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Mufasa returns: To surprise of no one, DeMeco Ryans is now a coach

In the spring of 2011, during the middle of the NFL lockout, DeMeco Ryans would spend his mornings in Birmingham, Alabama, rehabbing his ruptured left Achilles tendon. 

And every afternoon he'd make the 20-minute drive that eventually took him to his next profession. 

That spring, as Ryans rehabbed away from the Texans' facility because of the lockout, he took a position as the fill-in defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Bessemer City High School. Every afternoon, after his workout was over, he'd make the short drive to Bessemer and help coach the Tigers, who were led by his former University of Alabama teammate Dennis Alexander. That spring, the Tigers played just one game and one inter-squad scrimmage. But Ryans was hooked. 

"That was the first real taste," Ryans said to NBC Sports Philadelphia this week.  

Alexander, now an assistant coach at East Central Community College in Mississippi, said this week in a phone interview that it was "kind of crazy" that he happened to become the head coach of his college teammate's former high school. And he was happy to have him with his program. The kids naturally gravitated toward Ryans that spring. 

"You could tell back then that he had a football mind," said Alexander, who remembered Ryans as the freshman who came in and played immediately for the Crimson Tide in 2002. "He was athletic but he also knew all the X's and O's and he was smart." 

The lockout ended in July and Ryans returned to the NFL field. He played one more season in Houston before he was traded to Philadelphia, where he became an integral part of the team, a favorite of fans, and one of the most respected players to come through the franchise in decades. 

This weekend, Ryans will return to Philadelphia as a defensive quality control coach with the 49ers under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan. 

Absolutely none of his former teammates still on the Eagles' roster are surprised about Ryans' new profession. 

"There's nothing but great things to say about DeMeco," Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox said. "He really just helped me become the person that I am. When he was here, he was one of those guys I could go to and talk about anything. It don't even matter if it was about something simple because he just made you feel better afterward. I thought, shoot, DeMeco could probably go back to Alabama and be the AD. That's how much weight his name carried. I don't think anybody would have anything bad to say about him."

What made Cox think Ryans could become a coach? 

"The way he looked at the game, the way he studied it, the way he simplifies it," he answered. "He makes it so simple. He always tells you 'the harder you make things, the harder they are.' If you find ways to simplify and figure out the best way to look at it, then it will be that way." 

Linebacker Najee Goode credits Ryans for much of his improvement in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Goode still remembers sitting in meeting rooms with Ryans, who would have answers to all the coaches' questions. He said Ryans' daily routine — he was a creature of habit — was to go back and do the same things three or four times. 

Of course, Goode said Ryans reminded him of a coach back then. 

"That dude was huge for the city and huge for the team," Goode said. "It was just huge to learn from him."

Ryans — who was lovingly dubbed "Mufasa" by Chip Kelly — was certainly a favorite among his teammates and coaches in Philadelphia. When the Eagles released him in February 2016, they made sure to do it before the GM and head coach met with reporters at the combine. On the podium, Howie Roseman began with a heartfelt statement thanking Ryans for his time in Philly. 

Out of the NFL for the entire 2016 season, Ryans got his football fix from doing a weekly radio show in Houston with former NFL players Greg Koch and N.D. Kalu on SportsTalk 790. He also got to enjoy spending plenty of time with his family. 

But Ryans has always thought about the possibility of coaching, even dating back to his time at Alabama, where his teammates affectionately referred to him as "Coach." 

And when Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching job in San Francisco this year, he heard from Ryans, who told him he was interested in coaching. "That's all I needed to hear," Shanahan said. 

Shanahan was a wideouts coach with the Texans when Ryans was drafted in 2006, and he became the team's offensive coordinator by 2008. He was immediately impressed by Ryans, who came in and started on his way to being named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Shanahan was even more impressed by Ryans' work ethic and those same qualities that have led to his new career as a coach. 

"For me, with DeMeco, it was pretty easy," Shanahan said on a conference call with Philly reporters this week. "You watch him in football and you could see he would be successful in anything in life he chooses to do. I was just pumped he told me he wanted to be a coach." 

As a defensive quality control coach with the 49ers, Ryans spends his weeks breaking down upcoming opponents in the run game. He also helps the other coaches prepare for practice and of course, he assists with the linebackers in drills and in the meeting room. 

He's found he's able to relate to players because he's not far removed from playing himself. At 33 years old, he's around the same age as the most veteran players on the roster. The biggest thing he's learned so far is that every player doesn't do things the way he would and that's OK. 

The 49ers are a disappointing 0-7 so far this season, but Ryans has enjoyed his first NFL coaching job. 

Does he want to be a head coach one day? 

"Definitely. I definitely want to take it all the way," Ryans said. "I always look at it like anything you do you want to be the best at it. That's definitely a goal of mine." 

This Sunday, when Ryans returns to Philadelphia, he won't get to see one of his protégés, the Simba to his Mufasa. Maybe Jordan Hicks is following Ryans a little too closely. Hicks tore his right Achilles on Monday night, three years after tearing his left in college. Ryans tore his left in 2010 and his right with the Eagles in 2014. Ryans, who keeps up with Hicks and even attended his wedding in the summer, said he feels for his former teammate but expects him to make full recovery. 

Aside from Hicks, there are plenty of other Eagles who owe plenty to Ryans and who will be looking forward to seeing him on Sunday. 

"It's going to be great to be back in the Linc, seeing old friends, all the fans there," Ryans said. "I know the place will be rocking. Will always be a special place to me. I'm really thankful for how the fans accepted me when I got traded there in 2012. It's always a special place for me. I love Philly, love the people there in Philly and really looking forward to getting back."