It was just three minutes into Sunday's matchup over the Cleveland Browns when rookie linebacker Nick Bolton found himself as the lone difference between a defensive stop and a big gain at midfield.
Browns' quarterback Baker Mayfield bailed from the pocket and scrambled up the middle before cutting to his right in pursuit of a first down and possibly much more, but that's when Bolton – a man described as a metaphorical brick wall in college – flashed why the Chiefs selected the Mizzou product with the No. 58 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Bolton collided with Mayfield and reversed his momentum immediately, ending the scramble after only a modest gain. It was a textbook example of what Bolton made look so easy in college, and while only one play, it reminded the 21-year-old linebacker that despite all the fanfare that surrounds the NFL, this is just football, after all.
"I had a tackle on Baker Mayfield early in the game that kind of loosened up my pads, and after that, it was just about playing fast and trusting myself," Bolton explained. "I felt like I started a little slow, but I got more comfortable [as the game went on]. Plays started coming to me as I was going through my keys that we discussed during the week."
Bolton was on the field for 45 defensive snaps on Sunday, which ranked second among Chiefs' linebackers behind only veteran Anthony Hitchens. He ended the game with seven total tackles – which matched the team-lead – and the Chiefs' top overall tackling grade based on the metrics compiled by Pro Football Focus.
It was the definition of a strong debut after months of preparation and careful study were finally put to the test in a regular-season game.
"It was a blessing to have the preseason, OTAs and training camp. It all helped the game slow down for me a little bit," Bolton said. "When I was out there, it wasn't necessarily the game speed that was tough, it was more so just the mental aspect of it – all of the intangible things that you have to do at the linebacker position. That was the biggest transition for me. I felt like I did a pretty good job of it, and I'm looking to build on it for next week."
Those intangible requirements included playing meaningful snaps on passing downs, which is something Bolton worked on throughout the Chiefs' offseason training program. In fact, injuries to Hitchens and veteran linebacker Ben Niemann during training camp thrust Bolton into a starting role for several days of practice earlier this summer, which translated into valuable experience with the first team that paid off on Sunday.
"They kept pushing me to advance my mental [understanding] of the game in training camp. I learned [multiple] positions, so when somebody is doing one thing, I know what I need to do," Bolton said. "I just tried to be open to learning throughout camp. I came in with the mindset that I wanted to improve mentally. I did that every day, and it helped me get to where I am right now."
His attitude and performance throughout the summer certainly instilled a level of confidence in the Chiefs' coaching staff, too, as Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo praised Bolton's poise throughout the preseason – perhaps one of the best compliments a coach can give to a rookie – during a media session last week.
"When he played in the three preseason games, it felt like the game wasn't too big for him," Spagnuolo said. "We're confident in what he does mentally."
That confidence became exceedingly important when the Chiefs placed second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. on Injured Reserve prior to Week 1, throttling Bolton into a significant role right out of the gate.
"As soon as [Gay] found out he was dinged up, he sent me an encouraging message saying to just trust myself and that I've been doing this for a long time," said Bolton, who described Gay as a big brother. "I'm just doing it for Willie. I know he's going to come back strong for us, and while I'm filling in for him, I want to execute."
It's safe to say Bolton made Gay proud on Sunday, as he was right in the middle of the Chiefs' stretch of defensive stands at the end that allowed the comeback to become a reality. Notably, Bolton – alongside defensive lineman Tershawn Wharton – tackled Browns' tailback Nick Chubb behind the line of scrimmage on Cleveland's penultimate possession in what felt like a clear assertion of momentum.
It was an impressive way to punctuate a strong debut, and now with a matchup against the run-centric Baltimore Ravens on deck, he'll have an opportunity to build on what he started.