Preview 2007 - Defense
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need to know:
For Greg Schiano and his Rutgers defense, it’s all about
creating pressure and turnovers with a variety of different
looks to confuse opposing offenses. Everything came together
last year for a unit that had 31 takeaways and allowed just 252
yards and 14 points a game, but five starters need to be
replaced. Senior defensive tackle Eric Foster is a ticking time
bomb that exploded on quarterbacks in 2006, en route to
All-America recognition. He’s the physical and spiritual leader
of a front seven that’s noticeably less experienced than last
year. Provided sophomore Devin McCourty can handle the corner
spot opposite twin brother Jason, the secondary will rock with
the return of all-league safeties, Courtney Greene and Ron
Jamaal Westerman, 8
Interceptions: Courtney Greene, 4
Star of the
Senior DT Eric Foster
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DT
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE George Johnson
Best pro prospect: Junior safety Courtney Greene
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Foster 2) Greene 3) DE
Strength of the defense: Pass defense, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: The linebackers
Led by All-American senior Eric Foster, one-half of the
front four that helped make Rutgers one of the nation’s top
pass-rushing teams in 2006 is back. At just 6-2 and 265 pounds,
Foster is not your typical tackle, but a lack of size couldn’t
prevent him from racking up 51 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and
six sacks in a breakthrough 2006. An energetic menace with
lightning quick moves, he’s the spiritual and physical catalyst
for this defense.
The other returning starter is end Jamaal Westerman who,
like Foster, had his coming-out party in 2006 with 13.5 tackles
for loss and a team-high eight sacks. The junior accelerates
very quickly to the quarterback and will become even more
disruptive as he improves his pass-rushing technique.
Westerman’s tag-team partner at end will be George Johnson
who played progressively well in 12 games as a true freshman
last fall. Although he’s bulked up to 250 pounds, he hasn’t
lost the athleticism or speed that’ll help take heat off
Westerman this year.
The biggest concern for the line will be at the other tackle
spot where junior Pete Tverdov will be succeeding the
always productive Ramel Meekins. He’s seen spot duty in 17
games, but now has to show that he’s capable of being an every
down lineman and strong enough to be an asset in run defense.
Projected Top Reserves: There’ll be decent depth
on the outside, but on the interior, the Knights will be
frantically looking for able bodies. The most seasoned tackle
is 6-3, 265-pound Vantrise Sturdivant, a junior who’s
appeared in 11 career games. A fine all-around athlete, he’s in
the right place at the right time to play his way into increased
snaps in 2007.
Junior Gary Watts is built like an outside linebacker and
won’t offer much in run defense, but has the speed and quickness
to emerge as the Knights’ best situational pass-rusher this
He’s get pushed for playing time by classmate Chenry Lewis,
a former linebacker who showed flashes of potential as a
redshirt freshman before permanently making the switch to the
Watch Out For…incoming freshman Keith Newell.
Rutgers likes its linemen to be small and fast, however, it
couldn’t hurt to have a wide body taking up space in the middle
every now and again. At 6-6 and 290 pounds, Newell will give
the Knights that option. He has the size, strength and mean
streak to be an immediate factor, particularly at tackle where
Rutgers has only one sure thing.
Strength: The pass rush. With Foster drawing
attention on the inside and Westerman and Johnson collapsing
pockets from the outside, it’ll be a weekly challenge to keep
the Scarlet Knights from wreaking havoc in the backfield. Don’t
expect too much of a fall-off from last year’s team which was
No. 5 in the country in sacks.
Weakness: Where’s the beef? While this defense is
not exactly designed to feature excessive girth or space-eaters,
when no player on the two-deep is bigger than 270 pounds, it
becomes vulnerable to physical lines that can drive the
opposition off the ball. A lack of depth at tackle might also
haunt the Knights if Newell’s learning curve is steep.
Outlook: While Eric Foster and Jamaal Westerman
are already all-league linemen, George Johnson will be on the
brink of joining them now that he’s about to become a regular.
The pass rush is going to assist a re-tooled back seven, but
additional depth is needed at tackle or else the run defense
Projected Starters: If the Rutgers linebackers
don’t skip a beat without two of last year’s three best
tacklers, it’ll have a lot to do with Schiano’s past two
recruiting classes which were very strong at the position. The
Knights will be a blend of young and old with underclassmen
dominating the depth chart.
So far, so good on the relo of senior Brandon Renkart
from safety before last season. The new leader of this
inexperienced unit responded to the move with 54 tackles, 12
tackles for loss, three sacks and three fumble recoveries. A
former walk-on, the 6-3, 235-pound Renkart is now in the
unlikely position of playing mentor to the next generation of
After two seasons primarily spent on special teams, junior
Kevin Malast is ready for the opportunity to play
extensively at the outside spot across from Renkart. A solid
all-around athlete with a good nose for the ball, he’s
positioned to be one of the defense’s bigger surprises in 2007.
The all-important opening in the middle is likely to be manned
by sophomore Chris Quaye who was playing fullback this
time last year and has virtually no experience. At 6-0 and 225
pounds, he’s not very big, but can really pack a punch and has
Projected Top Reserves: In a glimpse of the
future, four freshmen saw their first college action last year.
They’ll form the foundation of the second and third units and
push for starting assignments throughout the season.
At the head of the class are Ryan D’Imperio and Blair
Bines. D’Imperio is a 6-2, 230-pound package of athleticism
and big hits behind Quaye the middle of the defense. However,
he broke his leg in the spring, and could miss the start of
summer workouts. Bines is an explosive player on the outside
and one of the strongest Knight linebackers. A ferocious hitter
with a sudden burst, he’s grown to 245 solid pounds, biggest
among those that’ll contribute in 2007.
Rounding out the second unit is Damaso Munoz, yet another
sophomore that lettered as a freshman in 2006. Just 6-0 and 205
pounds, he moves with the quickness of a safety, yet wraps up
and sheds blockers like a linebacker.
Watch Out For…freshman Antonio Lowery.
Although he struggles to maintain 220 pounds, Lowery has no
problem using his closing speed to get into backfields and wreak
havoc on opposing offenses. Hotly-pursued out of high school by
a number of major programs, he missed all of last season, but
returns as a mid-semester transfer with a chance to climb the
Strength: The kids. Right now, Scarlet Knight
linebackers are steady, but not spectacular. That’s going to
change, however, as soon as the freshmen and sophomores are
ready to become every-down players. While D’Imperio, Bines,
Munoz and Lowery have tremendous upside, the program’s biggest
gem, Manny Abreu, has yet to take his first class.
Weakness: Middle linebacker. It’s too important a
position to be handled by the equivalent of a rookie that
probably should be spending the upcoming season serving an
apprenticeship under a more experienced player. The coaches
like Quaye, but he could get exposed in his debut as a starter.
Outlook: While Renkart is a great player to have
on a team, when he’s far and away the best at his position, it’s
cause for mild concern. With so many underclassmen clawing for
playing time, the linebackers will be a much better collection
in November than in September.
Projected Starters: While the safety tandem of
junior Courtney Greene and senior Ron Girault is
top notch, cornerback is an area of concern following the
graduations of Joe Porter, Derrick Roberson and Manny Collins.
The twins, junior Jason McCourty and sophomore Devin
McCourty, will be manning the corners this fall. Jason
started ten games in 2006, notching 45 tackles and earning a
spot on the Big East All-Academic team. He came to Rutgers as a
skinny, 160-pound running back, but has grown into a 185-pound
defensive back with good cover skills. While Devin has never
logged a start, he did play in every game in 2006, finishing
eighth on the team with 38 tackles and picking off two passes en
route to a spot on the league’s all-freshman team.
Like his brother, McCourty is a heady athlete and a member of
the Big East All-Academic team. Greene has started every game
of his 25-game Rutgers career at strong safety. A second-team
all-Big East selection after racking up 82 tackles and a
team-high four interceptions, he’s got terrific range as a run
defender and will be counted on to be more of a leader in 2007.
Girault enters this season with three years of starting
experience and 216 career tackles at free safety. The playmaker
of the secondary, he’s picked off three passes in each of the
last three years, forced five fumbles and recovered three during
an underrated career.
Projected Top Reserves: The star of the future at
safety is sophomore Zaire Kitchen, a big hitter who’s
6-1, 210 pounds and still getting stronger. He played 11 games
as a true freshman, mainly on special teams, but will play a
more prominent role behind Girault this fall.
Behind Greene is junior Glen Lee, a veteran of 24 games
and one of the Knights’ best special teamers. He’s a lean 6-2
and 190 pounds, but can really detonate on impact.
Sophomore Leslie Jackman was on his way to becoming an
integral part of the secondary last year before a knee injury
prematurely ended his season after just two games. He missed
spring practice, but will return in time for the start of the
season and could push for a starting job if he hasn’t lost a
step since surgery.
Watch Out For…junior Anthony Miller. A
terrific all-around athlete who has sat out all but one game
over the last two years, Miller has returned to Piscataway
determined to add depth in the secondary and make the McCourty’s
earn their starting jobs. No one doubts he has talent, but that
won’t matter if he isn’t equally focused away from the field.
Strength: The safeties. Greene and Girault are
the total package that defend the run and the pass equally well
and will challenge for the all-conference recognition. They’ll
not only help solidify the last line of the Rutgers defense, but
they’ll set the right examples for Kitchen, the next outstanding
Scarlet Knight safety.
Weakness: Cornerback depth. The McCourtys may be
ready to be full-time starters, but behind them are too many
question marks to make Schiano feel comfortable heading into the
season. Rutgers needs Jackman to be healthy, Miller to be ready
to play and either a freshman or former running back Dimitri
Linton to beef up the depth at the position.
Outlook: Thank goodness for Greene and Girault or
else this unit would be boiling over with red flags. The young
corners will be tested this fall, but a forgiving schedule will
allow them to develop at a conservative pace—Rutgers won’t face
a passing offense that was ranked in the top 40 last year until
Projected Starters: The Scarlet Knight special
teams unit will once again be a strength thanks to the return of
Jermey Ito, one of the nation’s more reliable kickers.
The senior, entering his fourth year as a starter, is a
contender for the Lou Groza Award after landing on the all-Big
East second team. Coming off his best season at Rutgers, Ito
scored 107 points, nailing 22-of-29 field goals and 41-of-42
extra points. His range extends beyond the 50-yard line and
he’s clutch late in close games. The news is not so positive at
punter, where the Knights will be replacing long-time starter
Joe Radigan. His successor, redshirt freshman Kyle Cinzio,
has plenty of pop in his leg and the versatility of being an
insurance policy in case Ito gets hurt. He’s got plenty of
competition so any prolonged slumps could earn him the boot.
Projected Top Reserves: Breathing down Cinzio’s
neck will be sophomore Matt Voliva, a transfer from
Maine. He played seven games as a freshman in Orono, getting
two kicks blocked and averaging just 29 yards on four punts, and
can fill in either as a punter or a placekicker.
Watch Out For…junior college transfer Teddy
Dellaganna. Cinzio’s stiffest competition is likely to come
from Dellaganna, a transfer from Bakersfield (Calif.) Community
College. At 6-2 and 190 pounds, he’s a good all-around athlete
who’ll need to improve his hang time and supercharge last year’s
37.2 yard average in order to win the job.
Strength: Ito. While he’ll occasionally miss a
kick inside 40 yards that he shouldn’t, Ito is reliable and a
major asset to this team, particularly as part of an offense
that turned just 50% of last year’s red-zone trips into six
Weakness: Punting. Unless one of this competitors
is a major surprise, the drop-off from Radigan could be steep.
The Scarlet Knight defense was amazing in 2006, but the punter’s
knack for pinning offenses deep was one of the overlooked
aspects of the unit’s success.
Outlook: Between now and the opener, the top two
priorities for the special teams unit will be to settle on
Radigan’s replacement and find a way to turn all of that young
speed from the skill positions into more big plays in the