Entering his third season in Chicago, defensive tackle Bilal Nichols sees big things on the horizon.
After spending the majority of his first two seasons playing defensive end, Nichols has emerged as a plausible solution to fill in at nose tackle to replace Eddie Goldman. Having played alongside Goldman the past two years, Nichols sees big shoes to fill.
"You know, Eddie G, he's a heck of a player," said Nichols." He's a straight-out monster. He's a guy I look up to."
Still, Goldman's decision to opt-out of the upcoming season has created the opportunity for Nichols to establish himself as an interior defensive lineman, a position he has played at times throughout his career.
"(Goldman's) gonna be missed," said Nichols, "but I'm ready to step up. I've trained hard. I'm ready for this opportunity. I'm ready to just showcase what I can do, and you know, just put my best foot forward."
Nichols cited fellow defensive tackle Akiem Hicks as one of his role models on the team. Hicks expressed optimism that Nichols would be able to adjust.
"Bilal Nichols is gonna step in and play the best football that he can," said Hicks. "He showed promise through his first couple of years. So we look forward to him taking the next progression, the next step forward, and getting another position down."
The pairing of Nichols and Hicks up front made noise in the Bears' first padded practice of training camp, blowing up several running plays behind the line of scrimmage. Nichols expressed excitement to play alongside Hicks again, as injuries limited both players last season. Nichols and Hicks only played two complete games together in 2019, both against the Green Bay Packers.
"We weren't really able to really be out there as much as we wanted with each other," said Nichols, "just for the fact that we both dealt with our issues. But now that we're back and we're strong and being back together, it just felt great."
Nichols suffered a hand injury in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos last season. Although he only missed three games due to the injury, Nichols felt his performance was hampered by its lingering effects throughout the rest of the season.
"As a d-lineman, you know, everything you do revolves around your hands," said Nichols. "For most of the year, I had a cast on. Even after I got the cast off, it still wasn't right. Just having to build the strength back, deal with a lot of the things that come with that."
Nichols said his injury is behind him, but the experience of playing through discomfort has left a lasting effect.
"I'm super excited coming back into season three fully healthy," said Nichols. "Hand isn't an issue. So I'm excited, but it's definitely something that--it helped me mature, on and off the field from a mental standpoint."
Nichols said that the Bears defense is starting in a better position than he expected coming into training camp, praising his teammates' focus and intensity.
"Guys really locked in," he said, "paid attention to detail and the little things guys have been honed in on ever since we came here, so it's good to see that, guys taking everything serious, and everyone's just super locked in."