When Ryan Nielsen came to Ole Miss in January, he expected to spend two years as the defensive graduate assistant.
Due to the well-publicized off-the-field woes of former Defensive Line Coach Joe Cullen, Nielsen was thrust into a new role being "the guy" in the coaching of the defensive line.
He believes he's ready for the challenge, as does Ed Orgeron, who is tutoring Nielsen – who played DL at USC under Ed – at his new post.
"I know this is a challenge, but I'm learning from the best. Coach O would not put me in this position if he didn't think I was ready for it. That gives me confidence," Nielsen noted.
This spring has been a success from a defensive line perspective. Orgeron has repeatedly mentioned the improvement of the guys in the trenches on defense.
"We started kind of slow, but lately we have picked up our play," assessed Nielsen. "Our guys have bought in and are playing and working hard. I have seen improvement each day, and that's what it's all about. We haven't taken a step back and that's been our main goal with the guys up front. Just keep moving forward and everything will be fine. They have done that.
"System-wise, they have picked things up well. They are a smart group. They learned this system faster than I expected them to, which is a testimonial to their intelligence and will. They got the basics very quickly and then learned all the movements and blitzes. We still have a little bit of the package to install, but I expect them to get it down pat too. From here, it's just a matter of putting it all together. Day-by-day, snap-by-snap."
There is no left or right defensive end in this system.
At one end, senior Jayme Mitchell has been the bell cow of the group.
"Jayme has picked his game up lately after a slow start. He was coming off offseason surgery and I think he was a bit unsure at first," Ryan explained. "Now, he's got confidence and is playing well. He could be a big-time player for us. All his got to do is set his mind to that goal. He's strong, quick and agile. The package is there. It's just a matter of him putting it all together, which I am seeing from him lately."
Backing Mitchell is senior Corvelli Haynes and redshirt freshman Reterio Brown, who was moved to DE from LB prior to spring training.
"Corvelli has exceptional quickness and is a good pass rusher. He can help us and could be very, very good. He's quick off blocks and hard to latch on to. All he has to do is turn his motor up a little and go 100% in everything he does and he'll be real good for us," Nielsen evaluated. "Reterio is very raw, but his upside is very good. He's just young, but he is very willing. He comes in for extra film work, he's attentive and he's athletic. He's made some plays in practice and will be a good player for us in the future. And the future may not be that far away for him."
On the other side, which the coaches call "Leo," RS frosh Chris Bowers has had a tremendous spring and has solidified himself as the top gun there.
"Chris has a non-stop attitude and has shown up in every practice with big plays. He's made plays in every situation and is an excellent pass rusher," Ryan continued. "Chris is exactly what you are looking for at Leo. He's tough, he will mix it up with the 300-pounders and he's tenacious. I am very excited about him. The one thing I'd like, however, is for him to gain some weight. He's 227 pounds right now. We'd like him to be 240 and think he will get there."
Sophomore Viciente DeLoach is next in line.
"Viciente has been impressive in his own right. He's quick and athletic and has shown a knack for rushing the passer," Nielsen stated. "He has been equally as good against the run and the pass. At times, he seems to be a little bogged down mentally, but once he frees himself of that, he will play faster on a more consistent basis and will help us."
Inside, the Rebs will play with a noseguard who will play on the center or shade to either side. The best of the noseguard candidates in spring is senior Michael Bozeman.
"Boze is the leader of the DL. He works hard every day – he's a great effort guy," said Ryan. "Michael comes off the ball hard every snap and attacks on every play, which is what we want. He's done everything we have asked of him and has had a real good spring. He has made plays in every scrimmage and given us a solid anchor in the middle of the DL."
Sophomore Jeremy Garrett is next in line followed by RS frosh walkon Rick Stavig.
"Jeremy has bought in and has done everything we have asked of him. He's quick off the ball and attacks well. He's a player who has a very good foundation to build on," Nielsen noted. "He's the kind of player who you instruct to do something and then you see him doing it on film the right way. He's very coachable and willing to learn.
"Rick is a try-hard kid who shows up every day and gives everything he has. He will play a valuable role on this team."
At defensive tackle, junior Dedrick Clark is currently number one since McKinley Boykin, the returning starter, is unavailable for spring due to offseason surgery and rehab.
"Dedrick has developed into a solid pass rusher. He works the edges of the OL very well. He has developed some inside moves that have given him some success," Nielsen continued. "He is beating some blocking schemes, but not all of them. He just needs to keep working and devoting himself to getting better."
Sophomore Brandon Jenkins was moved from DE to DT this spring and has begun making a mark after a normal transition period to the new position.
"Brandon is big, strong and quick. He's hard to block because he has a great first step and is explosive. All he needs to do is learn to be full-speed all the time. Once he gets that down, he will be a great one. It's just a matter of time for him," Nielsen noted.
Trey Poole, who joined the team this spring, is also a viable candidate.
"Trey is willing to work and get better. He's green right now, but he's a good young man who has the desire to help us down the road," Nielsen closed. "Once he gets over the transition to college ball and college DL, we'll start seeing more progress from him."
DL - Daily progress pleased Nielsen
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