NEW BRUNSWICK NJ - SEPTEMBER 25: Scott Vallone #94 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights attempts to tackle T.J. Yates #13 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during a game at Rutgers Stadium on September 25 2010 in New Brunswick New Jersey. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
No analysis of the 2011 Rutgers defensive line is possible without ruminating on the absence of Eric LeGrand. LeGrand was a very good player for Rutgers, ceding a starting job to Charlie Noonan mainly out of seniority. LeGrand was also an emotional leader on defense, drawing repeated comparisons to former Rutgers star Eric Foster, both for their personalities and styles of play. Defensive tackle recruiting is hard enough as is. There is no greater jab to the solar plexus than in losing a really good one, never mind having to worry about his life, or whether he will walk again. Rutgers has to make due the best it can this year without their missing comrade, but the void created by LeGrand's absence is impossible to fill in a figurative and a literal sense. He is irreplaceable, but Rutgers still has to play what would have been Eric's last season of eligibility. All that these players can do is dedicate these games to Eric by playing with the same tenacity and dedication that he always showed, never leaving a single ounce of effort lingering on the field.
One of the most confounding things about the game of football is that it isn't easy to judge anyone's performance out of a handful of offensive skill position players, and even then, those performances are still heavily dependent on team context. One clear case in point example is Rutgers defensive tackle Scott Vallone. The Rutgers defense may have been shell-shocked after LeGrand's injury last fall, but a handful of players such as Vallone, Alex Silvestro, and Justin Francis kept playing their hearts out every single game. With Mohamed Sanu injured, Vallone in fact was far and away the best and most effective Scarlet Knight last season. Outside media don't watch the games though for the most part. They care about a team's W/L record, and for defensive linemen, raw sack totals. Thus, zero postseason or preseason 2011 accolades for Vallone, even though he's been fantastic for two years running, and can make a case for being the single best defensive lineman in the Big East.
Vallone and Justin Francis were the two sure things up front entering the year for the Scarlet Knights, the only question with that dynamic duo being whether Francis would play at end or tackle. Developing the latter is a bit more difficult and time-consuming, so Francis slid back inside to under-tackle, with Vallone shifting over the nose. He's basically been good enough to start now for several years running, held back somewhat by a crowded depth chart (Silvestro and Jonathan Freeny were seniors last year), essentially playing starter's minutes. Francis already has a fair bit of experience at DT on passing downs, and Rutgers defensive tackles traditionally favor athleticism over bulk. Odds were that it would be a seamless transition inside, and those projections have borne fruit through the first quarter of the season.
The defensive tackles look very good, but defensive end is muddled to say the least. Manny Abreu was very good at linebacker last year, pretty much the defense's second best player after Vallone. He missed a few games following a chop block against Army, and came back in the spring as a defensive end. Rutgers was looking for more speed and in need of bodies on the line, and Schiano had shifted countless past linebackers to end (if not tackle even.) Absent having to worry about coverage responsibilities, would Abreu excel being able to attack on every down? That was the theory on paper, but the early spring and fall reviews were surprisingly mixed. It's weird - yes, Schiano clearly wants to get more speed on defense, but Abreu was making play after play last season. He's playing, but wouldn't it he be better served as more than a rotational player?
Mike Larrow is an interesting player, having a great deal of potential on the defensive line. Problem is, he was thrust into action a little earlier than expected last year after LeGrand's injury. A redshirt freshman trying to bulk up from defensive end is a perfectly acceptable fourth tackle. As the first player off the bench, on a team that depends heavily on rotation? That's more of a stretch, and Larrow's performance needs to be judged in the proper context of unfortunate circumstances throwing him into the spotlight a bit earlier than expected. He had to flip positions with Francis this year, but Larrow starting at DT next to Ken Kirksey in 2012 wouldn't be that much of a surprise. Larrow is a great athlete and still has an awful lot of untapped promise, with his starting to be borne out with rotational minutes at end this year.
Jamil Merrell was expected to start at end this year, but is starting to make George Johnson look like a model of health. For two seasons in a row now, one of the biggest offseason storylines was regarding how Merrell was looking great and ready to compete. With Rutgers losing a lot of linemen from 2010, a lot of responsibility fell on his shoulders. Last year he was hurt, and that looks to be the story again this fall, with a foot injury felling him through the first three games, with minimal updates on his progress. It's beyond frustrating as an observer. Imagine how Merrell must feel through all of this. If Jamil could only see the field at some point, we might have something.
Along with Abreu, Ka'Lial Glaud is exhibit A of Greg Schiano's cavalier attitude towards linebackers: mainly, that they should be glorified safeties, track stars in a helmet and pads. Glaud wasn't Abreu's rival as a blue-chip recruit, but he was no slouch in that respect, infamously claiming to have selected Rutgers over West Virginia due to a coin flip. As ridiculous as some of the offseason media skepticism was this year (of course offense will dominate scrimmages, Schiano's roster is built for blitzing), Glaud's shuffling around the roster certainly raised eyebrows among even the most diehard Scarlet Knight partisan. First, he's the future as the run-stuffing middle linebacker we've been craving. Steve Beauharnais gets to play his natural position on the strong side again. Then they switched positions, fine. It's not too uncommon, and Greg Schiano is trying to find his best eleven. Seemingly out of the blue, Glaud switched to defensive end in fall camp, undoubtedly influenced by the rash of injuries at this spot. It was weird even to Ka'Lial, but he is technically starting now.
When critics picked apart RU's defensive line rotation this year, that criticism was not warranted with regards to the starters. Francis and Vallone can make a strong case to be considered the best one-two punch in the league. Behind them? Well, not so much. Ken Kirksey certainly has a lot of ability, with his impressive combo of size and acceleration one of the top causes for optimism in a long offseason. Asking a freshman to play significant minutes without much in the way of conditioning under his belt is an awful lot to ask, even though Kirksey prepped for a season at Fork Union. There are few players on the roster who hold more promise at this point, but for now, he will contribute as quality depth to give the starters a breather.
Ike Holmes was technically the fourth tackle last season after LeGrand's injury, but rarely played. He's a bit of a square peg on the roster. Giant defensive tackles don't grow on trees, especially run-stuffers (Kirksey's main his headlines as an explosive pass rusher.) Whenever one of these players actually signs with the program, which is rare to begin with (Holmes, Taj Alexander, and Marquise Wright over the past few seasons), the chorus of second guessing immediately begins. "He'll never play, at least on defense. A lock to play guard. Etc etc..." Given Greg Schiano's track record, who can blame the naysayers? Holmes, to his credit, is now listed as having slimmed down to the low-70s, giving him a puncher's chance of actually playing. A D.J. Mera-type could stand a good chance of jumping Holmes in the depth chart after a year in the gym though.
RU is playing a lot of ends this fall, but that's partially because they have a few respectable options. Walk-on Shane Meisner drew some early praise, but the linebacker transplants quickly jumped ahead on the depth chart. Marvin Booker looked to be a top reserve at linebacker, but Schiano put him at end in a move that immediately drew comparisons to Papa Beckford's similar position change a few years back. Booker's been battling injuries through the first few weeks, which has opened a door for fan favorite Marcus Thompson. It's easy to see why Thompson has a cult-like following among Scarlet Knight fans (they needed someone to fixate on with De'Antwan Williams playing/transferring.) That same quality must drive the team's defensive coaches absolutely berserk at times. No player on the roster brings more unabashed aggression and reckless abandon with every snap. Chances are, he'll be one of those confounding guys that alternatively confounds and tantalizes everyone for as long as he is on campus.
Any concerns here ultimately boil down to depth. If Vallone or Francis were to go down for any extended period of time, the interior line goes from a major strength to a significant weakness. Not having LeGrand is proof of an unjust and unfair world in all respects, but not having him significantly hurts the rotation. For the past few years, Rutgers has counted on having three solid tackles with starting experience, and that plan had to be scrapped for a year and a half due to no fault of their own. Coach Schiano's critics certainly have plenty of ammunition to use, but if this group wears down, there's really nothing more that could have been done. That being said, reasonable confidence in this group is warranted. The starting defensive tackles are really good, there are bunch of competent bodies at end with upside in spades, and RU signed some good freshmen last winter. Rutgers will be back on Schiano's projected DL timeline in a year no worse for the where, and then it will be fair to expect the same dominant Scarlet Knight lines everyone has known and loved during the past decade.