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STAR-MAKER: Can Saints D-Line Coach Ryan Nielsen “Mold” Marcus Davenport into an Elite NFL Pass-Rusher?

4 defensive linemen drafted in the Top 130 picks. That statistic is one of the more impressive accomplishments by a college position coach in recent memory, and it was achieved by none other than New Orleans Saints 2nd year Defensive Line coach Ryan Nielsen last month when four of his former pupils — Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, Justin Jones, and Kentavius Street — were all selected within the first 130 selections of the recent 2018 NFL Draft.

Chubb (1st round, pick #5 overall, Denver Broncos), Hill (3rd round, pick #69 overall, New York Giants), Jones (3rd round, pick #84 overall, Los Angeles Chargers) and Street (4th Round, pick #128 overall, San Francisco 49ers) were among a school record 7 former Wolfpack players that were chosen from the North Carolina State football program.

That achievement by Nielsen is just one of the reasons why the 39-year old coaching assistant is regarded in some League circles as a "star-maker"; and as the Saints begin their first series of OTA's (Organized Team Activities) this morning, all eyes will be focused squarely upon Nielsen and his newest pupil: Saints 2018 top draft pick Marcus Davenport.

For Nielsen, his notable capability of developing college D-linemen into quality NFL defenders is the exact reason why it's hoped that he can help "mold" the talented but still-very-raw rookie EDGE pass rusher / defensive end from the University of Texas San Antonio into an elite NFL pass-rusher in due time.

It's a task that could be one of the more critical coaching jobs on the team's staff this off-season and moving forward into Training Camp and the Pre-Season later this Summer, as New Orleans hopes that the talented rookie can quickly become the "missing piece" for the Saints defense, opposite of All-Pro defensive lineman Cam Jordan.

It was almost a year and a half ago (February of 2017) while Nielsen was still serving as the Wolfpack defensive line coach and run game coordinator at North Carolina State, when the Saints organization first showed interest in him to replace former Saints D-Line coach Bill Johnson, who was not retained after the 2016 season.

New Orleans eventually hired Nielsen on Feb. 9th of last year, which helped to fulfill a career aspiration that the Simi Valley, California native and career college coaching assistant of 14 years (4 years with North Carolina State) had since retiring as a player (1 season in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, 1 season with the Arena Football League Los Angeles Avengers) back in 2003.

"I think there's always a dream, there's a goal, maybe one day," Nielsen said to reporters at the team's opening round of OTA's last year. "I was really happy at NC State, but now that I'm here, I look back and the decision was a no-brainer."

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

"Coach (Sean) Payton, Mickey Loomis, Coach (Dennis) Allen, everybody once we were going through this process communication-wise, top notch," Nielsen said. "It was a fantastic experience just to go through the process from N.C. State to get hired by the Saints."

Nielsen has drawn rave reviews since that time, and it's obviously why there's a sense of excitement surrounding his work with Davenport, which got started formally at the team's Rookie Mini-Camp a week and a half ago.

Nielsen, who played the defensive tackle position himself once upon a time at Southern Cal in the late 1990's and early 2000's, is a popular coach among players — and a position coach who New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson said in his recent article a few months back, is an energetic, intense presence who will apparently take an active role on the practice field.

Nielsen has become well known for his "hands-on approach" to coaching and teaching players; which Erickson notes is the act of him personally and physically demonstrating technique, even if that means putting his hand in a 3-point stance and getting "down in the dirt" to show a player how to come off the ball and execute a move.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

That "hands on approach" to teaching players was something that observers say wasn't really embraced all that much previously by the former 'old school' D-Line coach Bill Johnson. 

We'll see here starting this morning and in the upcoming weeks ahead, if Nielsen's coaching style can pay dividends with Davenport; whose biggest critics believe that the Saints organization gave up too much for (surrendering their #1 pick in next year's 2019 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers, in order to move up and select him at #14 overall) given the lingering questions that continue to be asked with regard to his being able to adapt to the NFL level.

The most vocal of critics have questioned specifically Davenport's capability to play with his "hand in the dirt", which he's considered better suited to do by most analysts because of his length and size (6-foot-7, 264 pounds).

Many of those same critics believe that Davenport can be neutralized at times by bigger offensive tackles when he comes off the outside edge as a "stand-up" rusher in a 2-point stance (for NFL D-Linemen in the base 4-3 defense, sometimes it’s actually harder to get a good jump off the ball when you don’t have your "hand in the dirt" — a.k.a., a 3-point stance).

In his article last week for the New Orleans Advocate, Joel A. Erickson noted that lining up with a hand on the ground or "in the dirt", then exploding out of that position and staying low, requires excellent technique, and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's defense normally lines up its defensive ends in a 3-point stance. 

Davenport played in a 3-point stance in his first two seasons at Texas-San Antonio, but that was before he packed on most of the weight he carries now. 

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

"He’s receiving a lot of work on his stance," Saints head coach Sean Payton said to Erickson and the rest of 'Saints Media' at last week's Rookie Mini-Camp. "He played in the two-point quite a bit a year ago."

"He’ll play in a three, and there’ll be times where we stand him up, I’m sure," Payton said. "The key is the leverage and the technique, but he’s handling it well. He’s long."

Erickson observed that Nielsen — aided by defensive assistant / pass-rushing specialist Brian Young — have already gotten ahead of the curve with Davenport by working with him on his technique at Rookie Mini-Camp; and that process is likely to continue again today and for the remainder of the off-season workouts and into Training Camp; as the talented rookie continues learning the "ins and outs" of playing the position.

And as Erickson also notes: the art of pass rushing in the NFL is far more than athleticism. All-Pros like Cam Jordan are technicians, experts who study offensive linemen and alter their attack throughout a game to counter an opponent's game plan. All of that has to be learned. 

Clearly given his resume with developing D-linemen throughout the past few years, nobody is more qualified to teach Davenport those pass-rushing techniques than Nielsen is.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

"We felt like he had a unique skill set that allowed him to be able to rush the passer," Allen said to reporters last week. "He has size, length, speed, so all the qualities that you’re looking for, he has. It’s getting him out here, getting him accustomed to what we’re going to ask him to do and helping him to develop."

If Nielsen is able to get the most of his time spent with Davenport in these next few upcoming weeks and months ahead, there isn't any doubt that it could bode very well for the Saints defense not only just for the 2018 season, but much further into the future as well.

If the 'Star-Maker' is able to continue his notable success with developing talented college D-Linemen as he has for the last several years, then there isn't any doubt that Nielsen can "mold" Marcus Davenport an elite NFL pass-rusher for the Black and Gold during his career in New Orleans, for quite some time.......


Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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