Every Rebel fan believed, rightly so, that the 2016 defensive line would be good.
With talented, experienced players like D.J. Jones, Breeland Speaks, Issac Gross, Marquis Haynes and John Youngblood, along with upstarts Victor Evans, Benito Jones and Ross Donelly and others, there was no reason to believe otherwise.
Sure, the uncertainty of DE Fadol Brown's future was, and is, a setback, but if there was one area on the Rebel team that could "afford" a loss, if taking a star player out is ever affordable, it was the Rebel defensive line.
Through three games, the Reb DL has lived up, for the most part, to its preseason expectations, but DL coach Chris Kiffin thinks — knows, actually — his troops can do even better.
"Overall,we are playing well with great effort. They are grading out pretty good, but I want to see the importance of every play pick up some," Kiffin stated, when asked to give a three-game evaluation of his unit. "We have had some critical errors at times when we might have been able to change the game if we had worked a proper technique or communicated better. So it's up to me to make sure they get it during meetings and practice during the week.
"Overall, though, I have been pleased. We can be better and we will see improvement as we go along."
Evans missed last week's game due to a concussion, but he will be back for Georgia this week.
"In fall camp, he was a pleasant surprise and had the best camp of any of my guys. I was excited about him," Kiffin noted. "I thought he played just OK against Florida State and could have done more - we were open about that. He didn't play to mine or his standard, but now that he's back and healthy I think he will do better. I am excited to see him back and to see what he does this time out."
With Fadol and Evans out, and also Sean Curtis (concussion), Kiffin has had to lean on Garrald McDowell more and move Speaks outside some.
"Garrald is doing some good things and I'm trying to get freshman Charles Wiley ready just in case, but he's had a sprained ankle. Against Alabama, we played Breeland outside about 10 snaps and that helped John and Marquis gets some rest," he explained. "Marquis and John are going to have to be our workhorses, but Victor, G-Mac and Breeland are going to have to pitch in a lot too."
(Kiffin was asked if Wiley's legal issues are behind him and Coach Hugh Freeze responded that they are. He is eligible to play, but the coaches will probably not burn his redshirt unless the DE injuries get worse.)
He said Speaks did OK at DE because of the package he was in.
"The technique is not much different from what he has been doing in the package we put in for him there," noted Kiffin. "He's an inside guy, but the way we used him last Saturday, we can get a few snaps out of him at DE."
Kiffin was upset with the penalty Speaks got after Haynes caused a fumble and while Youngblood was scooping and scoring. The block was was behind the play and called a personal foul. The 15-yard penalty assessed on the ensuing kickoff helped in giving Alabama good field position, which they took advantage of with a TD.
"It was disheartening. It's a learning experience for him for sure, but they all have to understand the domino effect of something like that. It's like a missed assignment - you never know how big of an impact something like that can have. Our kicker (Nathan Noble) tried to kick the ball extra hard and kicked it out of bounds and Bama is on the 50 and there's a TD.
"It's our job to teach them and make sure those things don't happen again."
Next up, Georgia.
"They have a different style of quarterback in Jacob Eason. He's a pocket passer who looks like he is NFL-ready as far as how physical he is. He doesn't run much like Jalen Hurts and the kid at FSU did, but he has a really strong arm. He was a five-start QB for a reason. While I think we have the best freshman in the country waiting in the wings, Jacob is very good and will win a lot of games for them in his career," Kiffin added. "They build their offense around their run game and some outstanding backs. I think Nick Chubb is the second-leading rusher in the SEC right now and they have other really fine backs. WR Isaiah McKenzie, who we recruited really hard, is also a playmaker for them. They build their offense around their playmakers and they use different ways to get them the ball.
"They are keeping things simple for Jacob right now, but they are expanding things each week. I'm sure they will have some new wrinkles for us that we will have to adjust to."
So far, so good for the vaunted Rebel defensive line. A tweak here and there, some healing here and there and they will keep on trucking.
And Kiffin thinks even more efficiently.