Remembering Some Games with Chad Ryland
Ryland is NFL bound after four years with EMU and a graduate transfer season with Maryland. Two of Ryland's many kicks with EMU helped the program's decade-long turnaround.
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It’s taken a decade for things to really turn around, for the better, at Eastern Michigan. For EMU to be good at football, it was going to take more than just having a quality offense and tough defense. Special teams could not be a liability if EMU wanted to see success.
When Chad Ryland showed up for a campus visit, former special teams coordinator Jay Nunez packed the young kid from Pennsylvania and his family in his personal truck to get a tour of Ypsilanti. The personal touch made the Rylands more comfortable with the school, and made them believe what Nunez had to say about what to expect when their son goes to school at EMU.
This wasn’t going to be a cakewalk for anybody. Nunez was going to be tough. The special teams meetings are intense and passionate. Nunez was going to be incredibly demanding of his players so that Ryland could be the best kicker possible.
“He was hard on us because he loved us, and that he knew what we could become,” Ryland told The Ypsilanti Eleven in a recent interview.
Of the three main specialists during their time together: punter Jake Julien is a free agent in the NFL circuit, long snapper Steve Bird is finishing up his final season at EMU, and Ryland, who spent the 2022 season as a graduate transfer at Maryland, expects to make an NFL team through the draft at the end of this month.
According to various draft guides, Ryland is the #1 kicker in this year’s class according to CBS and ESPN’s Mel Kiper, and the #2 kicker according to ESPN and The Athletic’s Dane Brugler.
“Honestly, I’m fired up. Because I know I’m going to end up somewhere, it’s just a matter of where?” Ryland said. “No matter what, I’ll have to go into a camp somewhere and make kicks, and make kicks as a rookie. That’s sort of inevitable… It’s the NFL, they’ll cut you quicker than they signed you.”
Ryland’s college career got off to an exciting start with a pair of game-winning kicks at Purdue and Illinois over his first two seasons, then finished his four-year EMU career with 309 career points and 141 extra points made — both are school records. In 2021, Ryland recorded single-season records with 104 points scored and 47 PAT kicks made. Against Ohio in 2021, Ryland made a 55-yard field goal to tie the school record, then broke the school record for most field goals made in a single game with a 5-for-5 effort vs. Western Michigan.
After his four years at EMU, Ryland considered his options of going professional or maybe transferring to Oklahoma where Nunez took up a new coaching job. The Sooner program didn’t have scholarship money to offer Ryland, and the kicker ultimately decided to give Maryland a shot. It was an opportunity for him to play in the Big Ten and make some kicks in bigger games.
Still, through the recruiting process, he’s been telling agents and scouts that even though Maryland might’ve been able to give him more confidence in his game, he’s still “Eastern Michigan made.”
Leading up to the draft, Ryland sat down for an interview with The Ypsilanti Eleven to talk about some of the highlights (and lowlights) of his EMU career, and how he likes to reflect on those moments. Below is the portion of our interview where we focused on those games, and Ryland’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.
It’s the second game of your college career and you hit the game-winner at Purdue. What comes to mind when you think of the Purdue game?
That really set the tone for my college career and gave me a chance. That was the kick that won over the guys,
I would say. If you look at the back-half of my freshman year, I struggled. I was just a 60% kicker as a true freshman, and I think a lot of that was for a lack of ability in terms of me not being developed yet. That was just my third year ever of kicking footballs because I started my junior year of high school. But I think it helped too because I felt the success of that Purdue kick, but then the rest of the year I felt what it’s like to fail. I had the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows that year, which is most 18-year-old freshmen trying to play college football.
But that Purdue kick was awesome, that’ll live with me forever. I was just super happy to be a part of it and those guys around me too. I mean, it was a 24-yard field goal, they made it about as easy as possible for me to come out and drill that.
How would life have been different if you didn’t make that field goal?
It just taught me that just because you start hot, the job’s not finished until the season’s over. But that’s probably the most I’ve learned in a season.
Another big-game winner against a Big Ten team. What comes to your mind when you think of the Illinois game?
It’s funny because I hit the second 50-yarder of my career in that game, but I also missed the first extra point of my career in that game. A lot of people for get that part, it’s funny.
It was just a 24-yard field goal at the end of the day, but I was just not striking the ball all that well leading up to it. Sort of, my mental cue was to stay square, finish with my hips square.
It’s one of those things where you learn to micromanage the moment and know what it takes to be successful. Because training is all about refining. Game day is all about the results. And for me on that kick, it was all about results.
Central Connecticut, 2019
It wasn't the prettiest game, but right after the Illinois win you guys came home to play Central Connecticut. The vibes of this game just felt off and it finished as a close win. What do you remember about this one?
That was actually our first game in the new building. It was delayed, the power went out, I think it rained too? But it was a delayed start because of the power going out and stuff.
But that 36-yarder that I missed that game, left hash, I cut it thin; hit it right.
But Mat Sexton in that game, I said on the sideline that punt was going to get blocked when they motioned their guy over. That game right there was 100% special teams by coach Nunez and how he taught the guys, and just the guys’ effort level. You look at Mat Sexton and he cared a lot about special teams. Like he returned kicks for the Steelers when he was with them. He’s just a hard-nosed guy.
I think it was T-Mac, Timarcus Simpson, who was inside of Sexton that pulled that other tackle down so Sexton could have a good angle to run the hoop and block it. That’s as textbook as textbook comes for what we practice. People say “Oh, last-minute punt block. Lucky!” There was nothing lucky about that. It was schemed up perfectly, and that’s why you practice special teams and care about it as much as you do. Because it saves you.
Quick Lane Bowl, 2019
Not your first bowl game, but it was still a huge moment for the program. What comes to mind when you think about the Quick Lane Bowl vs. Pitt?
We knew people would come out to support us from Eastern, but deep down I don’t think guys knew who would all come out. But that was better than any home game I played in Ypsilanti. To see that bottom bowl filled up with 75-80% Eastern Michigan fans and have a real home-field advantage was single-handedly, even though we lost, probably the most fun that I ever had in a, I want to call it a home game even though it wasn’t a home game.
But that was so enjoyable to go out and play in front of people that were there to see us and hoping we could pull it out. There was a genuine belief that we were going to beat them. All week you could feel it. Because we beat them in everything, and that was our goal. We beat them in the food bank when we were packing potatoes, we beat them in fowling, like we went into the week wanting to win everything and the game.
We were coming off of a bowl game last year where Tyler Bass (Georgia Southern) hit the game-winning field goal in the last second of the Camellia Bowl. They scrambled on 4th & 17 for a first down to get into field goal range and it’s like “Holy cow, they’re going to have a chance for a field goal,” and they did. Props to Tyler Bass because that was big-time kick, but I’ve never been as emotional after a game as I was after that one. Because those seniors who brought me in really meant something to me. I don’t know, I had the ‘little brother’ complex that year with all the older guys that year: Kyle Rachwal, Tyler Wiegers, Jimmy Leatiota. I had a personal connection with those guys deeper than I thought I ever would, which is why that was such a hard loss.
But the Quick Lane Bowl was incredible. Whenever I get to play in front of more people, those are the games I like to turn it on a little bit more. Everything felt right until the end.
Western Michigan, 2020
In 2020 and 2021 you had really good games against Western to beat them home and away, and the team is still riding a win streak vs. Western even after you left for Maryland. What comes to mind playing Western?
Going into the Covid-year game, that was a chippy game on TV. Nobody was in the stands, all those Western guys kind of had a chip on their shoulder in pregame. A bunch of their guys were talking crap to our guys during pregame. Once we got back into the locker room, we were ready to run back on the field. Our guys were fired up and pissed off, because that was away. I also felt like I was in the best technical spot of my career, to date. Because I was coming out of Covid, I spent a lot of time at home with my dad just sort of refining because I didn’t have mandatory workouts. All I had to do was go kick. I feel like that really helped me develop, then just having a little bit of external motivation from what the Western Michigan team provided in pregame was enough.
We were 0-4 coming into that game too. That was probably one of the best pregame speeches Creighton gave before that game too. He had three things with him: a towel, a glass bottle, and a bouncy ball.
He said, “How are you going to face adversity? Are you just going to absorb it like a towel?”
He throws the towel on the ground and it just plops there.
“Are you going to shatter?”
He takes this beer glass with a Western logo on it, and he spikes and glass shattered everywhere, and everyone’s like “Whoa!”
Then he says, “Or, are we going to bounce back?!”
And he takes the bouncy ball, slams it on the ground, and it goes floor-ceiling-floor-ceiling-floor-ceiling, and everyone’s like “We’re gonna bounce back!”
It was comical, but at the same time, guys were like ‘Oh shoot, we’ve got to bounce back here. What are we going to make of this year?’ Credit to the guys, and credit to Creighton for getting them right mentally and everything that came along with that.
The Potato Bowl, 2022
Obviously, you’re at Maryland for this, but what was your reaction to EMU’s Potato Bowl win?
So we had practice, but I was in the cold tub watching until the end of the game. I was probably in the cold tub for 20 minutes, which isn’t really great for your body. We had TVs at Maryland in the train room around the cold tub, and I told them to put the game on. Shoot, I want to watch them win. I checked the score after practice and saw that they had a chance to win here. I wanted to keep doing my recovery but I watched them. I texted them right away, I’m still in a couple group chats with the guys. They’re all fired up over there. I think they’re getting their rings soon too. I’m pumped for those guys, they deserve it, coach Creighton deserves it, everybody in that facility deserves it from top to bottom. Everyone there, they’re awesome people.
Maybe not have “FOMO”, but did get a little bummed that you couldn’t have been there for that moment?
In a way, kind of. But that’s their moment. I did nothing to impact the season that year. I think I impacted the guys from the specialist room and allowed them to, along with Jake (Julien) and coach Nunez, specialists balled out all year. Jesus (Gomez) had a 50-yarder in the bowl game. And I couldn’t be more happy for him and those guys.
I didn’t have the “FOMO” feeling. I was just so happy for them. It was genuine happiness that they finally won a bowl game. I knew the pain that it was to lose three there – Camellia, Quick Lane, and the LendingTree Bowls.