So many of the storylines about Sunday’s initial Kansas City Chiefs game surround the new-look offense — and what the Arizona Cardinals defense will see as they go up against quarterback Patrick Mahomes and new weapons such as wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie Skyy Moore.
But for the Chiefs’ defense, the game also marks an official passing of the torch.
After wearing the green dot and making the calls for Kansas City during the past four seasons, veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens is no longer with the club, opening the door for second-year linebacker Nick Bolton to take over as the starter at MIKE.
Fortunately for Bolton, it won’t be a brand-new experience. As a rookie, Bolton wore the green dot for the majority of three games as Hitchens dealt with an elbow injury.
“When he had chances last year, you could see [he could do it],” said head coach Andy Reid on Friday. “This year, he’s just upped it — and he’s had more reps, so I think he’s real comfortable in there making the calls. These guys do a lot of things, so he’s going to have to be sharp with it all, but he’s worked extremely hard for that.”
Bolton made the calls for the Chiefs under the lights during the preseason, and the defensive coaching staff has seen him make strides at both training camp in St. Joseph and practice back in Kansas City at the Truman Sports Complex. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo talked about it on Thursday.
“[I’ve been] super, super impressed. [Wednesday], something came up on the field with a couple of calls. I said, ‘Nick, I’m going to make it easy on you. I’m going to do this.’”
Spagnuolo wanted him to turn a complex call into a simpler one, but Bolton told his coordinator he did not need him to make the adjustment.
“That’s pretty reassuring, right?” started Spagnuolo, “because I wanted to keep it the way we had it, and he reassured me that there was no problem keeping the way it was, and we’ll roll... that tells me all I need to know about Nick, and of course, we saw him play last year, so we know what kind of player he is on the field.”
Spagnuolo’s confidence in the Missouri product is unprecedented for his time in Kansas City, as Bolton will be trusted to play on all three downs considering he has also earned the DIME linebacker role. Spagnuolo trusted Bolton with nearly 100% of the snaps once last year, in the Chiefs’ Week 15 game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Bolton, who finished with 14 tackles and three passes defensed in the game, appreciates the confidence Spagnuolo and linebackers coach Brendan Daly have built in him.
“Coach Spags gives us great play-calls, a great play-call sheet for the week,” said Bolton. “[It’s] just getting up that confidence. First day of training camp, we have stuff that’s set in. We’ve got training camp rules, and it changes as it transitions into the season mode. We get more into scouting and stuff like that... he wanted something to be a certain way and he thought if he changed it, it would be simpler for me if I had everything in the same bucket...
“If the defense plays better with our scheme a certain way, then I’ll make sure we can do it. [I want to] put the defense in the best position possible to go out there and make plays.”
On Friday, in the locker room, Bolton expressed how excited he is to start the season as the starter at MIKE.
“God presented this opportunity to go out here and play football — and so I’m just going to take advantage of it,” he said. “I kind of see it as an opportunity to go out here and play football. I’ve been doing it since I was young, and so it’s getting confidence from these guys to come in every single day and let me put my best foot forward by giving me that confidence. So again, I’m just excited to be here. I’m excited to play. I’m ready for Sunday.”
Bolton said he would spend the morning in Arizona by keeping the same routine to ensure that the moment won't be too big. That involves a bit of shuteye, as he explained.
“I sleep all day on gameday,” said Bolton. “That’s my routine. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life — I focus in on being to myself. Again, I chop it up with these guys in the locker room, but before then, I’m locked into myself and just focus in, ready to go.”
Depsite Bolton playing a limited role in 2021, he led the team with 112 tackles — 32 more than Hitchens. That has made 2022 expectations sky-high for Bolton, who still says he owes his comfort in his new role to his predecessor.
Even today, as Hitchens remains a free agent, Bolton says he thinks of the lessons the veteran taught him as a rookie.
“There’s not a day that goes by that Hitch hasn’t helped me out on something on the football field that I see — whether it be language, lingo, communication with the D-line, DBs,” he said. “Even the way sometimes he called play-calls, making it simpler, make it more simplistic, stuff like that. ‘Talk to the D-line first, maybe, on this play-call, because it pertains to them a little bit more versus the DBs.’
“I took that last year with a learning curve, learning that type of stuff — and I’m just transitioning. Hitch — me and Willie [Gay] — we think about him all the time. We talked about him [Friday]. He was a great vet for us. I wish him nothing but the best.”