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Nkemdiche Headlines Retooled D-Line

The return of junior defensive end C.J. Johnson and additions of sophomore Fadol Brown and freshman Marquis Haynes have changed the face of the defensive line, but freshman All-American Robert Nkemdiche remains front and center. 

With a season of experience under his belt, it's been a different experience for the former consensus No. 1 recruit this fall.

"I know the playbook so much better," Nkemdiche said. "I'm so much more chilled out. I'm not freaking out right now. I'm not nervous. My head's on straight, and I'm ready to have a huge game.

"I had a really good camp. I was focused. I'm bringing it every day, 100 percent, no matter what. I'm ready for the season and to have a really dominant season."

Beside Nkemdiche at defensive tackle has been a rotation of senior Bryon Bennett and junior Woodrow Hamilton with junior Issac Gross out due to injury.

"You lose quickness in there," said defensive coordinator Dave Wommack of missing Gross. "But kudos to Bryon Bennett because I have never seen him play as well as he's playing right now, across the board. He has some size, quickness and been super in there for us. I have been really pleased with him, but it affects your depth.

"Woody's issue has been staying out there on the field. When he stays out on the field, he's a really good football player. He's extremely tough to block. He's not just an anchor. He has some quickness and he can move around. He fits our scheme really well."

With the depth and experience on the defensive side of the ball, Wommack looks to rotate more players and be more aggressive this season. 

On the defensive line, Wommack said, they would like to play 8-10 players and get back to bringing pressure (five or more players) 35-40 percent of the time after bringing pressure around 27-28 percent this past season.

"This camp, we have shown so much progress in the D-line," Nkemdiche said. "We're getting after the quarterback every day. (Dave Wommack) is so much more comfortable. He's sending us four guys and letting his guys cover."

"We weren't able to do that last year because of the pass rush we didn't have and we lacked the corner play that we needed," Wommack said. "Boise is going to see some things they haven't seen in the last two years."


Haynes, Freshmen Show Out on Defense

Nkemdiche described Haynes as a physical freak. 

A former high jumper and 100-meter sprinter in high school, Haynes enrolled in January and broke into the two-deep early in the fall camp and has remained there.

"He has a knack for the football," said Nkemdiche of Haynes. "He's a freak. He gets to the football no matter what. If he has a missed assignment, he's still going to get to the ball either way. I like him. He plays 100 percent every down. That's what I like about Marquis. He's going to be really good in the future."

Wommack noted his raw talent, speed and quickness, adding that he's done a good job learning what they have asked him to do. He might not start in the season opener, Wommack said, but in certain packages, he will certainly be at one defensive end spot.

In addition to Haynes, Wommack raved about a trio of freshmen in defensive back A.J. Moore, linebacker DeMarquis Gates and cornerback Kendarius Webster. With the injuries in the secondary, Moore has stepped up as the team's third Huskie and Webster is in the mix as the team's fourth cornerback.

"Both of those freshmen hit a ceiling and then they came back down," said Wommack of Moore and Gates. "Kendarius Webster, too. They pushed forward and have gotten smarter each and every day, and they're going to play for us this year.

"This freshman class was a hit across the board. From top to bottom, it was better than last year's class, if you want to say that. I know there were some stars in that class the year before, but top to bottom, I don't think we missed on anybody. We have some really good football players. Some of them, if we're not going to use them this year, we absolutely don't want to burn them, and we will make that choice later on."


NOTABLE

In individual and team drills open to the media, the first-team offensive line featured sophomore Laremy Tunsil (LT), junior Aaron Morris (LG), junior Ben Still (C), junior Justin Bell (RG) and junior Fahn Cooper (RT). Sophomore Robert Conyers also got some first-team reps at right tackle when Cooper moved from right tackle to left tackle.

When the offense showed sets with two tight ends in team drills, it featured sophomore Evan Engram lined up at a traditional tight end spot and in the slot, with senior Nick Parker also at tight end on the first team. 

Sophomore Matt Brown played a role similar to Engram, with sophomore Jeremy Liggins also at tight end on the second team.

Freeze said he's looking for at least one wide receiver to emerge from a group that includes junior Quintavius Burdette, redshirt freshman Trey Bledsoe and freshmen Dayall Harris and Markell Pack.

Johnson, Brown and Haynes all got first-team reps at defensive end, with Nkemdiche and Hamilton at defensive tackle.

Brown, along with sophomore John Youngblood, got second-team reps at defensive end, with Bennett and senior Lavon Hooks at defensive tackle.

Senior Andrew Fletcher, Freeze said, remains in the lead for extra point and field goal duties from 43 yards and in, with redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos and freshman Gary Wunderlich in competition to handle longer field goals.

In other special teams work, the first-team kickoff returners were junior running back Jaylen Walton and sophomore running back Mark Dodson. 

The second-team kickoff returners were sophomore cornerback Kailo Moore and junior safety Trae Elston. Redshirt freshman running back Eugene Brazley and junior running back I'Tavius Mathers also worked with the kickoff returners.

The kickoff return units also included freshman defensive back A.J. Moore on the first team and Gates on the second team. 

Other notables on the kickoff return units included junior defensive end Channing Ward, redshirt freshman running back Jordan Wilkins, senior linebacker Keith Lewis and sophomore safety Anthony Alford on the first team.

QUOTABLE

Hugh Freeze on Robert Conyers: "Robert is very, very valuable to us and will play three positions. He may be one of the most valuable pieces of us offensively because he can grasp all three of them and do them well."

Freeze on the center position battle having named Ben Still the starter: "They're pretty even and knowing that we're going to rotate Robert at all three on various possessions, it gives us a little more flexibility, but they're about equal. Robert probably needs to concentrate on both tackle positions between now and then and it gives the ones more reps with Ben."

Freeze on Fahn Cooper's action at left tackle: "He's athletic. It depends on who you're playing and what the matchups are. It's always about matchups. No matter who we put there, there are guys in this league, sometimes you're going to cringe when you get in too many one-on-one's, if you're not able to run the ball some. If they know you're throwing it, I don't care who we put out there. It's difficult, so you have to be balanced. That's been our whole goal since we have been here."

Freeze on Issac Gross, who missed practice with a neck injury: "Issac had the procedure yesterday to get some kind of shot that we think will help speed up the recovery and hopefully cure. We should know Monday if he will be ready to go for Boise."

Robert Nkemdiche on improvement: "Something that can make me stronger as a player is knowing the playbook a lot better. Last year, I feel like I had all the tangibles to be great, but I didn't know the scheme as well. I was out there about 50 percent. I didn't know what else to do. I was trying to go out there and make plays. This year, knowing the playbook a lot better and being more mature as a player and having an SEC season under my belt helps me because I know what to expect now."

Nkemdiche on returning to Atlanta for the season opener against Boise State: "It's a great feeling going back to the Georgia Dome. I started all four years in high school there, so let's go back and start one. We want to try to finish there too."

Dave Wommack on Mike Hilton practicing at both Huskie and cornerback: "Any time you have to double-train somebody, you lose a little something. You can't get totally focused on one thing, but he's a veteran and been here for two years and knows it better. You couldn't do it with a young guy for sure."

Wommack on the secondary: "I feel better about the secondary than I have in three years. I'm really pleased with the guys. We have some guys who can cover. We have some smart guys and can create different packages with those guys. This is one of better defensive teams that have been around the last couple of years."

R. Nkemdiche Runs With First Team

It took until the fourth day of fall practice, but freshman Robert Nkemdiche got the majority of first-team reps at defensive end today. 


"Carlos (Thompson) got a ding to the head," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "I don't know what all is wrong with him, but I wouldn't be shocked to see (Nkemdiche on the first team) quite frequently," Freeze said. 

Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin has been pleased with Nkemdiche's progress through the first four days of practice and the work he's putting in outside of it.

"He's learning every day, staying after it, staying after getting work, staying after meetings and watching extra film," Kiffin said. "Like I have said before, he wants to be great."


Kiffin said one of the things he thinks about is balancing how much he works with Nkemdiche, relative to the other defensive linemen.


"I think about that every day, making sure the other guys don't feel like they're getting slighted," Kiffin said. "We got a couple of guys out here helping. But at the same time, we got to get him ready for opening night. He's going to take more attention because he's behind the 8-ball. 


"There are guys who have been here two years, so I can trust that they know it. Guys like Cameron Whigham, I'm limiting his reps because I know he knows it inside and out."


Among the things Kiffin said Nkemdiche needs to work on are his consistency, his first step and understanding pass sets, similar to what they worked on with sophomore defensive end Channing Ward last season. At the same time, Kiffin said he doesn't want to overcoach Nkemdiche.


"A guy like that, when you overcoach him, he made maybe three or four plays out here today he shouldn't had made because he did the wrong thing," Kiffin said. "You got to find the fine line right  there and let him play ball, and making sure he's doing it right and doesn't cost the team."


Defensive Line 'Further Ahead'


Kiffin said he can see the improvement in his overall unit, from where it was a year ago.


"I think the effort has been there," Kiffin said of his unit. "You can tell we're so much further ahead in the second year of the system, coming out of the spring. These guys know the defense like the back of their hand. 


"Obviously, tempo will always give us a problem, getting the signals and getting lined up. The effort and desire for these guys to get better has been there. I'm pretty pleased right now."


Junior defensive end C.J. Johnson was held out of team drills, but he participated in all individual drills today, as he recovers from a broken leg suffered in spring practice.


"He looks great, doing all of the individual stuff," Kiffin said. "And we gave him pass rush today, and he looks fine. The plan was to get him a couple reps of pass rush today, then maybe in a couple of days, get him into some team work. I think he's going to be fine all season. He looks great, running around and cutting. We just got to get him feeling the big bodies on him."


Kiffin also had praise for Channing Ward who has also gotten some first-team reps at defensive end. Ward played in 12 games at defensive end and on special teams, recording 21 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss last season.


"He looks a lot better, more focused," Kiffin said. "The speed of the game is just different for him now. I think he feels more comfortable with that but still has a ways to go to be consistent every day. He's making plays that he never made before. They're routine plays that take a little work, but he's showing a lot of improvement."


Carlos Thompson and Cameron Whigham also got first-team reps at defensive end, with redshirt freshman John Youngblood getting second-team reps there. Inside, sophomore defensive tackle Issac Gross has been sidelined, but Kiffin said he feels good about the defensive tackle position.


"I feel really good about the guys working there, with Bryon Bennett and Lavon Hooks playing '3' technique and Woody (Hamilton) and Carlton (Martin) playing nose," Kiffin said. "Those guys are getting a lot of reps, and I don't think we're missing a beat. 


"Obviously, we don't have the explosiveness inside with Issac out, but those guys are playing heck out of the run. And we can find ways to get pressure on the quarterback, so I'm pleased inside."


NOTABLE:


Robert Nkemdiche also worked as one of the three personal protectors on the first-team punt coverage unit in a special teams drill, along with senior linebackers D.T. Shackelford and Mike Marry.


In the same drill, sophomore cornerback Quintavius Burdette and senior Dehendret Collins worked as the two gunners on the first-team punt coverage unit. Sophomore Huskie Mike Hilton and freshman cornerback Bobby Hill were the gunners on the second-team unit.


With senior Pierce Burton limited, redshirt freshman Robert Conyers got first-team reps at right tackle for the the third straight day. Freshman Laremy Tunsil also got first first-team reps at left tackle, with senior Emmanuel McCray switching from left tackle to right tackle.


Senior Patrick Junen has also been limited, so sophomore Justin Bell continues to get first-team reps at right guard. Freshman Austin Golson, who has worked primarily at tackle, got second-team reps at right guard.


In the secondary, Burdette, Collins and sophomore Anthony Standifer all got first-team reps at cornerback, with junior Cody Prewitt, sophomores Trae Elston and Chief Brown and senior Brishen Mathews getting first-team reps at safety. Hill and junior Quadarias Mireles continue to get get second-team reps at cornerback.


QUOTABLE:


Freeze, on quarterbacks behind junior Bo Wallace: "I think Devante is going to be really good, and I think Ryan has a chance also, once they get an understanding of what we're doing. Barry did some decent things today but also did some really bad things. Bo hasn't been that consistent either. It feels kind of like last year. We just have to manage the game and help them not make mistakes that really hurt us."


Sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, on his brother, Robert: "He's definitely dominant. He's a dominant player and definitely getting better. We just got to make sure he knows what do when he's out there and make sure he keeps getting better every day."


Kiffin, on sophomore defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton: "I just love Woody. I love his attitude, his work ethic. He's just a good ol' country kid that comes out here. The guy, he's still a pup. He's a 305-pound pup. I love being able to mold a guy that is so physically dominant. I can't say enough about him."

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