The biggest surprise was his size.
This offseason, Ryan Bowman contacted the trainer of perennial Pro Bowl defensive lineman Aaron Donald — inquiring about the possibility of scheduling a joint workout. And at the end of March, Bowman — Washington’s sixth-year senior outside linebacker — trained with the NFL’s most dominant defensive player on a Thursday morning in Pittsburgh.
Donald, the Los Angeles Rams’ eighth-year wrecking ball, is listed at 6 feet 1 and 280 pounds.
Bowman, the Huskies’ underappreciated elder statesman, is listed at 6 feet 1 and 280 pounds.
It’s not quite like looking in a mirror. But for Bowman, Donald’s example provides motivation all the same.
“It was just really cool to see him in person,” Bowman said last Saturday. “I expected him to be massive, but it seemed like he was the same size as me. That made me feel better about the work he’s put in. And watching him work that day and seeing how hard he works, it’s no surprise to see where he’s at.
“That gives me hope, to know that working that hard day in and day out, you can achieve great things.”
In seven NFL seasons, Donald has achieved great things — namely, seven Pro Bowl selections, three Defensive Player of the Year honors, 131 tackles for loss and 85.5 sacks. And that’s after amassing 63 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks in his last three seasons at Pitt, before being selected 13th overall in 2014 NFL draft.
Bowman, like everyone else on earth, is not Aaron Donald. But the former walk-on has developed into a critical cog in UW’s defense nonetheless. In 2019, while playing opposite outside linebacker Joe Tryon, Bowman piled up 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception in 13 games — earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors in the process.
Last season, Bowman started UW’s first two games, then sat out the next two after contracting COVID-19. And in the two games Bowman played, UW allowed 119.5 rushing yards per game and 3.98 yards per carry, while compiling 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
In the two games he missed, with Washington relying on a pair of true freshman outside linebackers in Sav’ell Smalls and Cooper McDonald, the Huskies surrendered 203 rushing yards per game and 4.95 yards per carry — while managing a measly seven tackles for loss and three sacks.
Of course, Bowman’s absence was far from the only factor in UW’s defensive disintegration.
But the importance of the outside linebacker’s presence was plain to see.
“I think he’s like 40 years old now,” UW defensive coordinator Bob Gregory joked of Bowman on Monday. “He’s a veteran outside linebacker, been here for a long time. Very smart. Very fast. He can rush the passer and play the run. He’s a critical piece of our defense.”
He’s even more critical when you consider 1) the medical retirement of junior Laiatu Latu, and 2) the torn Achilles suffered by All-American outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui this spring. Without “ZTF,” who led the nation with 1.75 sacks per game last season, Washington will rely on Smalls, McDonald, sophomore Bralen Trice and Texas A&M senior transfer Jeremiah Martin to fill the void.
But Bowman is the undisputed leader in the outside linebackers room.
“He’s the one that set the meeting today,” UW co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Ikaika Malloe said earlier this month. “His leadership in that group, I can’t even explain how important that is — from the time we broke in practice to him demanding, ‘Let’s go get some lunch. Let’s watch film together. Let’s get better before we get back on the field.’
“That to me is a true leader. He had a really good day today, and he didn’t even get a chance to watch film for himself. He was concerned about the group. Ryan is huge for us.”
But don’t misunderstand, Bowman has watched plenty of his own film as well.
And he sees a player with an immediate opportunity to improve.
“There’s a lot of things in 2019 that I wasn’t doing that I should have been doing in terms of technique and the way I was playing,” Bowman said. “It’s really easy to pick those things out when you turn on the film. So just making an emphasis on working on those things should make a lot of difference.”
In Bowman’s five-plus seasons in Seattle, the difference has been dramatic. He arrived as a 251-pound walk-on from Bellevue — redshirting the 2016 season while working in the shadow of his older brother, Shane. Five seasons, 25.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and nearly 30 pounds later, his mindset might be the only thing that hasn’t changed.
“I was always a skinnier kid, so I had to put a lot of emphasis on gaining weight and eating a lot and protein shakes and that kind of thing, just being consistent with that,” Bowman said. “I’m still doing the same thing. I’m consistently trying to build and not stay the same. But that’s been a main focus of mine forever — gaining good size, good speed, good strength.
“In this game, you have to keep moving forward. You can’t take steps backwards. I’m just emphasizing that.”
It’s an emphasis for all of Washington’s outside linebackers — who, besides Bowman and Tupuola-Fetui, have yet to record their first collegiate sack.
But, according to Bowman, their potential outweighs any absence of prior production.
“Every dude that we have in there has the ability to play college football,” Bowman said. “We don’t have dudes in there where you’re like, ‘OK, why is this guy here?’ Every dude in there can ball. It’s just a (matter) of dudes coming along mentally. But we’ve got a lot of dudes.
“Cooper McDonald is an extremely hard worker and a really talented kid. Bralen (Trice) is really talented. Jeremiah (Martin) is really talented. Jordan (Lolohea), Sav’ell (Smalls), all those dudes can play. So the outside linebacker room might seem kind of slim right now because of injuries and whatnot, but there’s a lot of dudes in there that can play. So I wouldn’t worry about what the outside backers are doing.”
You also need not worry about whether Ryan Bowman is working.
After all, he’s seen what a motivated 6-1, 280-pound pass-rusher can do.