchup midway through his freshman year against the Aaron Donald-led Pitt Panthers became a clarifying moment for Coward.
"They tell you weight room matters," said Coward. "They were just double-teaming and deucing us. Getting us out there, I was like, 'Okay, the weight room means a lot if you want to play on the next level.'"
Coward now sits nearly 50 pounds heavier than he was as a freshman. His dedication to gaining size and speed landed him a spot on the Bears defensive line for one season. Eventually, the coaching staff came to the same conclusion nearly every high-major coach had reached five years earlier: Rashaad Coward belongs on offense.
"I guess I probably protect better than I play d-line," said Coward. "You know, I was a run-stopper, not a pass-rusher, so it was probably the best decision for me to move over, prolong my career."
At first, the Bears envisioned Coward as a swing tackle. As such, Coward tried to learn from Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie, hoping to absorb the best parts of their respective games.
"I really was focusing on tackle," said Coward, "so I was trying to play with good technique like Leno but good punches like Bob."
In the past weeks, injuries have forced Coward to switch positions again, this time shifting inside to guard to take over for the injured Kyle Long at right guard. When an injury to Ted Larsen forced Coward into action against the Minnesota Vikings, the coaching staff urged Coward to go hard and ask a teammate if he had any questions.
Coach Matt Nagy and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand both cited intensity and effort as defining characteristics that helped Coward overcome his lack of experience.
For his first start against the Saints, Coward earned promising reviews from offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and right tackle Massie.
"It was different," said Massie. "I played beside Kyle for four years, and I played beside Rashaad for four days. It's just a chemistry thing, just us getting some extra work. We'll be fine."
Helfrich highlighted "very correctable errors" on Coward's part that will be the focus in the coming weeks. Coward identified a few areas where he felt he needed to improve.
"I was in position most plays in pass pro," said Coward. "Little things in the run game, like pad level and looking at your target. Just little stuff like that to fix, but he said overall, I stepped up and did what I had to do."