When the Indianapolis Colts turned in the card for their final selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, there wasn't much applause to be heard in Cleveland.
The Colts weren't the home venue and even their fans weren't going to lose their mind over a seventh-round offensive lineman. However — in a few households around the country — seeing the name "Will Fries" appear on that screen meant the culmination of a lifelong dream.
This isn't an underdog story, as even I couldn't paint a former three-star recruit who started 42 games at Penn State as a true underdog. Rather, this is the story of a player whose work ethic and willingness to learn set him up to be selected in the NFL draft.
Despite having the size and athleticism to play at a Division I program, Fries wasn't being recruited by any college team as a sophomore in high school. That all changed though when a regional scout linked him up with Peter Kafaf.
Kafaf is a trainer who works with high school and college players through the Lab Football Academy. He has had many quality players work with him over the years, including Green Bay Packers linebacker Rashan Gary and Colts guard Quenton Nelson.
Even with all these players that he has worked with, Fries holds a special place in Kafaf's heart.
"Will became like a second son to me," Kafaf said. "There’s just a handful of players who hold a special place with me and Will is one of them.”
Now, Kafaf isn't a typical trainer. He specializes in infusing martial arts with football techniques. The fundamentals of martial arts and football are quite similar, and Kafaf works with offensive and defensive linemen to perfect their hands and balance through martial arts techniques.
Fries, like most of his pupils, had very little technique back when he began with Kafaf.
He had no technique (laughing). I think he was a sophomore when I first met him. He didn’t know how to get into his stance or anything, which is good! You don’t want to unteach bad habits, you want to teach good ones. We worked from the feet up. Starting with a good stance and then you gotta come out of your stance. Then from the waist up, we really turned him into a monster.
Ninety-nine high schools out of one hundred were teaching two-hand punch back then. A big thing that I worked on with Will — and this is a martial arts technique — is that it is better to be a counter-attacker than an attacker. High school kids are almost always going to bull rush you, so we worked with Will on breaking and blocking the hands rather than trying to strike first. Will learned this and was fascinated by this.
Kafaf was able to work with Fries from this point though, as Fries was an avid learner. He was always willing to improve each and every session. Kafaf had a golden rule when working with players that Fries never broke:
The rule of working with me is that if I teach you something and you come back next week and you haven’t gotten better at it, you get a warning. If it goes two weeks and you haven’t gotten better, you are out. If you aren’t going to teach yourself, I can’t help you. Will always came back improved. Every week was better than the last week.
The best way to exemplify this improvement came in the form of Gary. See, Gary was a highly recruited, future first-round pick working with Kafaf around the same time Fries was there. So, each and every training session ended with the unrefined high school junior facing off against a top-tier athlete in the country. The results were as you would expect, but this story has a redemption arc as Kafaf explained to me:
At the end of our sessions, we would get into one-on-ones. So guess who he is going up against? Rashan Gary. So, he has seen first-round talent since he was a junior in high school. Rashan, if you’ve ever experienced him, is unbelievably ferocious with how fast he moves at his size. Will went up against Rashan and nine times out of ten, got beat. Will stuck with it and never got discouraged.
We worked for two years on it and when Penn State played Michigan, guess who Will was up against? Rashan Gary. Rashan did not get one sack in that game. That’s Will Fries. He was getting his ever-loving butt kicked and he never wavered. It was always a journey forward for Will.
Kafaf was even kind enough to share with me some of the footage from those one-on-ones back when Fries was in high school.
Through his work with Kafaf and his continued drive to improve, Fries eventually earned a scholarship to Penn State University. For former Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover (now the OL coach/run game coordinator at Arkansas State with over 30 years of coaching experience), he knew right away that Fries was special.
His general demeanor betrays how much of a competitor he is. He is a proud and fierce competitor, and one of the things that I had to work on with him a lot early on was that he would get so down on himself and so angry when one thing went wrong. It was that classic snowball rolling downhill and he couldn’t pull out of the nosedive. It’s because he was just so competitive and had that desire to be successful. I was so proud of him because he started to harness that competitive edge and used it to his advantage.
He is a fierce competitor. There are not enough guys who play the game hard and are truly out there with a lot of passion. A lot of guys don’t have that strand of DNA. For Will, he wasn’t as blessed with superior athletic ability but he more than makes up for it with his passion and how he plays the game.
The comment that stood out to me was that last sentence because it is absolutely true. Fries is a good athlete but he isn't built like the Braden Smiths of the world. He could never dominate players with pure athleticism or strength as more gifted athletes could.
This never hindered Fries though, as Coach Limegrover saw him continually working on ways to improve his game and mitigate his weaknesses.
The biggest part of the equation is the young man has to be able to self reflect. All too often nowadays, guys don’t like to look at themselves and look at ways to mitigate weaknesses. That’s the unique thing about Will, he was always a willing pupil.
Will was one of the kids where it came from him being hard on himself and wanting to be perfect. He has a strong desire to be that guy where people will say, "Hey, do it the way that Will does it."
He is constantly working on improvement in his weak areas. Whenever I told him things that he needs to work on, we would go work on it. There aren’t a lot of guys who have that follow-through. He is one of those players who is committed to being the best version of himself.
Here is a great example that showcases Fries' work ethic, as he breaks down his film study on a particular player in a given week.
Even when Penn State changed offensive line coaches during Fries' senior season, he didn't miss a beat. He was a senior with 33 starts under his belt at this point. Most players would feel as though they have already learned enough in their time in college and wouldn't buy into a new coach's system so easily.
Not Will Fries.
Per Penn State OL coach Phil Trautwein:
From day one he bought in, which was great because guys looked up to him. He started a bunch of games at Penn State and I knew I had to get him to believe and trust in my system so we could get the ball rolling. From day one, he was interested in what I did and wanted to be great at it. It helped the team buy in faster to my fundamentals and details.
That buy-in to the system included a few wrinkles that he hadn't seen earlier in his college career, notably playing most of the season at right guard. Fries made six starts at right guard in his final season and didn't complain one bit when Coach Trautwein (who has four years of NFL playing experience and nine years of coaching experience under his belt) gave him some starts at that spot.
My philosophy was always to play the best five guys. I always felt like he could be a really good guard, as well as a really good tackle. I had a really good tackle who was right behind him so I felt to get the best five was to get Will some experience at guard.
Now in the NFL, he is telling me that he is playing all five positions. Which is why I got him ready to play guard because I felt like that is what he is. I had a feeling his ability to play both helped him with a lot of scouts and teams.
So, at this point in his career, Fries has worked on his craft quite a bit. He has 40-plus starts under his belt, he worked with an excellent trainer in Kafaf, and two veteran offensive line coaches in Coach Trautwein and Coach Limegrover. However, it didn't stop there for Fries.
During his college career, Fries also developed a friendship with legendary offensive line coach Paul Alexander, who coached the Cincinnati Bengals offensive line from 1994 to 2017.
Alexander is a renowned technician who helped coach players such as Willie Anderson, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, and many others to outstanding NFL careers.
When it came to how Alexander linked up with Fries, it is a bit of a unique story.
“He followed me on Twitter," Alexander laughed. "I do a lot of posting on football techniques on there. We messaged back and forth and that was what started and been a big part of our relationship.”
When I asked the legendary coach about Fries' potential in the league, he had some high praise for the seventh-round selection.
He’s a great kid. He’s talented, he’s big, he’s long, he’s productive, he’s smart. I’ve known him for a couple years now and he’s one of those guys who is obsessed with the technical part of the game. I think he has the right mindset and I think he will be a long-term pro.
He’s rare (as a student of the game). He’s always a guy who has a thirst for football knowledge. I can see him being a coach one day. That will serve him well in the NFL. I think he’ll make it and play for a long time.
Here is Fries on his work with Alexander throughout his college career:
One may think that all this training into his craft would be enough, but not for Fries. He would even watch NFL players and try to incorporate aspects of their film into his game at the college game (sometimes to the dismay of his college coaches).
"I always loved the idea that he didn’t leave the facility and get on Instagram or whatever but he was looking up NFL film and thinking about helping his game," said Coach Limegrover. "I gave him more leeway than other guys because I knew it was a way for him to get better."
One defensive move that troubled Fries in particular was the long arm. The long arm is a pass rush move where a defender extends one arm into the chest of the offensive lineman and drives them back into the pocket. Fries was so frustrated at this move that Coach Limegrover even called him "obsessed" with stopping it and they would have "countless discussions about how he could defeat the long arm."
The solution was simple for Fries; turn on Mitchell Schwartz's film and get out the notebook. He found a technique called the "Hamilton" that caught his eye and was able to implement it into his game over the years.
"Will would love when a defender would come at him and he would defeat him with his hands," said Kafaf. "Now he does this ‘Hamilton’ technique that is new to me, which I love."
Here is Fries breaking down the "Hamilton" technique and how he learned it from watching Schwartz's game:
The overall point that I am getting at with this entire article is that Fries isn't a typical seventh-round pick.
He is a player who checks every single box. He is a good athlete who is experienced across the offensive line at multiple positions. He is also one of those guys that Colts general manager Chris Ballard raves about; he has high football character.
There is never too much football for Fries. He is either watching his own film, or watching other NFL players' film, or training with Kafaf or Alexander.
Every single thing that Fries does revolves around football and he simply loves the game.
Football character matters in the NFL and Fries has the mindset and work ethic to last in this league. There have been a lot of quality offensive linemen who have slipped to the late rounds of the draft in this league and I firmly believe that Fries is one of them.
Do you think this approach helps Fries' chances of making the Colts' roster? Drop a line in the comments section below!
Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2.