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Falcons' Kemal Ishmael: Playing physical big part of his game, thriving in the 'nasty box'

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Six days into training camp and Kemal Ishmael appears to be right at home in the place he calls "the nasty box."

That place is where defensive tackles, pass-rushers and linebackers roam – and Ishmael has made it his full-time residence since moving from strong safety during the offseason. And the way Ishmael sees it, he's a natural fit for it.


"Just how physical I play, the versatility I give and just taking pride in going down in the nasty box and taking on blockers and hitting people – that's a big part of my game," Ishmael said.

After playing two years at strong safety, Ishmael's versatility, size and tackling ability allowed him a chance to see action at outside linebacker in two games last season.

"When guys went down last year and I stepped in like we're supposed to do, and I played pretty well," Ishmael said. "I had to learn on the run, everything happened fast. It's not like we were playing just anybody – we were playing Seattle, Denver, and I didn't want to let the team down."

The Falcons must've liked what they saw from Ishmael because during the offseason, the fifth-year player from Central Florida was moved to outside linebacker exclusively.

"He's a really good tackler," Quinn said back in the spring. "We play a lot of three-deep zone. He's one of our very best when he plays down low, so why not get him a little closer?"

Closer, as in the so-called "nasty box" that Ishmael called it following Tuesday morning's practice session. And so far, it's going well.

"The transition is good," he said. "You know, it's more physical down there, closer to the line and everything is happening fast. I'm getting a good hold of it. Guys are teaching me, just making that transition easy."

Despite playing in only 13 games with just four starts, Ishmael finished 2016 with 29 tackles and 29 assists. He says the toughest part of the position change so far has been recognizing formations and making the right defensive line calls.

"Alignments and getting the right the D-line calls," Ishmael said. "Moving them and getting them in the right spot. An inch could separate you from making a tackle and giving up a touchdown and saving one, so those alignments are crucial."

Ishmael joins a young unit that also includes LaRoy Reynolds, second-year players Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell and rookie Duke Riley. Ishmael says the chemistry is good and the competition is intense.

"Duke's been awesome, man," Ishmael said. "As a rookie, he's been going for it. And that has a lot to do with the room and where he's at. We treat him like a vet, we treat him like a brother. He's been digging just like everybody else and been showing great signs."

Whether Ishmael ultimately establishes himself as a starter or not, the Falcons' linebacker corps gotten deeper and better with him in the mix.

"The chemistry is awesome," he said. "They're young so everybody feeds into the program. (Linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich) does a good coaching us. It's not like he's a coach first, he's a players' coach first. … Those guys that you don't see, they play a big part in what we do. We just take pride in that LB room because we're the core – we believe we're the core.

"It's start up front."

And that focus on "up front" is where Ishmael has had to change his mindset. He went from a place where he once focused on "pass first" and understanding all of the route concepts to thinking "run first."

"In the linebacker room we talk about pass, but run first," Ishmael said.

But that's where his prior experience playing in the secondary – and knowing where the defensive backs are going to be lined up based on offensive formations – could give Ismael an edge.

"So, when we're rotating and stuff and I'll make a right-right call, I know the safety is down this way – I'm over here – there's no confusion," Ishmael said. "Like I know where the rotation is, I know where they're going to be, their job, so I'm not, 'Well what do I have?' Just bringing that knowledge with me to the linebacker spot."

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