Bears' Bilal Nichols still embracing underdog mentality amid his rise

A fifth-round pick in 2018, Nichols has emerged as a staple of the Bears' defense.

(670 The Score) While the Bears worked through training camp in the summer of 2018, veteran defensive lineman Akiem Hicks would finish a drill with his position group or return to the sidelines after a snap and find a curious rookie to his side.

That was defensive lineman Bilal Nichols, whom the Bears had drafted in the fifth round just months earlier. Nichols would immediately ask a question -- about how Hicks handled the play, what he should be doing or just about anything else.

Hicks could sense this rookie was different.

"That's one of the things that attracted me to Bilal," Hicks said recently. "From the beginning, he had the right mindset to approach the game. He wanted to be better."

Now in his third NFL season, the 24-year-old Nichols is indeed getting better. He has five sacks this season, including one in each of the Bears' last three games. Nichols has also helped fill the team's void at nose tackle that was created when Eddie Goldman opted out of playing this season.

Nichols has emerged as a key complement to Hicks on the Bears' defensive line. And his rise has happened in part because he's still following the lead of Hicks.

"I wanted to have a career just like his," Nichols said. "Dominant guy, respected in the league, All-Pro caliber. I told myself, every day I'm going to work with him -- find a way to work with him, someway, somehow. Still to this day, I work with him every single day. Nothing about me has changed.

"That's never going to change. I'm always going to be receptive, even when I'm in my eighth, ninth year in the league, I'm still going to be eager to learn and figure out how I can get better."

Like Hicks, Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack has recognized the willingness in Nichols.

"One thing about Bilal that I admire the most as a person is his willingness to listen and take those small little critiques that you tell him and use it to his advantage," Mack said. "He's one of those guys that listens, and he works at it. That's all you can really ask for from a young guy like that. You see the reaping those benefits of him listening and putting the work in. It's a special thing to see."

Success for Nichols hasn't come without struggle. Early in the 2019 season, Nichols suffered a right hand fracture. It kept him out two games, but Nichols returned and played through the pain. He failed to record a sack on the season.

That stuck with Nichols as he entered this offseason frustrated. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, he wasn't going to let lockdowns be an excuse for not working his hardest. It's a mindset that got him to this stage.

A native of Newark, Delaware, Nichols received little recruiting attention before committing to play collegiately at Delaware. He was a first-team All-CAA selection as a senior with the Blue Hens in 2017, then earned some attention at the Senior Bowl in January 2018. After the Bears selected Nichols in the fifth round, the question was how he would fit with a defense that included mainstays like Hicks and Goldman.

Now, Nichols looks like he's set to be a staple on the Bears' defensive line. He has proved himself over these three seasons -- but not by changing anything.

Nichols will always view himself as the underdog.

"I always told myself, if a guy was better than me, it was just going to be because he was more talented -- not because he out-worked me," Nichols said. "That's kind of the mindset I live by."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.

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