When Nate Byham joined the UAlbany football coaching staff in 2014, head coach Greg Gattuso presented him with a challenge.
“Gattuso told me, when I first came here, ‘You need to do this, because you need to figure out if coaching’s what you really want to do,’ ” Byham said during an interview with The Daily Gazette last week.
Byham came to UAlbany as a volunteer assistant, “working for free,” following four years as a tight end in the NFL. He started by working with the position group he was most familiar with as a deputy under then-tight ends coach Gabe Luvara, and it’s been a long and winding road for Byham since then.
In his eight seasons as part of the UAlbany program, Byham’s gone from a volunteer assistant, to tight ends coach, to special teams coordinator, to most recently serving as co-offensive line coach and run game coordinator.
Earlier this month, with UAlbany shuffling it’s staff following a 2-9 2021 season, Byham got another new set of titles within the program. Following Gattuso’s decision not to renew the contracts of offensive coordinator/associate head coach Joe Davis and co-offensive line coach/assistant head coach Jim Sweeney, Byham was promoted to offensive line coach, associate head coach and co-offensive coordinator alongside new coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jared Ambrose.
“It’s been a journey since I’ve been here,” Byham said.
The journey started when Byham, a sixth-round draft pick out of Pitt by the San Francisco 49ers in 2010, was released by the New England Patriots following a short preseason stint in 2014.
Primarily a blocking tight end, Byham caught 11 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in 29 career games with San Francisco and Tampa Bay from 2010-13. After he was unable to stick with the Patriots, Byham decided to enter the coaching realm.
He arrived at UAlbany as a volunteer assistant thanks to a prior relationship with Gattuso — then about to embark on his first season with the Great Danes — who was the defensive line coach at Pitt during Byham’s career with the Panthers from 2006-09.
It didn’t take long for Byham to understand the “eye-opening” difference between the life of a player and the life of a coach — even an unpaid one.
“As a player,” he said, “you check in and you check out. It’s 9-to-5 in the NFL world, and in college . . . you’ve got the 20 hours in a week. From a coaching aspect, you don’t leave it after practice, go home for the day and forget about it until the next day. You spend 14 hours a day, in-season, on it. It opened my eyes.”
Initially, Byham said he was confused by those initial words from Gattuso — of course he wanted to be a coach, he thought — but quickly learned the kind of grind that meant embracing.
But, just as quickly as he began to understand what the life of a football coach entailed, Byham — now 33 years old — knew it was the life he wanted.
The success Byham had in 2014 while working with Great Danes tight end Brian Parker, who went on to play in the NFL, went a long way in letting the then-volunteer assistant know he was on the right path.
“I just remember trying to teach him some footwork things, talking about a step,” Byham said. “When you start seeing that click and show up, it really made me feel that gratitude of being able to be on the field with these guys. I was very thankful to be a part of so much growth.”
He’s been on a steady rise through the UAlbany staff ever since.
After starting out working with the position group he was most familiar with, Byham’s branched out of his comfort zone and has enjoyed his work with the Great Danes’ offensive linemen.
While working alongside Sweeney, Byham was put in charge of much of the week-to-week installation work for the offensive line. Now, he’s running the whole shebang.
“I’m ready to take the reins and lead this group,” Byham said.
On a UAlbany team that’s entering 2022 having undergone a major facelift, Byham’s offensive line should have several familiar faces. Tackle Critt Johnson graduated and guard Kassy Desir entered into the NCAA transfer portal, but the Great Danes are slated to return a handful of key players with significant experience, including three-year starter Kobe Thomas at center, tackle Will Marotta and guards Parris Heath and Scott Houseman.
“When we started this past season, it was a lot of new guys in their first time really getting to play together,” Byham said. “There was a learning curve. It took a little bit of time for them to jell together and work with each other. As the season went on, they really created a bond. You can see that in our stats — giving up a lot less sacks after Week 5, our rushing yards went up dramatically. . . . Now, they’re a veteran group.”
As he moves forward in a more prominent role, Byham said he’ll rely on an important lesson he’s learned throughout his tenure.
Every player, he said, needs to be coached differently, and it’s up to a coach to adapt their teaching style to be most successful in bringing out the best in each of them.
“You have to be moldable as a coach to the guys, rather than vice versa,” he said. “You have to mold to them and be able to change on the fly.”
UALBANY LANDS TRANSFER RUNNING BACK
The Great Danes’ running back room, left light on experience with Karl Mofor’s graduation and decision to turn pro, got a boost Monday when graduate transfer Todd Sibley Jr. announced via social media his commitment to UAlbany.
Sibley comes to UAlbany from Pittsburgh, where he compiled 321 career rushing yards. The 5-foot-10, 230-pound back appeared in 10 games for the Panthers in 2021, carrying the ball five times for 14 yards.
UAlbany has landed a pair of transfers from FBS programs in the last week, with Sibley joining former Colorado State and Boston College quarterback Matt Valecce.