Q&A with DT coach Al Davis, Kristian Williams & Darius Robinson

Interior defensive line coach Al Davis as well as defensive tackles Kristian Williams and Darius Robinson addressed the media on Wednesday and discussed potential position changes, number changes and the development of players in the position group from top to bottom.

– How does it feel to be back for spring football?

“It’s exciting we’ve got good players coming back. So, that’s always a plus, right? You don’t have to coach a whole bunch of new guys, but I’m really excited to be back and get into it.”

– How do you feel about Darius Robinson moving to defensive end?

“Well, he’s playing both. Right now he’s just working somewhere else, but he will play both. It shows the kid’s versatility. We got some young guys we need to develop and it provides a little bit of space inside to help Marquis Gracial, Ky Montgomery and Jalen Marshall get into the rotation and get caught up to speed up there.

“Also, it’ll provide some depth outside to help bring some of the newer guys along. So, it will be big-time for us in a lot of different ways.”

– How big of a spring is it for Gracial?

“It’s huge. I do think there’s been a lot of growth in the kid since he’s touched down on campus. He had a great fall camp last year. I think he did a great job all season over on the scout team taking the drills seriously when he could work the scouts against the first and second-teamers. But after one day (of spring practice) you can tell he’s so much better than he was when he showed up to campus.”

– The defensive tackles seem to be a close-knit group, but how do you manage personalities? They’re still competitors at the end of the day they want to be on the field.

“We created that ourselves and we call that “Trench Mob.” We call our group that because it’s a brotherhood and they’ve got to buy into it and if they don’t buy into it don’t really work. It was one of those deals where as the coach if you can get those guys to run through a brick wall for you and get them to understand brotherhood and that we’re going to do it by committee then they’ll go push forward in one direction. So for us, we’re trying to take two players and make one.

“They understand that we play in a rotation. We’re going to try and wear offensive lines down. It’s not going to be two dudes who start and play 70 snaps in a football game for us ever. All of those guys are going to play between 30-40 snaps a game and they play extremely well together. They tag their brothers in and out of the game and they take all of that stuff extremely seriously. So, it’s a big thing for us. We laid a foundation and the older guys ran with it and the younger guys are buying into it.”

– Defensive tackle is one of the deepest positions on the team with five players returning. How do you get guys like Jalen Marshall and Marquis Gracial in the rotation?

“Part of it is the older guys are helping tutor the younger guys. Also, we’re going to play the best guys. Through the scrimmages, we will be able to see some flashes and through fall camp we will be able to see some growth. Like I said, we play in a rotation. So, if you’re a third-string guy in our defensive tackle room you’re going to be a guy that gets in the game. A lot of times, if you’re an offensive lineman and you’re the third string you’ll never see the field, but because we play in a rotation it allows us to be deeper and get more bodies out on the field.”

– What are you looking for out of Kristian Williams?

“Well, a lot of it will be a lot of off-the-field stuff like the leadership, the growth, being a little more vocal because I do think he’s an extremely serious kid. So, the on-the-field stuff, the classroom stuff we’re not having any issues there. It’s continuing to see him grow as a person and a leader moving forward.”

– Blake Baker talked about the importance of takeaways this year. On the defensive line you may not have this big emphasis on turnovers but how can you impact that part of the game?

“Putting more pressure and disrupting the quarterback and making him change his reads and stuff like that will make it a lot easier for the back end as well. It’s all 11 men on the field jobs to do their job. As far as the defensive line, we’ve got to disrupt the run game and make them one-dimensional. It will be a lot easier for the defense as a whole and everybody can play together as one, so we can take the ball away.”

– What did you learn about yourself in your first year here in Columbia?

“I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable. Every day we get tested through these different trials and tribulations and stuff like that. So, just being able to push through and knowing that I can’t control anything else but the way I act. Actually, controlling the controllable is something that I’m really starting to pick up on more.”

– How do you balance helping someone else out but also trying to make sure you get to be the starter or get your snaps or whatever it may be?

“Whenever we try to do extra work we always bring somebody with us regardless. If we not getting better as a group – you’re only as good as the group. So, we don’t necessarily look at everyone’s individual achievements. We try to play selfless because if we are selfish then the group as a whole will be demoralized.”

– When coach Davis says to make two people into one position, how does that make it feel going into this position battle with them?

“Just knowing that however it goes the person behind you has your back through thick and thin. It makes you a lot more comfortable with going all out and knowing there are people behind you that want you to succeed as well.”

– What’s the reason behind the number change?

“Growing up five has always been my favorite number just because my birthday is on Dec 5. When I had the chance to get the number I wasn’t hesitating to get the number. I feel like, in my eyes, that’s a pretty good number for me.”

– You were unsure at the bowl game, but would you have been surprised that this many other guys were coming back?

“Yeah, I was. We have a group chat and we were just texting and calling and seeing where everybody’s heads were at. I’m glad everybody came back with me because we’ve got some really talented guys on this team that’s why I say the pressure should be on. We have eight returning starters. We’ve got to play ball like we’ve never had before.”

– Coach Baker was talking about literally being the best defense in school history. Is that something you vocalize and say that’s the goal?

“We have, but at the end of the day we’re just working like every day. Practice means just focusing on getting better and what we did last year was good, but it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, 2023 is a new year with new opportunities. We just got to go to work every day.”

– Was the move to defensive end something the coaches said they needed you to do because of the number of defensive tackles on the team or was that something you voiced to them and it just happen to come up?

“It’s something I voice to them. I think I made it clear that I wanted to show this year that I can do everything and that’s the thing, I know I can do everything. So, they’re giving me the opportunity, but I’ve got to maximize every day and practice getting used to it because it’s definitely way different than being a tackle. So, it’s just getting used to it and getting better at it every day.”

– What parts of your game do you think you will need to improve on to make the switch to defensive end?

“Pass rush. because there’s so much more grass compared to defensive tackle. At defensive tackle, you work a move right now. At defensive end, you have to get upfield and then work a move. So, I think pass rush is going to be the most difficult transition. Coach (Kevin) Peoples does a good job with coaching details, so I’m excited about that.”

– What’s your leadership style?

“I just care about my teammates honestly. I don’t ask anything of someone I wouldn’t do myself. Just have real good energy and just try to be there for guys because it’s about relationships more than football.”

– What do you feel like the biggest area of growth in year one with Blake and what do you want to continue building on?

“Confidence. I feel like he did a good job just giving us confidence every week to go play just by the way we practice and how the drills translated to games. So, I think this year we are really confident and we have to take advantage of that and get better each day.”

– How have you seen guys like Marquis Gracial and Jalen Marshall grow and what do you want to see more of?

“They’re so big. Those are like the biggest freshmen I’ve ever seen. They’re doing a good job with coach Russell of getting bigger and stronger in the weight room. Any type of opportunity to get their shot I think they’ll be ready for it. They’re really big guys, so that helps out a lot.”

– What went into your decision to return?

“I thought about my life and school and I just feel like this is the best position for my life, but it was hard. After the bowl game, I got invited to the NFL Combine and the Shrine Bowl and I told (head) coach (Eli) Drinkwitz I don’t think I’m coming back. Then, I just started thinking more about everything. I felt like I didn’t reach my potential on tape and I feel I can get better. As far as school, I graduate in the spring and I’m going to start my masters in the summer. So, from a lifestyle standpoint, I’m really getting it. So, that’s how I came back.”

– Having this much leadership on this defense does that make you guys excited about how much y’all have coming back?

“Somebody asked earlier if there is pressure and I think there should be. I mean we have eight returning starters. We’ve just got to play ball and get better every day. That’s exciting because you’re going to work with guys that know what it takes, knows what the losses and wins feel like. So, we know what we need to do to get it done.”

What do you want the mark of this defense to be?

“To be honest, the best defensive line and the best defense with the best coaches. It’s about getting better every day. That’s the end goal, but I know every day is going to look different The process is going to be different every day, but it’s just going and getting better.”

– Is spring ball just going over the fundamentals for you guys?

“Coach Drink made it clear our No. 1 goal is just self-improvement. I think that’s what it should be because it’s a huge opportunity. Fourteen practices to get better at whatever you feel like you’re lacking at. Like for me, I know it’s pass rush and run game release box. Spring is a good time to take advantage of that.”

– How much do you feel like you guys have grown in the run game?

“The run game is serious because everything starts up front and we’ve got to be able to stop the run. So, it definitely gives us a lot of confidence and momentum whenever we are able to get that done. I think this year it’s going to be a bigger emphasis because we’ve got to stop the run to earn the right to rush the passer and that’s a big thing.”

– When you got your draft grade how did you feel? Also, was it something where you thought it was way too low or maybe close to where you wanted but not just right yet?

“A little bit of both. First, I’m blessed to even have this opportunity. Then it was one of those things I do feel certain guys that were projected higher than me weren’t better than me and also I felt I could be better. That’s why I said I watched the tape and I feel like I could grow and I felt like I wasn’t at the top of my top yet. So, I was just like I might as well come back to college and get better. I was just blessed to be in the conversation.”

– Is the draft grade something you want to share with us?

“They had me between the third and the fifth round. That’s a blessing to be in that because you have to realize that’s the best 250-plus players to get drafted in the country. To say I was a part of that is huge, but I know for me I want to leave a mark that’s everlasting. So, that’s why I’m going to get better. It’s hard though. Going back to the combine, it’s like a childhood dream. Like I remember just watching all the kids’ names pop up with their university. I know there are going to be bigger and better things coming from it I just got to stay focused and humble and just keep working.”

– Is that something you and Kris Abrams-Draine talked about because he also got a third-round grade and wanted to come back to get better?

“Not necessarily. We just have the same mindset about it. We’ve got a lot of guys’ attention. So, that’s why I said we’ve got to work and not worry about the outside stuff.”