CINCINNATI — In a massive, tool-filled North Dakota garage made for holding payloaders and semi-tractors, Cordell Volson watched April’s NFL draft on a projection screen, waiting to see if all his hard work had paid off.
Finally, the phone rang. With the 136th pick, the Cincinnati Bengals selected the 6-foot-6 tackle out of North Dakota State, making him the Bengals’ only draft pick on the offensive side of the ball. When his name was shown on the giant display, cheers from close friends and family seated around him filled the 12,500-square-foot storage facility.
Video of the reaction was shared on social media, which created a positive first impression with at least one of Volson’s future teammates on the offensive line.
“That’s a good look for an O-lineman to come in,” Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams said of seeing a post of Volson’s reaction. “I haven’t met him yet, but I have a good idea of the type of person he’s going to be.”
In Volson, the Bengals will get someone who was digging ditches for his father’s excavation business as a child, played varsity football in eighth grade, bided his time to become a starter at NDSU and now has an outside shot at becoming the final piece to Cincinnati’s reworked offensive line.
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“You love his intangibles,” Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack said the night after Volson was drafted. “He’s a worker – that’s how he was raised, (which is) what you’re looking for.”
Volson had plenty of opportunities to apply himself at a young age. His father, Ralph, started his own company in 1994 after working as a contractor for years. Cordell and his older brother Tanner tagged along and eventually began helping out, doing jobs that sometimes went from sundown to sunrise, Ralph said.
“You just tell them to go get in a skid steer (a small vehicle used for digging) and they can do it — and did a lot better than you think,” Ralph said of Cordell and Tanner, who went undrafted in 2019 and had brief stints with the Los Angeles Chargers and New York Giants.
Cordell got early experience playing varsity football for his high school when he made his debut for the 9-man football team in eight grade at Drake-Anamoose High School, located near Volson’s hometown of Balfour,North Dakota.
An eighth-grader playing for the high school varsity isn’t uncommon, former coach Chris Arnold said. And when it came to find a center, he looked down his bench and picked “the biggest one.”
“I said, ‘You’re in,’” Arnold said. “And he looked at me like, ‘Holy s— coach, I’m not ready.’ I said, ‘Get ready, we’re going.’”
When Volson arrived at North Dakota State in the summer of 2016, he needed to gain extra weight and redshirted. He set a goal to gain one or two pounds a week. NDSU strength coach Jim Kramer said Volson gained approximately 22 pounds by the end of the fall.
“The kid’s got an amazing self-discipline, an amazing drive, too, to succeed,” Kramer said. “He will work at something until it’s down automatic and a reaction.”
By the 2021 season, Volson was the starting left tackle on NDSU’s FCS championship team. The position flexibility the Bengals coveted when drafting Volson was on display in the playoff semifinal win over James Madison. An injury on the first drive of the game forced the Bison to shift Volson from tackle to guard.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better leader and a more composed football player in that moment, where all of a sudden you’re asking a fifth, sixth-year guy to say, ‘Hey, you gotta move down to guard for whatever’s best for the football team,’” head coach Matt Entz said. “And with Cordell, he never blinked.”
The Bengals plan to use Volson at guard, as well. He got his first taste of playing for the defending AFC champions during the team’s one-day rookie minicamp.
Volson joins a Cincinnati team that revamped one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines from a year ago. This offseason, the Bengals signed three free agents – center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa, and right tackle La’el Collins – to improve a unit that ranked 30th in pass block win rate last season and surrendered 19 sacks in a postseason run that ended in a Super Bowl loss.
That leaves the starting left guard position as the lone vacancy. Jackson Carman, last year’s second-round pick, is projected to be among Volson’s chief competitors for that spot. After ending the 2021 offseason workouts taking reps with the first team, Carman started training camp with the third-string unit and finished the year as a backup.
It appears the starting spot at left guard is open, which makes it one of the top position battles of the offseason. When the Bengals drafted him, Volson said he was ready to get to work.
During Tuesday’s practice session open to the media, Carman worked with the first-team offense while Volson was with the second-string unit. It will take a very strong camp for Volson to prove that he can be a Week 1 starter.
“I’m a physical player that prides myself on being the hardest worker in the room,” Volson said in a conference call with local reporters following his selection. “I’m just going to come in and work hard, and continue to play to and through the echo of the whistle.”
Kramer, the NDSU strength coach, said there should be zero concern about Volson putting in the work now that he’s in the NFL.
“You’re going to be more worried about him going around Cincinnati doing lawn care in the summer or doing landscaping work or something like that,” Kramer said. “That’s what you’re going to have to be concerned [about] with him – that the kid doesn’t overdo it, not that he’s going to get out of his routine.”