2009 Rutgers Preview - Defense
Rutgers CB Devin McCourty
Rutgers CB Devin McCourty
Posted Jun 18, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Rutgers Scarlet Knight Defense

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Rutgers Preview | 2009 Rutgers Offense
- 2009 Rutgers Defense
| 2009 Rutgers Depth Chart
- 2008 Rutgers Preview | 2007 Rutgers Preview | 2006 Rutgers Preview 

What you need to know: Five starters have graduated, leaving Rutgers with a little bit of rebuilding to do, especially at defensive line and in the defensive backfield, which each loses an all-star. The strongest unit will be the linebackers, which features budding star Ryan D’Imperio in the middle and great athleticism surrounding him. The secondary will overcome its losses, thanks to the returns of CB Devin McCourty and SS Joe Lefeged, and a schedule that’s light on prolific passers. The biggest concerns will be to shore up the run defense and start creating more turnovers, which used to be a Greg Schiano trademark. While D’Imperio will do his best to shut down running lanes, the Scarlet Knights have two new starters at defensive tackle, neither of whom weighs more than 265 pounds.   

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Ryan D'Imperio, 93
Sacks: Ryan D'Imperio, 5.5
Interceptions: Several at 1

Star of the defense: Senior LB Ryan D’Imperio
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DT Charlie Noonan
Unsung star on the rise: Junior SS Joe Lefeged
Best pro prospect: Senior CB Devin McCourty
Top three all-star candidates: 1) D’Imperio, 2) Lefeged, 3) Senior CB Devin McCourty
Strength of the defense: Front seven depth, linebacker speed, red zone defense, third down defense
Weakness of the defense
: Run defense, second starting cornerback

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Two starters are gone. Two return, led by 6-4, 260-pound senior George Johnson. The fourth-year starter at defensive end, he’s the Knights’ best pass rusher and one of the emotional leaders of the defense. He possesses the burst and athletic ability of an outside linebacker, setting career-highs a year ago with 39 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and two sacks. If he can play with more consistency and loosen up his hips, he should finish with the best season of his career.

The other returning starter also happens to be the other end, 6-4, 250-pound junior Alex Silvestro. He took one for the team in 2008, starting all 13 games at defensive tackle, but is switching back outside, where his speed, long arms, and natural lean won’t get lost on the interior. Despite being overpowered on many Saturdays, he still managed to battle his way to 43 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks.

While junior nose guard Charlie Noonan is just 6-2 and 265 pounds, he left no doubts in the spring who’ll be in the starting lineup in September. Named the most improved defensive player by the staff, he routinely broke through the line, beating his man with quickness, reaction time, and tireless work ethic. A year ago, he had nine tackles in 13 games, but looks determined to blow past those numbers this season.

Coming out of spring, the favorite to be at defensive tackle is 6-2, 260-pound senior Blair Bines, a former linebacker who’s found a home on the interior of the line. A tough competitor, who’ll win some battles with his quickness, he’s also prone to getting engulfed and bullied out of the play by physical opponents. In 13 games last season, he chipped in with 15 tackles and 2.5 stops behind the line.

Projected Top Reserves: Pushing Noonan hard is 6-2, 240-pound sophomore Eric LeGrand, who has finally found a home at defensive tackle. A year ago, he spent some time at linebacker, fullback, and the defensive line, he had 14 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Extremely quick off the snap and able to bust through blockers, he’s beginning to conjure up comparisons to former Rutgers All-American Eric Foster.

On the outside, the Scarlet Knights have a pair of reliable juniors to keep the rotation cranking without a hitch. Backing up Silvestro is 6-3, 240-pound Jonathan Freeny, a blur off the edge and a phenomenal all-around athlete. He had 19 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a sack last year, but should get the snaps needed to make more plays this season.

Backing up Johnson is 6-3, 245-pound Sorie Bayoh, another athletic, linebacker-sized end, who’ll be used as a situational pass rusher. He showed steady improvement throughout 2008, finishing with 14 tackles, and has bulked up in anticipation of a larger role.

Watch Out For… 6-4, 260-pound sophomore tackle Justin Francis. He might have been headed toward a starting job on the inside before getting arrested and suspended for the entire year. He’s also had shoulder surgery, providing another setback. However, he has the talent and size to rise quickly, provided he can shake off the rust and keep his act together.
Strength: Depth. The Scarlet Knights plan to use an eight or nine-man rotation this fall, and why not? They legitimately go two-deep with capable linemen, which is going to keep everyone fresh and provide a thick layer of insulation in the event that someone gets hurt.
Weakness: The tackles. Noonan, Bines, and LeGrand will fight and scrap from whistle-to-whistle, but at some point, their modest size is going to haunt them against some of the bigger, physical opponents. The interior linemen only average around 6-2 and 250 pounds, an area of vulnerability other team’s will look to expose.   
Outlook: While the Knights should have few problems pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run could be an issue that requires support from the linebackers and safeties. Even after losing two starters to graduation, the unit still has depth and overall talent level. If the second team can continue pushing the starters, everyone is going to benefit.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: With a long-awaited chance to play on every down, 6-3, 240-pound senior Ryan D’Imperio emerged as one of the league’s best linebackers, earning a spot on the All-Big East second team. A prototypical middle linebacker and one of the defensive role models, he has tremendous instincts and range. He laid the foundation for what will be even more individual awards this fall, making 93 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks.

The wing men for D’Imperio are a pair of explosive athletes, who’ll spend a lot of time blitzing off the edge. Senior Damaso Munoz plays with a lot of intensity and the sideline-to-sideline speed to make stops all over the field. While only 6-0 and 215 pounds, he used his quickness and experience to make 45 tackles, three tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks as a five-game starter.

In the hotly-contested battle at weakside, 6-2, 225-pound junior Antonio Lowery has nudged ahead with a fantastic offseason. While limited with his experience, he’s an outstanding athlete, who’ll overcome missed assignments with his closing speed and ability to fight through traffic. As a sophomore, he had 16 tackles in 13 games, numbers he’ll have a chance to better by the end of September.

Projected Top Reserves: The top performer among the reserves is 6-3, 245-pound sophomore Manny Abreu, who’s going toe-to-toe with Lowery at weakside. One of the most decorated defensive players to ever sign with Rutgers, he’s got an ideal blend of size and agility, and a sizable ceiling in Piscataway. He started seven games a year ago, but gradually slipped to the background and finished with 33 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

Behind D’Imperio at middle linebacker is 6-1, 215-pound junior Jim Dumont. A tough, self-made defender, he’ll play with reckless abandon and do whatever is necessary to get in on the action. While not nearly as physically gifted as the other linebackers, he’s the type of guy coaches like having on the second unit and on special teams.

Watch Out For… 6-2, 225-pound sophomore Marcus Witherspoon. A local kid, who originally signed with Michigan, he’s back in his home state and determined to start scaling the depth chart. Although he has plenty of veterans ahead of him, he also has the package of athleticism and pop to begin getting more snaps.
Strength: Athleticism. Long gone are the days when the Scarlet Knights relied on undersized, try-hard guys, who no one outside the Atlantic 10 recruited. This collection of linebackers is loaded with top athletes, who move very well laterally, are dangerous on the blitz, and go sideline-to-sideline quicker than any in school history.        
Weakness: Girth. Aside from D’Imperio and Abreu, the Rutgers linebackers are a little undersized, with three members of the two-deep hovering around 215 pounds. That could become a problem against quick and physical offensive linemen, who can get to the second level and swallow up everything in their path.
Outlook: The Scarlet Knights have one star in D’Imperio and four players, who could start for most of the Big East programs. They’re experienced, athletic, and bolstered by a fair amount of depth. In other words, Rutgers is in great shape at linebacker, which will arguably be the strength of the defense.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: The glass will be half-full in the defensive backfield, as two starters are gone and two return. Jason McCourty was one of those departures, but his twin brother, 5-11, 185-pound senior Devin McCourty, is back to be the new stopper of the group. Entering his third season as the starter, he’s a heady, hard-working player, who’ll quietly go about getting his job done. Feisty in run defense and pass defense, he had 57 tackles, a team-high seven pass breakups, and has had a knack for blocking kicks.

The front-runner to join McCourty at cornerback is 6-0, 185-pound senior Billy Anderson, a former walk-on clinging to the top spot. A blue-collar, try-hard type kid, he has the edge in experience over the younger guys in the rear view mirror. However, he hasn’t played much in the secondary for the Scarlet Knights, mostly appearing on special teams, and making just five tackles in five games in 2008.

The safeties will be very solid. Junior Joe Lefeged is back for a second season as the starting strong safety. One of the most ferocious hitters on the entire defense, he’s a violent tackler, who explodes on impact. Last year’s fourth-leading tackler, he had 72 stops, four tackles for loss, and a couple of fumble recoveries. If the 6-1, 200-pounder can become a little more patient and a better student of the game, All-Big East recognition might be in his future.

Senior FS Zaire Kitchen has been an inspiration and a role model for the entire team. After missing nearly two years to devastating knee injuries, he returned in 2008, making 32 tackles and forcing three fumbles as a backup to Courtney Greene and the special teams MVP. A 6-2, 215-pound headhunter, he’s as healthy as he’s ever been and prepared to finish his career on an up note.

Projected Top Reserves: Anderson’s chief competition is coming from 5-11, 165-pound junior Brandon Bing, who’s been on the two-deep his first two seasons. One of the fastest players on the team, he’s yet to put it all together, which is why he’s currently running No. 2 heading into summer. He appeared in 11 games last fall, but played sparingly on defense and made just a couple of tackles.

At strong safety, 6-2, 205-pound sophomore Patrick Kivlehan has emerged as one of the first players to come off the bench. A special teams star in his first season, he had a good spring, getting more comfortable with his expanded role and delivering the payload whenever there was an opportunity. 

Watch Out For… the other corner to get picked on plenty. Rather than deal with McCourty, most opposing quarterbacks will prefer to go right after the other guy until he proves up to the challenge. That means it’s up to Anderson or Bing to either rise up or spend the entire year with a target on his chest.
Strength: Veteran presence. With three seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, absolutely nothing is going to faze or surprise this starting lineup. In terms of experience, they’ll have an edge over every opposing quarterback, save for maybe South Florida’s Matt Grothe.
Weakness: Interceptions. For two year running now, the Scarlet Knights have struggled in the area of takeaways. In fact, over the last 26 games, the team has only picked off 15 balls, needing to turn a few more of those breakups into turnovers. 
Outlook: After being average in 2008, Rutgers doesn’t figure to elevate now that Greene and McCourty are in the NFL. It’s a steady secondary, with a potential all-star at cornerback and safety, but not one that’ll shut down top-flight passing attacks. It’s a good thing for the Scarlet Knights that there’s no such thing looming on this year’s schedule.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: In his first season as the successor to Jeremy Ito, sophomore San San Te delivered mixed results. While on target from inside 40 yards, going 11-of-13, he was far less reliable from long range. He got hot as the season progressed, validating his ranking as one of the nation’s top prep kickers of 2007.

Junior Teddy Dellaganna was a pleasant surprise in his first season as the regular punter. Two years removed from Bakersfield (Calif.) Community College, he averaged a respectable 41.2 yards a punt and handled kickoffs. With that year behind him, he figures to be even more effective in 2009.

Offseason auditions are being held for a new punt returner and kickoff returner. Senior Tim Brown and junior Mason Robinson have the speed and explosiveness to figure into the mix in some capacity.

Watch Out For… more pop from Te. The sophomore had back surgery in the offseason and hardly participated in the spring. He’s expected to return new and improved, having the strength and flexibility to get better leg drive and compete to be the kickoff specialist.
Strength: The coverage teams. Over the last couple of seasons, the Scarlet Knights have had one of the stingiest cover teams in the Big East. While the 2007 squad was second in the league in punt coverage, last year’s edition was No. 2 in kickoff coverage.
Weakness: The return game. Who is going to spark this unit now that Jason McCourty, Dennis Campbell, and Tiquan Underwood have graduated? Robinson and Brown may wind up being primary options, but neither has a track record of igniting the special teams.   
Outlook: Oh, what a difference a year makes. This time last season, the Scarlet Knights were pensively looking to replace Ito, their kicker and punter. Today there's more confidence in Te and Dellaganna, who’ve emerged as borderline all-conference players.
Rating: 7.5