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Draft Central | 2024

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Coach's Corner: WMU coach on Marshawn Kneeland


FRISCO, Texas — The eight draft picks for the Dallas Cowboys will make their way to The Star this weekend to officially put pen to paper on their rookie contracts and to participate in rookie minicamp, as their NFL careers sit on the verge of their beginnings.

Entering as a rookie brings a lot of excitement, but also a lot of expectation. Especially for the current Cowboys rookie class, there will be a need for immediate contributions from the majority of the draft picks.

In Coach's Corner, we reached out to each of the draftees' college position coaches to find out more about their development in college on and off the field, their fits in Dallas and how it coincided with their time in college, and what they might need to work on before touching the NFL field.

Next up is Western Michigan defensive end Marshawn Kneeland, who we spoke to Western Michigan defensive line coach David Denham about regarding these topics.

Q: Whenever Marshawn arrived at Western Michigan, what did he do to separate himself from a work ethic standpoint to earn a spot on the field?

A: Marshawn really separated himself by – and this was all due to the fact that he saw the elder statesmen in the room doing this – being in the facility at 6 a.m. doing prehab, not rehab, where he would get his body loose, stretch and actively ready to go. Because we had practices in the morning and he had classes in the afternoon, when he was done with classes, he would come over to the facility and ask, "Can we watch this? Can we watch that? Hey, what did you see on the tackle set? Is he giving anything away?" I would be like, "Hey, I'm going to give you this homework assignment. I want you to watch all of the second-and-mediums and you tell me what you see." He'd come back and say what he saw. That was really when it started. At the end of the day, you saw it in the fall. In the springtime, he would go on the field by himself and take his playbook and walkthrough things all by himself. That's when you started to see the gradual separation between him and some of the other guys. He saw [Braden] Fiske do it and they naturally gravitated toward one another and that's where you started to see the separation.

Q: In your recruiting efforts in 2018 and 2019, it seems as though Western Michigan was going after athletic, high-upside type players. What intrigued you guys in Marshawn specifically? Was it the basketball background? The track background? How do you think that translated to the football field?

A: It was definitely both. Obviously, when you have an athlete of his caliber and his size – again when he was a senior in high school coming into the recruiting process, he was not 275 pounds by any stretch of the means. He was a basketball player who was super athletic, but when it transitioned and you saw it on the field, you go "hey, that athlete is going to be something" because he played multiple positions. We were like he's going to be a freakishly athletic rush-end and I think when you saw some of the things he did with his pass-rush mechanics and how everything translated, you saw some basketball-esque things where he would work on a jab swipe or he would work on a speed-to-power and jab you and then work his long-arm stab. I think everything just kind of translated with that.

Q: Throughout his time at Western Michigan, how has he been able to utilize his power more and more to be able to not only attack the backfield in the run game but pass rush as well?

A: He loves being physical in the run game. I've coached a lot of them, but this young man, he embraces spilling things or boxing things. He takes pride in putting his hands on tackles and if they block down, making sure that he's doing a good job of replacing their heels. When you talk to d-ends, they want to get home and they want to get sacks. We know that. But I told these guys that at the end of the day, you have to earn the right to pass rush. He gradually took to that comment and I just think when you see how explosive he is, you see him come out of his hips and shock offensive linemen and be violent at the point of attack. I think that has a direct correlation with his athleticism. Obviously, when you put on his pass rush, it's like he's out there playing basketball again with some of his mechanics and some of his footwork. Again, it goes back to some of the stuff he did in high school.

Q: From a run game perspective, how much did you guys lean on him in your run gameplan?

A: I'm telling you, there were teams that ran away from him. He would come off the field and get frustrated, and we would try to do some things defensively whether it was movements or gains. There was one time where we put him on the field and put him back to the boundary, whatever it was, teams would not want to run to him. When they did, whether it was a 6-Technique on a tight end or he was a 5-Technique on an offensive tackle, he did a great job of being physical at the point of attack. He did a really good job of eye discipline. That's one thing that people don't appreciate. Obviously, me being a defensive line coach, I love it. I thought his eyes were very, very good. There was a play that I remember vividly from Iowa this year. They came back and he got caught because the tackle blocks down and they bring a guy back to wham him, and he got earholed and didn't go down. That didn't happen the rest of the game. He said that was on him. He corrected it right away and it didn't happen again.

Q: What was the thing he improved on the most last year in his final season with you guys?

A: I know, just from talking to him at this point last season, he loves speed-to-power. I think he did a really good job of setting up his inside stab move. That was one that he really wanted to focus on making sure that he was stepping with the appropriate foot as we talk about his rod, his stab hand where everything was really working together. I think he spent time, hours perfecting that move and I think he did a really good job of it. Another thing he wanted to do a better job of, he was always an active film study guy, but it was like "OK Coach D, I know the defense. I know the defensive line. I know what the linebackers are going to do." He wanted to take it to the next level and I think he did a better job with that last year and it helped.

Q: What would you say he is still working on as he makes the NFL jump?

A: It's like every defensive line coach, it's all the small particulars. Obviously, eye discipline can always be better when you're seeing things and that'll come from playing the game. I think also, he has all the rush ability in the world, just making sure he doesn't get frustrated when his first move doesn't work. Obviously, he knows he can always go back to a second move and what to counter off of it. Just having his plan which he always has a plan of attack predicated when he watches the offensive tackles [on film]. Even at the Senior Bowl, he texted me once he figured out who the offensive tackles were going to be, and he said, "Coach, I want a PFF cutup on all the tackles in the Senior Bowl and I want to watch them." So, I built him a cutup of every single tackle that was listed and he watched them. Once he dives into the NFL world and gets a grasp on how fast-paced it is, how physical it is, he's just got to continue to work on staying patient and know that his move is going to hit.

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