Rutgers football spring practice: final defense grades

Defensive Line: Tackle Scott Vallone and end Justin Francis entered spring practice for Rutgers as the two sure contributors, and both lived up to their billing for the most part. Greg Schiano expressed frustration at times this spring with the DT rotation opposite Vallone, which is less of an indictment of Mike Larrow than it is an acknowledgement that the team is awfully young inside. Incoming freshman Ken Kirksey is capable of contributing from day one, but finding another rotational tackle remains a challenge. It was also disappointing not to hear more about Manny Abreu this spring, as he looked very good attacking the football last year, and so many past Rutgers linebackers have successfully switched to end. Another DE of interest is Jamil Merrell, who's a perfect illustration of how frustrating it is to be a Rutgers football fan at times. Last year there was a ton of buzz about Merrell, then a complete blackout during the season, and at some point it comes out that he was injured. Walk-on Shane Meisner may be a find, although you worry about Schiano not being happier with his scholarship players. Still far too much uncertainty here, although they have the talent to improve. Grade: C+

Linebackers: Largely solid, although not any huge headline grabbers. Steve Beauharnais switched back to the strong side position where he excelled as a true freshman two years ago, after being only average last fall in the middle. Ka'Lial Glaud then shifted over from the weak side; he'll now be expected to take reigns of the defensive calls and provide stout run support. Speedy Khaseem Greene comes over from safety to add another playmaking threat opposite Beauharnais. Reserve Marvin Booker returning to health and having a good spring was a positive step. It's entirely possible that incoming freshmen Quentin Gause and Kevin Snyder could make the two-deep. Depth is a concern, but it's not like having four experienced LBs and no one else having any experience is new for Rutgers. Grade: B

Defensive Backs: Mason Robinson and Jordan Thomas flipped from offense to inject additional speed into the secondary, and Robinson's subsequent advancement has to be one of the best stories from the spring. People forget that he was one heck of a high school player before the injuries and position waffling. Logan Ryan rode the bench at times last year, but he had the most natural ability of any returning corner. If you want the best raw athletes to play, then Ryan and Robinson finishing the spring atop the depth chart is a very positive development. Not sure what happened to Marcus Cooper though after Schiano wouldn't stop talking him up last year, but Brandon Jones is the nickel for now. RU may be deeper at safety, where former corner David Rowe had a great spring, and Duron Harmon was long presumed as the heir apparent to Joe Lefeged. Wayne Warren is in the mix as a reserve, and redshirt freshmen Rashad Knight and Lorenzo Waters have a lot of promise too. Hey, isn't it odd to think how Knight probably starts last year for Michigan as a true freshman, and yet still may not make RU's two deep? Isn't it weirder how so many Rutgers fans are enamored with De'Antwan Williams, but nobody is much concerned over an even more hyped former recruit in Darrell Givens? Grade: B+

Special Teams: This is still likely a big area of concern. San San Te's accuracy has always been iffy in games from 40+ yards out. Freshman punter Anthony DiPaula enrolled early to get an edge on seizing he open punting job, but the entire punting game struggled before coming on late. Multi-faceted Mohamed Sanu remains an intriguing option, bringing the inherent threat of running trick plays to go along with his leg. Last year's punt returner in Mason Robinson returns, although typically a starting corner won't play as much on special teams. Jordan Thomas is one obvious replacement for either return role. Grade: C-

Conclusion/Prediction: Predicting how the team ultimately fares in 2011 is no picnic, with multiple lingering unanswered questions. How much of last year was an aberration, attributable to an ill-fated attempt at installing a spread offense that was a poor fit for the team personnel? How much did the spread hurt all facets of the offense? How much did poor offensive play tire wear down the defense? How did the team and coaching staff respond to considerable off-field distractions in the second half of last season?

The Rutgers football team enters the summer with more roster questions (line play, general depth) than answers, although there is some hope. That would be the continued futility of the rest of the conference. Rutgers, while being pretty bad last year...was only a few bad bounces away a winning record. Plus, the two blowouts to close out the year came after there was nothing to play for following the Syracuse loss. Is Rutgers going to be a world-beater in conference play? Heck no, but what Big East team doesn't have considerable issues of their own. RU at least has multiple obvious scapegoats well at hand.

No one can truly say with any confidence how the Big East will turn out in 2011, but at the minimum Rutgers should be closer to the middle of the pack than the bottom, which should amount to about seven-to-eight total wins and three-to-four conference wins. In other words, a conventional, average, run-of-the-mill Greg Schiano season. Frankly, a return to the recent normal for Rutgers football would be quite welcome after a drop to 4-8. Just think: in a year we can all get back to criticizing Schiano for never winning the Big East once again. From the New Jersey perspective, the overpriced seats of the Pinstripe Bowl are looking pretty good right about now.

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