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New Saints coach Ryan Nielsen is a great fit in New Orleans

The newest Saints coach built a dominant defensive line for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Now, Ryan Nielsen is taking his passion for teaching to the NFL.

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-North Carolina State vs Vanderbilt
North Carolina State Wolfpack players hold the trophy after the game against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Independence Stadium. North Carolina State Wolfpack defeated the Vanderbilt Commodores 41-17.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

News broke Tuesday afternoon that Ryan Nielsen was leaving the NC State Wolfpack staff to take a position with the New Orleans Saints. That’s an innocuous move on the surface, and problem didn’t move the needle for many fans - even those who are passionate for college football. But there’s a lot to like about this move the more you dig into it.

Nielsen joined NC State after bouncing around from one program to the next, including stays on Ed Orgeron’s Ole Miss staff back in 2005 until 2007, and a prominent role at Northern Illinois from 2011 to 2013. He really began to thrive after landing the defensive line coaching job at NC State.

Under Nielsen’s watch, recruiting stepped up. He showed a knack for teaching that quickly paid dividends, and culminated in a two-year stretch of great production in 2015 and 2016. This is a great read from 2015 that dives into Nielsen’s coaching style and relationship with his players.

Last year, four defensive linemen collected nine or more tackles for loss: Kentavius Street (9 TFL), Darian Roseboro (11), Airius Moore (14), and Bradley Chubb (21), who returned to school after getting a Day Two grade (second/third round) from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. Among that group, only Moore got less than five sacks.

Another thing to note about about Nielsen is the reputation he’s built among his peers at the college level. In 2016, Nielsen was nominated for the Broyles Award, which is given to the nation’s top assistant coach. Other nominees included both current LSU coordinators, Dave Aranda (defense) and then-Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Along with Missouri offensive line coach Glen Elarbee and Nebraska linebackers coach Trent Bray, Nielsen was one of just three of forty initial nominees to not also serve as a coordinator for his team’s offense, defense, or special teams. Here’s what some of Nielsen’s players had to say about him, courtesy of the NC State media department:

Stylistically, Nielsen specializes in four-man fronts that feature a true nose tackle over the center and a three-technique disruptor. That’s a great fit guys inside like Tyeler Davison and Sheldon Rankins, as well as Nick Fairley (if he returns).

On the edges in his base looks, Nielsen prefers bigger ends similar to Cameron Jordan and David Onyemata more than smaller, quicker pass rushers like Hau’oli Kikaha - though he does have experience in using pressure packages that feature those stand-up ends.

Nielsen may not have the pedigree of other assistants around the league, but he’s landed in a great situation to make a name for himself. Three of the Saints’ top six defensive linemen in snaps played were first- or second-year players. With so many young guys - Onyemata especially, as he only started playing football in college - this is a big opportunity for Nielsen to dive into. Here’s a clip of him teaching from NC State’s media department:

This deep draft class of edge rushers looks like a great opportunity to give Nielsen more talent to develop; imagine Nielsen taking the natural bend and snap anticipation of someone like Derek Barnett and teaching him some new pass rush moves. I can’t wait for training camp.