When you ask Defensive Line Coach Ryan Nielsen to discuss the spring results of the Rebel DL as a whole, his eyes light up and he can hardly sit still.
"The effort those kids have given us is outstanding. I can't say enough about them," he said excitedly. "They have done everything we have asked of them, without fail, every day. They have practiced hard, they have been physical and they have not blinked at anything we have thrown at them.
"Not one player on the DL has digressed. They have all improved, some of them have improved drastically. You can tell the difference in them from a year ago – they have an awareness of what is going on and have a feel for the defense now. You can visibly see day-to-day improvement and they even have a little swagger and air of confidence about them too."
Even though the number of candidates is lacking due to injury, etc., Nielsen feels a lot was accomplished in spring.
In our practice-to-practice conversations with Head Coach Ed Orgeron, sophomore Defensive End Marcus Tillman is mentioned frequently. Nielsen says he knows why.
"Marcus has made an incredible jump this spring mentally and physically. He has a motor that never stops. He's physical and he's intelligent," Ryan continued. "Marcus never takes a play off and has become one of our better pass rushers. He's also having fun doing it and is starting to show signs of being a leader. He just needs to keep pushing and the sky is the limit for him."
When spring began, redshirt frosh Cecil Frison was moved to tight end. As spring progressed, he was moved back to the DL, specifically DE.
"Cecil started to come on late in the spring. He gives excellent effort every day and is showing progress," Nielsen stated. "Cecil is a determined player – he wants to be good and has shown he has a shot to get to that level in the future. He just needs to keep getting bigger and stronger and to continue with the effort he's giving. He's already good with his hands and his pad level. He's on the right track."
At defensive tackle, Nielsen has had to play musical chairs some. Senior Jeremy Garrett has been injured some and senior Brandon Jenkins has missed some time due to shoring up some academic issues, but Nielsen said the Rebels have compensated in practice.
"J.G. was having a great spring. He was moving around good, he's a leader and he works hard. He's tough, physical and he has a good motor," said Nielsen. "He will be a big part of our defensive line. We just need him to get healthy and stay healthy."
Sometimes "stars" as readily and easily recognized. Sometimes they emerge in different ways. Redshirt freshman Ben Benedetto and sophomore David Densmore get "star" status from Nielsen for their spring efforts.
"Whatever praise those two get, they deserve. Both are walkons, but they got as many reps and played as hard as anyone on the team in spring," Nielsen said emphatically. "They are both limited athletically, but they have a knack for playing the game and they never, ever let up. Ben has literally played every position on the DL this spring. Both have gotten snaps with the first team. Both have produced. Both are really good kids, excellent kids, and they are a lot of fun to be around and watch. Truthfully, with some players missing some time, I don't know how we could have gotten through spring without them and I can't say enough about their efforts. I can't do them justice, really."
At nose tackle, another pleasant surprise has been sophomore Daverin Geralds. He's another player who was mentioned by Coach O a lot in post-practice interviews.
"He's been with the number one unit since the second practice. Daverin lost 15 pounds to become more mobile and he's working very hard to improve and make an impact," Nielsen stated. "He's a tough and physical kid and he's into it. He does everything with a smile on his face and he takes coaching very well. He's attentive and bright. He's been a very, very pleasant surprise for out unit."
At LEO (rush end), redshirt freshman Kentrell Lockett has gotten a lot of number one snaps due to Chris Bowers being out some with injury and Greg Hardy not joining the team after basketball season until the last week of practice.
"Kentrell has gained 15 pounds and is now about 235 pounds. He just has to continue working. He's improved his pass rush and he had a great scrimmage last Saturday, the best since he has been here," Nielsen summed up. "If he will become more disciplined, he's capable of making plays. He's a talented young man and a tough kid. He just needs to stay in the weight room between now and August.
"Chris is a solid player for us. He's not flashy, but he makes plays. Like Jeremy, we just have to get him healthy. Greg didn't have much work this spring, but he worked hard when he was out there and is coming along nicely."
Another player who fits into the Densmore-Benedetto mode is Brian Kendricks, who played safety last year but was moved to LEO this year.
"Again, I can't say enough about Brian, just like David and Ben," Nielsen said. "He has been very important to us this spring and he has a motor that never quits. Brian has helped us get a lot of things accomplished this spring and is very much a valued part of this unit and this team."
Defensive Line Overview: When you have a position coach as excited as Nielsen, it's hard not to get excited too, but the fact remains that health and depth are issues for the 2007 season. There are a lot of "ifs" associated with the DL, but if Garrett and Bowers can get healthy, if Jenkins can get caught up with his books, if Lockett can put on another 10-15 pounds in the offseason, if Hardy has a solid offseason (we know his talent level), and if the projected incoming players are as good as advertised, the DL could be the strength of the defense next season. Our fingers are crossed, but don't be surprised if all those things take place.
Red-Blue Update: For the Red Team, Lockett went off in the spring game, collecting 8 tackles with two stops behind the line, including a sack and a forced fumble. His speed off the edge was very impressive and it appears he's gotten much stronger since he first arrived at Ole Miss last summer. Tillman also had a good outing, registering 4 tackles with 2.5 of those being behind the line of scrimmage and he had 1.5 sacks. For the Blue squad, Hardy had 6 tackles, including 2 quarterback sacks and a forced fumble. Although he didn't participate in much of spring practice, it's apparent he hasn't lost anything due to his absence from football. Cecil Frison, moved back to DE after a week or so at TE, got in on three stops and Bryan Kendricks had 4 tackles and a QB sack. That's all good news and it's all about the defensive ends. The bad news is that the inside guys - the DTs – were not a factor in the contest. Why? Geralds was injured early on and Peria Jerry, Garrett and Jenkins did not participate in the game. With those four in the lineup/rotation, it would have been a different story, but for the purposes of this one, DT was not a position that stood out in this contest.
Spring Review, Part X
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