Tanner Volson spends about five minutes scrolling on YouTube, looking for an 11-year-old home-made video of his younger brother that captures where he came from and what he was like before he became an NFL offensive lineman.
Search Cordell Volson’s name now, and you’ll see dozens of highlight videos that show why he’s the frontrunner to be the Bengals’ starting left guard. Volson has taken the first first-team reps of his rookie season in practice this week, which has filled a YouTube search with Cordell’s highlights and breakdowns of his game.
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“Suddenly he got popular,” Tanner said. “Now you get all of these other videos when you search his name.”
Volson, the Bengals’ fourth-round pick, is the player who has made the biggest name for himself in Bengals training camp. Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack describes him as a player “with a little you know what in the back of his neck.” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said Volson’s “anchor” and “grip” give him a good shot to be a starter in the NFL.
But when Tanner thinks of his younger brother, he sees the video of the 11-year-old Cordell trying to sheer a sheep on his family farm.
“The population of Balfour is 27,” Cordell Volson said. “I grew up three miles from there. We had a grocery store, a gas station and a few other businesses.”
Volson went to school in Drake, a nearby town, with about 15 kids in his grade. His parents operate an excavating company, which digs basements and works on water line sewers.
Drake High School had about 20 total players on the football team. Because of how small the school was, they played in a nine-man football conference with nine players on the field instead of 11.
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“You grow up going to football games and it was something I wanted to be a part of,” Volson said. “My cousin was an All-State quarterback. I was in second grade when he was a senior, that made me more passionate about football. I always knew I was going to be a lineman, but I had to play whatever position helped the team."
At Drake, Volson played offensive and defensive line, tight end, fullback, linebacker, punter and kicker. Tanner remembers a game where Volson used a pass rush move to shove an offensive lineman into the ground, and recognizing that his brother could be a better football player than he was.
“He has always liked to hit people, argue with people and all that type of stuff,” Tanner said. “The chip on his shoulder is what you need to play football. You always have to be able to knock people down. And he has always had that mindset to him.”
Tanner left to play college football at North Dakota State when Volson was an underclassman at Drake. When Tanner was in high school, Drake was always one game away from making the playoffs. Cordell helped the team take the next step as a two-time All-State selection.
“To me, growing up in a small blue collar town, I knew how to show up with a hard-hat, lunch pail mentality,” Volson said. “That was the way I was brought up. It’s something I continue to carry with me.”
Volson had recruiting interest from three colleges: North Dakota State, North Dakota and Wyoming. The reason Wyoming was interested was because North Dakota State’s old coaching staff had just taken over at Wyoming.
Volson saw North Dakota State, the best FCS college football program, as the closest thing to a professional football team in his home state. He committed, but he still had a long road in front of him.
When he arrived in 2016 for his redshirt freshman year, Volson had never played 11-man football. He weighed 245 pounds and was pretty close to the bottom of the depth chart. He set out to add two pounds per day, and Volson turned himself into a future All-American.
“Once my brother got his chance, being a competitor, I wanted to be better than he was, to be quite frank,” Volson said. “The advice he gave, you can’t just look that up. He was in my corner. He was there for me.”
“The one thing you have when you play nine-man football is that you have a mentality out there,” North Dakota State offensive line coach Dan Larson said. “Everybody looks down on the football aspect of them because it’s quote-unquote nine-man. It might not be the flashiest style of football. But the mentality aspect of it and the desire to win is as high as what you’d find at the largest high school in Minnesota.”
It helped Volson’s adjustment process that the coaches gave him a lot of snaps in practice to develop. They called it “double reps.” North Dakota State’s coaches split up the first-team and second-team units onto different fields so they’re both going at the same time.
Volson started to improve, and he went from an inexperienced nine-man football player into the Bison’s best offensive lineman. When Larson became North Dakota State’s offensive line coach in 2019, he credited Volson for helping teach him the nuances of the offense.
“His understanding of our offense and of defenses probably taught me as much as I was learning from the coaches that had been here,” Larson said. “I was learning from (Volson) on the field. His body looked like he had been doing it for a long time. But listening to him go through Xs and Os, you wouldn’t have anticipated that (2019) was his first full year starting.”
Volson ended up filling Tanner’s spot as a starter in 2019, and Volson became a standout right tackle. In his first full year as a starter, playing a brand new position at right tackle, Volson was named a second-team All-American at the FCS level.
In each of the next two seasons, Volson was a first team FCS All-American. He became an NFL Draft prospect, and the Bengals drafted him in the fourth round to help fix the interior of the offensive line.
“He’s tough, he’s physical, and he’s a finisher,” Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack said after the team drafted Volson. “He comes from a winning team (and) winning culture. You love his intangibles. He’s a worker – that’s how he was raised, (which is) what you’re looking for.”
In college, Volson only played about one half at left guard. It was an emergency situation where two offensive linemen got hurt versus Illinois State, and North Dakota State had to put in a freshman who had only repped at right guard.
Volson stepped up and said he could move to the left side, even though he hadn’t taken a single practice rep there. Two years later, that’s his new full-time position.
"He’s hungry, and he’s the right type of guy," Bengals right tackle La'el Collins said. "He’s made up of all the right stuff. He’s physical, and he’s tough. He shows all the great qualities. He wants to learn. He’s definitely one of the great rookies I’ve been around. I knew since Day 1."