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Sitting down with Joe Cullen (part two of two)

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*As a defensive lineman, like Tyson Alualu, do guys take a major step in the second year?   It was apparent that Terrance Knighton made a big leap in year two. *

Definitely. Everything was new to Tyson with the scheme and technique.  At Cal he was in a 3-4 where he sat and read everything.  Now we are asking him to get off the ball and create havoc in the backfield.  He's got great natural instincts as a pass rusher. He's going to get a feel of how guys block him and set on him. 

There are people across the league that have mentioned Terrance Knighton as one of the best young tackles in the game.  You agree with that assessment?

Absolutely.  From the Philadelphia game to the Oakland game, he was dominating.  You look at the AFC and you have Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and those type of guys.  To me in that span of time no one played better than Terrance.

What makes him special?

He has exceptional feet for a man that size.  He uses his hands well and he runs to the ball.  He plays hard and made a lot of plays pursuing the ball.  He has really great lateral quickness and he can rush for a big guy.  He has good rush skills.

It appears from the outside that even though he is young he became a leader in the locker room.  Did you sense that?

He didn't miss a play in practice. I don't recall a day where someone said, 'Terrance can't practice.'  This is training camp all the way through. He went through the drills, practiced hard and it carried over to the games. 

How tough was it for your group the day Aaron Kampman went down with the injury?

It was a like a morgue in our room. Everybody was down.  The next morning we didn't know what the results were going to be so we talked about it in our room.  Aaron brought a lot to this room and to this team. He showed you guys how a professional football player practices and prepares but by no means can we just stop because Aaron is not here. Woe is me.  There was a torch he lit and we aren't going to let that thing go out.

Did you sense Terrance stepping up as the leader in that room with Aaron gone for the season?

Coach Del Rio asked him to talk to the team that Friday and he really talked about carrying that torch.  He kind of guaranteed that we were going to stop the run against the number one running back (Houston's Arian Foster) in the league and we did.  Terrance played really well.  More importantly, he took the defensive line under his wing, and he's young himself. He just kept practicing and preparing.  He took that upon himself to lead.

This is from a guy that was criticized for being overweight in the offseason.  It appeared from the outside that he didn't pout about it and went to work on fixing it.

He lost the weight.  That is going to be a constant issue for a big guy like that.  If he keeps his weight in check then the sky's the limit.  He will.

What did you see out of third-round pick D'Anthony Smith during the short time he was on the field?  Where do you see him fitting in?

Some of the same things we saw in Tyson and Terrance in terms of exceptional feet, sudden off the ball and being athletic.  He showed signs of winning the one-on-one pass rush battles even though he didn't have a lot of time in camp. We saw the things that Gene Smith and Coach (Del Rio) liked and that's why we drafted him. I'm excited about him being able to be the third tackle and have the ability to rush inside. 

We can't talk defensive line without talking about Jeremy Mincey.  The guy gives you everything he has every day and played most of this season with a cast on his hand.

One thing as a coach at any level is you know what you're getting. You know you can count on Jeremy Mincey.  He's going to go as hard as he can on every snap.  He's going to know what to do and he's going to do it to the best of his ability. You don't want to have to worry about if a guy is going to play hard today. It's over and done because you know that's going to happen.  Jeremy really improved with his instincts and his awareness.  He played the bootleg as well as anyone around, not just on our team.  When we needed him the most when Aaron went down he came to play.

You had three rookie defensive ends in Aaron Morgan, Austen Lane and Larry Hart.  Do you expect a big improvement from that group?

The biggest thing for a young guy is to learn how to rush a passer.  Austen got close and he had some near sack-fumbles.  I expect that to pick up for him. Larry and Aaron had some hits on the quarterback but those guys have to take the leap and get the four and five sacks for us to take the next step.

*All of the names you mentioned and the return of D'Anthony Smith should give you a solid rotation in 2010. *

Ideally you have seven up and you play them all.  You would like to have that third tackle at 25 to 28 snaps and something around the same for the third end.  Your starters don't have to play 65 snaps a game.  They are playing more like 48.

You just returned for the Senior Bowl in Mobile. What do you look for in these young linemen?

You can really tell who works and who doesn't.  Who's competing? I want to see who is really trying to win their one-on-one battles in the run game and in passing situations.  You get a real good feel in those live settings of who is working hard and competing.  The Combine is more drill work.  You get a feel of them personally when you interview them. 

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