A few vignettes along the Bengals offensive line heading into Sunday's preseason game (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Giants in New York. They all revolve around rookie left guard Cordell Volson, the small-town kid getting his first NFL start in the city that never sleeps:
Volson, the fourth-rounder from North Dakota State, can be found these days before practice wearing a ball cap from RV Enterprises, Balfour, N.D. That's his family's heavy equipment shop in his hometown, population about the same as the 22 starters on Sunday's flip card.
The business-like Volson's task against the Giants is to play well enough with incumbent Jackson Carman sidelined with COVID to move up a notch or two in the left guard competition. Although he doesn't see it like that.
"I'm just trying to get better and learn and be the best Cordell Volson I can be," he says, talking about what he learned last week against Arizona. "There are so many things you learn in a game. There are different ways to skin a cat."
Just another opportunity, he says. One he never really thought about, until he saw his older brother Tanner get a shot with the Chargers in the 2019 preseason.
"(The NFL) was not something I thought was in my future. Being from a really small rural area, that didn't really happen," Volson says. "I guess I started thinking about it when my brother got the opportunity in my junior year since I was always competing with him. The guys I always followed were the NDSU guys. It's a great honor to get this opportunity, now it's going about the business."
Tanner Volson, one of those NDSU greats, answers the phone while he's in the process of lifting railroad track panels and throwing around three-quarter inch chains and politely asks if he can call you back.
Twenty minutes later he does and recalls that preseason with the Chargers he didn't play in the first game, played 35 snaps in the finale and a total of 31 in the middle two games at guard and center before the Chargers released him. He's working in the shop, but he says if gets a call from an NFL team he'll go.
"The toughest adjustment was not practicing all the time," Tanner Volson says. "They had older linemen they were trying to get spots and I was getting 10 reps a practice. Coming from NDSU that will drive a guy insane."
The brotherly advice comes with experience: "Don't worry about the opponent, worry about you. It's just another football game. Keep doing the same stuff you've been doing for a long time. Don't change up. Don't over think it."
It's been hectic. The Volsons welcomed twin girls in March and it's been so busy at the shop he knew the Bengals were playing this weekend but he didn't know which day. The town pretty much shuts down for Drake Days this weekend, an end-of-summer celebration, but he plans to watch like he watched the second half last week.
"His strengths are that he's pretty strong," Tanner Volson says. "His length is a benefit. His willingness to compete and work."
Nathan Gilliam, a center who dabbled at guard during two stints on the Steelers practice squad, just showed up at Paycor Stadium Friday, got handed an iPad and went out to practice a few days after getting laid off in Pittsburgh.
"I didn't think I was going to be playing Sunday. Now I am. I'm happy about that," says Gilliam, after practice standing in front of his locker and wondering how he'll get his car.
He'll probably be playing quite a bit. As Volson bids for the lineup in the first half, they need bodies to finish the second half. With Carman out, rookie guard Ben Brown (shoulder) out for the year and tackle Isaiah Prince (bicep) week-to-week, there are plenty of snaps out there.
And since Gilliam is in his third year in the league, they expect it to be competent even though he just got here.
"It's the same scheme, same plays. Just different terminology," Gilliam says.
He's been around since coming out of Wake Forest undrafted in 2020. The Chargers kept him on their practice squad for a year and a half. When COVID hit the playoff-bound Steelers last December, he hooked on. Now he's trying to do the same. If not here.
"Right," Gilliam says. "I'm just here to do what they need me to do and get on tape."
Gilliam has his car and some of his things in Pittsburgh because he flew to get in here as quickly as possible. So he's got some of his stuff in Cincinnati, too, not to mention at his home in Knoxville, Tenn. That's where he thought he was going this weekend. Now it's New York.
His whirlwind Friday kept going after practice when he went upstairs to meet with offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
"You can tell Frank's all about demeanor," Gilliam says. "He asked me, 'Happy to be here?' I said, "Absolutely.' He said, 'I'm just checking you.'"
Pollack, a sixth-round pick of the 49ers in 1990, is now not only getting a fourth-round pick ready to start, but getting a just-added guy to play. No bluster in or after meeting with Gilliam.
"Buckle up and let's go. It's just football," Pollack says. "Meeting with him a ton before the game. He's smart."
Pollack has seen it all since that 49ers first training camp when head coach George Seifert challenged him at the end of a long drive in 105-degree heat. The defending Super Bowl champions had a guard and tackle holding out and the kid from Northern Arizona was getting a ton of snaps.
What he's looking for from Volson on Sunday is consistency. Consistency with his technique. Consistency with his adjustments once the play gets going. He's got pretty much everything else.
"He's having a great camp. He's grinding. He's not backing down from any challenge," Pollack says. "He's leaving his mark out there every day, letting people know he's there. He's representing well. He's got the strength, he's got the demeanor, the grit, the mental toughness. That's Line One. Now it's just sharpening his sword, fine-tuning his craft."
Pollack is talking about getting faster with his foot work and knowing where to put his hands instantly rather than hesitating.
"He's got the intangibles," Pollack says.
Ted Karras, one of the free-agent gems the Bengals added on the offensive line, is a third generation player as he heads into the seventh season of a career that has two Super Bowl rings. He's gunning for his family's third Sports illustrated cover in an action shot with Joe Burrow.
His great uncle Alex Karras, the truly great Lions defensive lineman, made two covers. Now Ted Karras is seen as one of the veteran counselors for a young, burgeoning offense. He's taken Volson out to eat a few times (The Holy Grail on The Banks picked up the check in the spring) and just had him over to his house Thursday night on Cincinnati's eastern fringe to watch a little ball.
Totally informal. He's done it with Volson and some other guys during training camp. With his wife joining him once the season starts, Karras hasn't minded the occasional company during camp.
"It's good to get out of the hotel into a residence. No big deal. Just air play the screen and mirror what's on the iPad," Karras says. "I'm not the only guy helping him. Frank's teaching him so much. Jonah Williams has been a great mentor. (Alex) Cappa's helping him out."
Karras has been able to develop a scouting report on Volson because, "I'd say we're good friends now."
"Obviously he's a humungous presence. Big kid. Made of all the right stuff," Karras says. "Just how he handles himself. He wants to be a pro. He's eager to learn. To do things the right way."
Even though Karras and the rest of the starters aren't playing, this is why head coach Zac Taylor has them making the trip.
"I'm excited to see how he does Sunday," Karras says. "I'll be there to help him."