2013 Rutgers Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Rutgers Scarlet Knight Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What you need to know: The Scarlet Knights are on their third defensive coordinator, Dave Cohen, in the last three years, but for all of the good reasons. Assistants are not getting canned, rather promoted for the work that's perennially being done with the Rutgers D. Year-in and year-out, the Knights are producing NFL talent, while residing among the nation's stingiest units. In 2012, for instance, they ranked No. 4 nationally in points allowed. RU performs like an old-school, blue-collar Big Ten defense, though that reputation is going to be tested in 2013. Only four starters are back On the Banks, and last season's four First Team All-Big East performers have graduated. The Knights are going to lean heavily on the Merrell twins, DE Jamil and LB Jamal, and the coaching staff for guidance and leadership. Rutgers has recruited well over the years, but now it's up to Cohen and his assistants to make sure all of that young talent is ready for action once the season begins at the end of August.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Jamal Merrell
Tackles: Jamal Merrell, 83
Sacks: Jamil Merrell, 5.5
Interceptions: Lorenzo Waters, Jamal Merrell, 1
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Gareef Glashen
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Darius Hamilton
Best pro prospect: Jamal Merrell
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Merrell, 2) Senior DE Jamil Merrell, 3) Junior SS Lorenzo Waters
Strength of the defense: Stuffing the run, preventing big plays, physicality, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: Proven starters, rebuilt secondary, middle of the D, consistent pressure
Scott Vallone has run out of eligibility. Senior Jamil Merrell is being asked to become one of the physical and emotional leaders of the defensive front. The Scarlet Knights have had success in the recent past with undersized tackles, such as Eric Foster. And Merrell was one of them. However, he's sliding outside for his final season. He's 6-4 and 255 pounds, which can be an issue on running downs, but he compensates with his quickness and toughness. After starting a couple of games on the outside in 2012, he permanently moved to three-tech, finishing his first full season in the lineup with 40 tackles, 10.5 stops for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Helping form a bookend with Merrell on the outside will be 6-2, 260-pound senior Marcus Thompson. He started 11 games a year, but his production was more indicative of a lightly-used reserve. Thompson contributed just 23 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss and a half-sack in a year that was far too quiet. Thompson has turned up the pressure in the offseason, but it needs to spill over to the fall.
The program is very excited about the potential of 6-4, 260-pound sophomore Darius Hamilton, the star of the 2012 recruiting class. He's set to line up at three-tech, the tackle position that demands more speed and quickness. He earned a letter form off the bench last season, making 17 stops in 12 games. What Hamilton lacks in size, he makes up for with great hands, tight fundamentals and the passion to become a star up front.
The coaching staff is going to take a little more time to decide on its starting nose tackle, with 6-3, 275-pound senior Isaac Holmes attempting to fend off 6-1, 270-pound junior Kenneth Kirksey. Holmes is returning from a wrist injury that ended his season after the first four games. He desperately needs to become one of the line leaders from the interior of the unit. Kirksey's modest size and limited resume figure to be concerns at the nose. He's a scrappy player, with a good motor, but that'll get a lineman only so far when he's facing opponents 30-40 pounds heavier.
Watch Out For .... Hamilton to take his first big step toward becoming one of the top young linemen in the American Athletic Conference. It was no fluke that he was a five-star recruit a year ago, with offers from across the country. He's highly-skilled at getting penetration, the next big thing at three-tech for the Knights.
Strength: Run-stuffing. Somehow, someway, Rutgers always seems to find a way to plug the holes in run defense. A year ago, the Scarlet Knights ranked No. 6 nationally, giving up just 2.7 yards per carry. Now, losing Vallone to graduation certainly hurts, but past history indicates that the front wall will find a way to seal off opposing runners.
Weakness: Pass rushers. Rutgers desperately needs someone other than Merrell to pressure the pocket this season. Hamilton seems like a safe bet from the inside, but the pass rush must be more of a collaborative effort than it was in 2012, when only two Knights got to the quarterback more than three times.
Outlook: Rutgers rarely fails to get the job done in the trenches, but reaching goals will require a little more heavy lifting this season. While Merrell and Hamilton show the potential to be playmakers at the point of attack, the Scarlet Knights are looking for more than just a couple of stalwarts up front. Thomson and Holmes, in particular, need to deliver their best seasons with the program.
The Scarlet Knights took a beating at linebacker, with the graduations of Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais. Like twin brother Jamil up front, 6-4, 220-pound senior Jamal Merrell will need to be the ignition of a rebuilding unit. As a 13-game starter at strongside in 2012, his apprenticeship as a key contributor went rather well, and included 83 tackles, 8.5 stops for loss and a pair of blocked kicks. Merrell plays with the range and fluidity of a one-time wide receiver, but his intensity and physicality have been ideal fits for the defensive side of the ball. While the bar may be set at 100 tackles, how well he leads might be a better measure of success in 2013.
Weakside will be manned by junior Kevin Snyder, one of the most versatile members of the defense. He can play inside as well, and has been a valuable defender off the bench for the Scarlet Knights. A year ago, he started the Louisville game, and finished the season with 30 tackles, seven stops for loss and two sacks. The 6-3, 225-pounder possesses the toughness and athletic ability to rank among the team leaders in stops this fall.
Supplanting Beauharnais in the middle will be a very tall order, one that might be filled by a rookie, 6-1, 220-pound redshirt freshman Steve Longa. Longa began spring drills as a backup at weakside, yet moved inside and never left. Sure, he lacks ideal size and experience for such a key position, but his closing speed, range and general athleticism will help flatten the learning curve throughout the year.
The veteran among the reserves will be 6-0, 210-pound senior Nick DePaola, a hard-working journeyman who arrived as a walk-on. A year ago, he made 13 tackles coming off the bench and playing on special teams. The most gifted backup, though, might be 6-1, 220-pound sophomore Quentin Gause, who'll learn behind Merrell for one more season. Gause played briefly in 2012, but is the type of grinder who'll offset average speed with a strong upper body and the drive to succeed.
Watch Out For .... a breakout season from Snyder. The junior has been waiting for this opportunity to shine, constantly learning from the starters last fall. He's smart and talented, and now he'll get a chance to showcase those skills on an every-down basis.
Strength: The flanks. Snyder is poised to breakthrough; Merrell already did so last season. Rutgers' linebackers on the outside can cover a lot of ground from the second level, impacting the pass defense as pass rushers and as cover guys. The instincts and athletic ability of these long and lean Knights is outstanding.
Weakness: Middle. The drop-off from a savvy veteran, like Beauharnais, to a rookie, Longa, will be precipitous. And behind Longa is true freshman Lester Liston. Longa can't possibly add the necessary weight in the next couple of months to handle the rigors of being a gap-filler against the run in the AAC.
Outlook: There's going to be an element of rebuilding at linebacker, though an overhaul is certainly not needed. Merrell and Snyder will make a ton of plays this season, including bunch that change the tempo of a game. However, the situation in the middle is a bona fide concern in Piscataway. Assertive opponents are going to exploit the center of the Rutgers D, which hasn't been this questionable in years.
No unit at Rutgers is scrambling more this offseason than the secondary, which lost three starters, CB Logan Ryan, FS Duron Harmon and CB Brandon Jones to the New England Patriots. The lone holdover, 6-0, 200-pound SS Lorenzo Waters will need to be a top-notch leader as well as a defender. The junior put down a nice foundation in his starting debut, making 68 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, two sacks, a pick and two forced fumbles. Waters enjoys contact, and will wrap up in space in order to prevent opposing players from picking up additional yards.
Waters' partner at free safety looks as if it's going to be Jeremy Deering whose career at Rutgers began as a high-profile running back. The jack-of-all-trades later switched to wide receiver, but never had the impact on offense that many expected. Though still very raw at his newest position, Deering is 6-2 and 210 pounds, with the athleticism to make this newest relocation work before he runs out of eligibility.
Pitching in at safety and in nickel packages will be 5-11, 185-pound junior Johnathan Aiken
, who's been little-used up to this point in his career. However, the light has begun to flicker on for the reserve, which means he'll back up Deering and contribute on special teams.
The Scarlet Knights are feverishly looking to develop two new starting cornerbacks now that Ryan and Jones have graduated. Junior Gareef Glashen isn't great at any one particular thing, but he's done enough things well to ascend to the top of the depth chart at one spot. The 5-10, 180-pound Miami native played in 10 games last season, making seven tackles and gradually getting accustomed to the speed of the game.
Hanging just behind Glashen is 6-2, 190-pound sophomore Tejay Johnson, whose quest for the top spot has been hampered by nagging injuries. He has an enticing blend of size and speed, but needs to translate those measurements into on-field production. As a rookie last year, Johnson earned a letter by making 11 tackles in 13 games.
Youth could be served at the other cornerback spot, with 6-1, 200-pound redshirt freshman Ian Thomas jumping ahead of the competition. He earned his preseason lead by getting named most improved defensive player of the spring. He'll bring good ball skills and the physicality of a safety to the secondary, but still has a lot to learn in coverage, a concern for the pass defense. Still, it'll be worth paying attention to the arrival of 5-11, 190-pound senior Lewis Toler, a transfer from Western Michigan. The Delaware native played in 37 games for the Broncos, starting all but one and picking off eight passes.
Watch Out For .... the condition of the shoulder of rookie Nadir Blackwell. The four-star recruit, who spurned Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Notre Dame, graduated early from high school, but was unable to absorb contact. If he can get healthy, Blackwell is the right player on the right team to avoid a redshirt season.
Strength: Coaching. Rutgers doesn't regularly attract the signatures of blue-chip defensive backs, yet the program is always stingy against the pass. Good coaching was a major factor why the Scarlet Knights led the Big East in pass efficiency defense, and two DBs were selected in the third round. Those coaches will be very busy teaching the next wave of starters over the next few months.
Weakness: Sure-things. Three new starters mean that Rutgers is going to be very green in pass defense, especially at cornerback. The addition of Toler is going to really help, but the Knights are still no closer to having a lockdown defender capable of shutting down the other guy's best weapon.
Outlook: The Scarlet Knights are going to be in the unusual position of rebuilding in the secondary. Hope comes from a track record of success in pass defense, and a terrific staff, but approaching last year's results is highly unlikely with all of the newcomers to the lineup. Even worse, Rutgers will face some quality quarterbacks this season, beginning with the opener in California against Fresno State.
Sophomore placekickers Kyle Federico and Nick Borgese battled for the job in the spring. They'll continue to lock horns in the summer. Both were erratic a year ago, combining to have three field goals blocked. Federico started the first five games, hitting 6-of-11 three-points, before being lost to a hip injury. Borgese took over and hit 5-of-8 field goals, making the staff rethink Federico as the regular.
The Knights needed a punter after Justin Doerner graduated and Anthony DiPaula left the team. Hello, Nick Marsh, the fifth-year transfer from Utah who is immediately available. While he mostly kicked off as opposed to punted in Salt Lake City, Rutgers is thrilled to have him on scholarship.
Junior Jeremy Deering is expected to handle kickoff returns, which he did at a 24.3-yard pop last year. The punt returners will junior Miles Shuler and senior Quron Pratt, neither of whom had much of an impact on the return game in 2012.
Watch Out For .... the outcome of the kicking derby. Certain schools can get away with suspect placekicking. Rutgers is not one of them. The Scarlet Knights play in plenty of low-scoring defensive struggles, the kinds of games that often rest on a kicker's toe. Whether it's Federico or Borgese is irrelevant; one of the two needs to bring stability to the position when practice resumes.
Strength: The coverage teams. The Knights have been capable in this area for the past few years, quickly getting downfield to prevent explosive plays. A season, Rutgers ranked 44th nationally in punt coverage and ninth in kickoff coverage, failing to yield a special teams touchdown.
Weakness: Inconsistency and uncertainty of the specialists. The staff has yet to anoint a kicker, because neither Federico nor Borgese has been good enough to seal the deal. And Rutgers had to venture out to Salt Lake City to sign a punter who was buried behind Sean Sellwood for the past three seasons.
Outlook: The special teams unit was subpar a year ago. It looks as if it'll be more of the same in 2013. Out of Federico, Borgese and Marsh, Rutgers doesn't have a strong candidate for postseason All-AAC honors. Yeah, the coverage teams don't have many holes, but the return game generates yawns. In general, the Scarlet Knights will be a liability in the third phase of the squad.
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