2008 Rutgers Preview - Defense
Rutgers S Courtney Greene
Rutgers S Courtney Greene
Posted May 13, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Rutgers Scarlet Knight Defense

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Rutgers Preview | 2008 Rutgers Offense
- 2008 Rutgers Defense
| 2008 Rutgers Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Rutgers Preview | 2006 CFN Rutgers Preview 

What you need to know: A healthy 15 players who started games in 2007 are back, promising news for a Rutgers defense that’s looking for a rebound. The Knights allowed 106 more points than the prior year and had a measly 19 takeaways, a real no-no for Greg Schiano’s pressure D.  Three leaders, DT Eric Foster, LB Brandon Renkart, and S Ron Girault, are gone, but Rutgers feels good about the young athletes who have populated the last three recruiting classes. This year’s opponents will be content to pound away at the middle of a line that’s undersized, inexperienced, and in need of support from the back seven. The alternative is to venture into the teeth of a well-stocked pass defense that was No. 5 nationally and gets plenty of help from the pass rush.   

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Courtney Greene, 101
Sacks: Jamaal Westerman, 8
Interceptions: Devin McCourty, 2

Star of the defense: Senior S Courtney Greene
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DT Peter Tverdov
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Ryan D’Imperio
Best pro prospect: Greene
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Greene 2) Senior DE Jamaal Westerman 3) Senior CB Jason McCourty
Strength of the defense: The secondary
Weakness of the defense: Run defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The Knights lose just one letterwinner from this group, but it’s a big one. DT Eric Foster, a charismatic former All-American, is out of eligibility, creating a vacuum in the middle of the line. Hoping to fill the void will be a pair of seniors, Pete Tverdov and Jamaal Westerman.  Despite being hampered by an early season ankle sprain, Tverdov played well in nine starts, registering 36 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and four pass breakups. A tireless worker who prepares meticulously, he’s a classic interior lineman with a great motor. After being a great complimentary player, the 6-4, 265-pound Tverdov needs to show he can still make plays without Foster around to deflect attention. 

Westerman is shifting over from end, where he was the Knights’ sack leader two years running.  At 6-3 and 260 pounds, he has lived in opposing backfields using a quick first step and great closing speed to bag 34.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks since leaving Canada for Piscataway.   

On the outside, Westerman’s production must be replaced by junior George Johnson and senior Gary Watts, both of whom played extensively last fall and will do so again this year.  At 6-4 and 250 pounds, Johnson has the athletic ability and speed of an outside linebacker with the mentality of a pure pass rusher. He had 32 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, and three pass breakups, but disappeared for too many chunks of time during the season. 

Watts is more of a situational rusher, who won’t offer a ton of help in run defense. Only 6-3 and 245 pounds, he used his explosiveness to earn more playing time and the first four sacks of his career. 

Projected Top Reserves: Although sophomore end Alex Silvestro will have to fight for playing time, he’s already proven that competition won’t hinder his progress.  The 6-4, 230-pound former linebacker impressively earned three starts as a rookie, including one in the International Bowl, and had 13 tackles. An exceptionally good pass rusher with long arms, he won’t have many assignments in run defense. 

Depth at tackle, on the other hand, is a much bigger concern. Rutgers is banking on several unknown commodities, like sophomore Charlie Noonan, and redshirt freshmen Desmond Wynn and Wayne Thomas grow up in a hurry. The 6-2, 265-pound Noonan is the closest to being ready after parlaying his quickness and motor into a climb up the depth chart. 

While the 6-6, 260-pound Wynn and 6-5, 280-pound Thomas are a year behind Noonan, they offer much more size in the middle of the line.

Watch Out For… sophomore Jonathan Freeny. Yes, he’s raw and only 6-3 and 230 pounds, but he also has the Rutgers coaches intrigued by his athletic ability, phenomenal speed in backside pursuit, and general upside.  He got on the field and lettered as a true freshman, just his third year of organized football.
Strength: The ends. Rutgers has depth, experience, and speed at the position, which translates into fresh legs for opposing offensive tackles to contend with late in games.
Weakness: The tackles. In two years the Knights have lost Foster and Ramel Meekins, two highly disruptive, undersized tackles. Tverdov is the kind of workaholic every coach wants on his team, but not necessarily as the main attraction at the position.
Outlook: Rutgers will have few problems pressuring the quarterback, but stopping the run could be a fatal flaw. After regressing against the run a year ago, the trend will continue unless a surprise or two emerges out of a suspect group of tackles.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: The corps remains virtually intact with a handful of underclassmen preparing to make their presence felt. Sure, captain Brandon Renkart and his leadership will be missed, but he’s not irreplaceable. Junior Ryan D’Imperio is ready to have the monster season that many predicted when he was one of the nation’s most coveted linebacker recruits of 2006. Slated to start in the middle as a sophomore, a broken leg in the spring impeded his progress and limited him to just 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in 11 games. At 6-3 and 235 pounds, D’Imperio has the size-speed package to be so much more than the typical overachieving Scarlet Knight linebacker. 

Flanking D’Imperio will be senior Kevin Malast and redshirt freshman Manny Abreu. The 6-2, 230-pound Malast excelled in his year starting at weakside, making 92 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. A good all-around athlete with terrific lateral quickness, he has got the right makeup to succeed Renkart as the leader of this group. 

One of the most heralded defensive players to ever sign with Rutgers, Abreu is poised to make a big splash in his second season. He was in the mix as a true freshman before an injury limited him to just a couple of September cameos. An exceptional all-around athlete at 6-3 and 220 pounds, his role is about to mushroom.

Projected Top Reserves: Like Abreu, sophomore Antonio Lowery is a fantastic athlete who just needs more reps and a better understanding of the defense to earn more playing time. In need of a little more mass at 6-2 and 220 pounds, he played in all 13 games as a true freshman, making 10 tackles and standing out on special teams. 

Injuries forced junior Damaso Munoz into the lineup, and he responded with 67 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in 10 starts. He’s quick and experienced, but is also undersized and recovering from shoulder surgery that could cost him a chunk of the upcoming year. 

Behind D’Imperio is junior Blair Bines, who had nine tackles a year ago, a poor indication of his potential. He missed the first month of the season with a broken jaw, losing valuable time in the competition at strongside. Healthy again, he’s back to being a 6-2, 245-pound wrecking ball who explodes at the point of impact.          

Watch Out For… more blitzes from the linebackers. The Scarlet Knights have markedly upgraded their overall athleticism and speed with the last few recruiting classes, which gives the coaches more latitude with the play calling.
Strength: Athleticism. Gone are the days when Rutgers relied on undersized, try-hard guys who no one else recruited. This collection is loaded with top athletes who go sideline-to-sideline as quickly as anyone.
Weakness: Experience. Renkart’s graduation and Munoz’s injured shoulder leaves Malast as the only linebacker who’s logged extensive minutes. The young guys, namely D’Imperio and Bines, are being counted on to perform like seasoned vets.
Outlook: Thanks to the staff’s recruiting efforts, linebacker is one of the up-and-coming positions. While the unit could take a month to gel, its upside is substantial. Look out in 2009.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: Four-year starting safety Ron Girault is gone, but Rutgers got a big break when All-Big East FS Courtney Greene opted to return for his senior season. The team leader with 101 tackles a year ago, he has started every game of his three-year career and should be a lock for all-star honors once again. The 6-2, 210-pounder hits like a ton of bricks and will be the tone-setter in the secondary.    

The starter at strong safety will either be sophomore Joe Lefeged or senior Glen Lee, both of whom started games and played extensively in 2007. The 6-1, 195-pound Lefeged was a surprise as a true freshman becoming an enforcer who really packs a punch, he debuted with 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks, a laying the foundation for a bright career. 

Lee can also deliver the payload, but is no slouch in pass coverage, flashing the footwork to play either free or strong safety.  Filling in Girault in four games, the 6-2, 195-pounder had 32 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss as a junior.          

The twins, senior Jason McCourty and junior Devin McCourty, are back for a second year together as the starting corners after helping Rutgers to No. 5 nationally in pass defense.  For Jason, this is actually his third year as a starter, a far cry from the 160-pound running back who arrived in Piscataway four years ago.  Now 5-11 and 185 pounds, he had 44 tackles and a team-high 12 pass breakups last year. 

Devin fared well in his starting debut, finishing fifth on the team with 63 tackles, picking off a pair of passes, and blocking three kicks on special teams. Both brothers are heady, hard-working athletes and regulars on the Big East All-Academic team

Projected Top Reserves: With an eye on the starting free safety job in 2009, junior Davon Smart will back up Greene. A 5-10, 190-pounder who’s been buried on the depth chart, he saw his first action a year ago, appearing in all 13 games and making 18 tackles. 

The top reserve behind the McCourtys at cornerback is sophomore is 5-11, 160-pound Brandon Bing, who cracked the two-deep as a true freshman. One of the fastest players on the team, he needs to add some muscle and work on his cover skills in order to command a bigger role.     

Watch Out For… the progress of junior Zaire Kitchen. The future at safety not long ago, he’s trying to come back from a nasty knee injury for the second year in-a-row. Kitchen tore his ACL last November, another devastating setback in a career had so much promise.  If healthy, he’s good enough to push Lefeged to the second team.
Strength: The safeties. Even without Girault, the Knights are set at safety thanks to the return of Greene and the development of Lefeged and Lee. No Big East school can boast a harder hitting trio than the one in New Jersey.
Weakness: Interceptions. As sound as the secondary was a year ago, it only picked off five passes in 13 games.  It’s up to the defensive backs to break a little faster and hold on to a few more of those 50 or so balls that were broken up in 2007.
Outlook: Provided the pass rush continues to do its part, Rutgers will repeat as one of the nation’s stingiest pass defenses.  With Greene, Lefeged, and Lee roaming the secondary, opposing receivers better keep their heads on a swivel when facing the Knights.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Rutgers has the unenviable task of replacing All-American K Jeremy Ito, who also doubled as the team’s punter last year. His successor at kicker will redshirt freshman San San Te, a prized recruit two years ago. An accurate kicker with good fundamentals, he has to prove he can handle himself in pressure situations. 

Ito was awful as a punter, so there is a silver lining to his graduation. The contenders for the job are sophomore Teddy Dellaganna and junior Matt Voliva. A former transfer from Bakersfield (Calif.) Community College, Dellaganna was brought in to win the job last year, but couldn’t deliver. With a second chance, he has to come through. Voliva is a former Maine transfer who can also pitch in as a placekicker in an emergency.    

Watch Out For… more big plays on special teams. The team’s return men, junior Tim Brown, junior Dennis Campbell, and sophomore Mason Robinson are too electric to be as so-so as they were a year ago.  Rutgers was last in the Big East in kickoff returns and near the bottom of the league in punt returns.
Strength: Covering punts. Despite getting no help from Ito, the Scarlet Knights allowed a mere six yards a punt return in 2007, second lowest in the Big East. 
Weakness: Punting. Ito averaged a pitiful 35.7 yards a punt, yet held off Dellaganna, this year’s likely starter. Rutgers never missed former punter Joe Radigan more.
Outlook: This is a genuine problem area for the Scarlet Knights, who figure to be in a lot of tight contest. The inconsistency at punter and immaturity of Te will cost Rutgers at least one game in 2008.
Rating: 5