ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — 11:02 a.m.
It was a light practice on Thursday before the Bills’ preseason game against the Steelers. The session had been over for over 10 minutes and the vast majority of players made their way inside to the locker room.
Not Ryan Van Demark. The 25-year-old offensive tackle was just getting started. He went over with a small group of three other offensive linemen to do a hearty, positional workout with assistant line coach Austin Gund. Van Demark went through kick slide after kick slide, trying to nail the technique.
The group of four began to head off the field. Van Demark lingered as he saw a pair of rookie offensive linemen heading Gund’s way after all the first-year players had a brief meeting conclude. One of them was another offensive tackle, Richard Gouraige. Van Demark looked over at Gund.
Gund affirmed, so Van Demark stayed. He served as Gouraige’s scout team, even though Van Demark was ahead on the depth chart. Several more minutes went by.
Then Van Demark, even though he was about to call it just a few moments before, took a few more pass-blocking reps for good measure — just because he could.
At 11:22 a.m., an out-of-breath Van Demark finally exited the field. The extensive pre and post-session work has become old hat for the offensive tackle in his second season in Buffalo. And that’s part of what has him as an under-the-radar name who could sneak onto the 53-man roster in one week.
“He just comes to work every day, man,” Bills starting left tackle Dion Dawkins said. “I’m proud of him.”
Just where did Van Demark come from?
He’s been in the shadows his whole time in Buffalo, though he’s been in the building for almost an entire year without much attention. He was an undrafted rookie out of UConn in 2022, cut by the Indianapolis Colts, and went unclaimed on waivers. It wasn’t until the Bills’ 2022 sixth-round pick, offensive tackle Luke Tenuta, was claimed after final cuts that a spot for a developmental tackle opened up in Buffalo for Van Demark.
Ironically, Tenuta was claimed by the team that cut Van Demark — the Colts, who waived Tenuta a little over a month later. Meanwhile, Van Demark took his September practice squad signing through the year, inked a reserve/futures contract with the Bills, and quietly has been building the story of the summer.
“It was hard,” Van Demark said of his first year. “Obviously, like throughout camp, rookie year being undrafted, coming in on P-squad, you know, you’re not really the guy that the coaches are looking at.”
Eventually, things began to click for Van Demark, and he was developing a hard-working reputation with some game to go along with it. At 6-foot-6 with nearly 36-inch long arms and outstanding movement skills in athletic testing, he’s the exact type of offensive tackle the Bills have gone for over the last several years.
The son of a longtime professional basketball player who made stops in Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and Colombia, Van Demark has long been an impressive athlete since his days at Wayne Valley High School in New Jersey. While also playing football, he played for a state championship volleyball team and considered playing the latter in college. He ultimately decided on football at the next level and needed to pack on the requisite weight to do so.
As a hard gainer, it had always been a challenge. At the end of his high school days, Van Demark weighed only 245 pounds — which was a mighty accomplishment given his frame. Then he went to a prep school and reached 255. When he arrived at UConn, he got up to 265. Still, not enough for the NFL — or even college for that matter.
“I remember my junior or sophomore year in high school was a lot of calories, just pushing calories like 4,000 to 5,000 [a day],” Van Demark recalled.
It’s a routine he’s had to master, but even after getting up to an NFL-caliber weight, the Bills wanted him to pack on more. He spent his practice squad year in the 290s. Now consistently around the 300-pound mark this summer, the only question the Bills had heading into this season was if he could maintain those same movement skills.
Van Demark felt the difference.
“It kind of hit me like probably the end of last season, going into OTAs where I was like, ‘Okay, this is my year. I’ve got this now,’” he said. “I had a good offseason, and then starting off camp, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ And just going out there and showing that I took a step up from the undrafted level, and now I can come out here and play.”
The Bills took notice, and Van Demark’s opportunities have increased since before they broke camp at St. John Fisher University. There he began working with the second-team offense just ahead of the team’s first preseason game against the Colts.
And when the second offensive line entered the Colts game it was Van Demark, not David Quessenberry, in at left tackle. The summer began with Quessenberry as Buffalo’s top backup offensive tackle, but Van Demark has challenged that.
He played 52 snaps that game, 18 at left tackle and 34 at right tackle. They’ve yo-yo’d Van Demark from left to right consistently since that point, especially now with Brandon Shell’s retirement and Tommy Doyle’s season-ending injury.
“Vandy’s really growing in the system,” offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey said. “Really showing his athletic ability and his ability to play outside there and hold up.”
Van Demark admits he’s far more comfortable playing on the left side, having done so his last three years at UConn. He excelled in 33 left tackle snaps against the Steelers, again getting an opportunity ahead of Quessenberry, making his roster push all the more real. But Van Demark showing he can also play on the right side could be the key to unlocking his spot on the 53-man roster this year.
“Bumping over to the right is just kind of re-learning the muscles on the opposite side,” he said. “Repetition, repetition, repetition, learning where to place your hands and all that. But you can do it on one side, you’re expected to do it on the other. So just going out there and just taking sets like you just saw me after practice like that.”
All throughout, Buffalo has started to feel like his NFL home, though he had one of the more unique, yet unknowing connections to the area. Growing up near New York City, Van Demark’s mother linked up with an agent, where Ryan and his brother would become baby models for national brands.
Yes, you read that correctly — baby model turned professional athlete.
“It’s a fun fact about me,” Van Demark said. “I mean, we got all the pictures hanging up. Ralph Lauren, the baby bottles. I forget what they were called, but they were baby bottles. Fisher-Price. We did like the baby stuff. There was a baby razor we did for ads. I remember that one.”
Fisher-Price is headquartered in East Aurora, merely a 20-minute drive from where Van Demark is trying to make his new claim to fame in Orchard Park.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” he said of the current proximity to his former baby model employer before cracking a joke. “Maybe they should talk to me again.”
“I could believe it,” Dawkins said after learning his teammate was a baby model. “You should have never told me that.”
Through the laughter and what surely will be some good-natured ribbing from teammates in the not-so-distant future, Van Demark knows he’s an underdog with a legitimate chance to make a Super Bowl-caliber roster outright this year. And he’s trying to keep it all in perspective.
“I kind of compare it to last year,” he said. “Last year being in Indy, being an undrafted guy, rookie year, there’s a lot of anxiety, and your mind’s everywhere.
“Coming out for my second camp, it’s like I can really just focus on football and play. Who really cares about making the team, not making the team, whatever. I’m not really thinking about that. I’m just coming out here and literally trying to be the best version of myself every day. And I think that, like taking a step back and breathing and being like, ‘Who gives a f—-? Just play.’ That’s what I’ve been doing every day coming out here.”
With one more good performance in Chicago on Saturday, a spot on the Bills roster and everything he’s worked for could be his. And if he plays his cards right, maybe that call from Fisher-Price will be on the way, too.
(Top photo of Ryan Van Demark: Gregory Fisher / USA Today)