A reinvigorated linebacking corps keyed a resilient Rutgers defense in 2011, and with all three starters returning this fall, expectations are bigger than ever. Obviously, 2011 Big East defensive player of the year Khaseem Greene will generate most of the headlines, but that's not at all fair to teammates Steve Beauharnais and Jamal Merrell, both of whom played phenomenally well last season. In fact, while this site has been careful not to criticize Greene (who is quite good), he surely has received a little too much media attention up to this point. For one thing, defensive tackle Justin Francis was easily the defense's best player last season (who didn't even get conference recognition because the assistant SIDs who filled in the ballots were clueless.)
Weakside linebacker is also a marquee position in the Rutgers defense that lends itself well to putting up high counting statistic totals. This is in contrast to say, the strong side, which has more coverage responsibilities. Again, it's not meant to be a knock at all, but where was the recognition for Antonio Lowery when he was kicking ass here? What about when Damaso Munoz went crazy in that game against UCF when switching to will after years of being quiet at Sam? Quintero Frierson, Kevin Malast, the list of standout Rutgers weakside backers over the past decade goes on and on. Greene is quite good mind you, and actually appears to be playing considerably better thus far through the first two games of 2012, but Beauharnais, Merrell, and Kevin Snyder for that matter all need to receive considerably more attention than they currently get.
Stevie B mans the spot inside in the middle as a three year starter (an easy transition from Ryan D'Imperio, who was expected to be a significant loss), which is traditionally cast as the defense's emotional leader. He's tough against the run, and has a fantastic nose for the ball and making big plays (e.g., Syracuse last year.) Not that counting stats mean all that much, but while Greene blew away everyone else in tackles, Beauharnais did best him in tackles for loss, sacks, and interceptions. When Rutgers needed a big play on defense last fall, if it didn't come from Francis, it was Beauharnais. He at least gets some recognition though, as compared to Jamal Merrell, who's practically anonymous.That's too bad - the SLB position at Rutgers just is not glamorous. If you're dropping into coverage, you are only being noticed if you screw up (with the rare exception of how awesome Manny Abreu looked before getting hurt in 2010.) In the Greg Schiano era, Rutgers sams were just a collection of oversized safeties mainly looked at for coverage - Terry Bynes, Munoz, etc... Some teams like to put a big pass rush threat in that spot, but not Rutgers. Similarly knocking Merrell, through no fault of his own, is that Rutgers had a terrific freshman last fall in Kevin Snyder who was just too good to keep off the field. That's just the thing - Merrell did absolutely nothing wrong, and by any objective standard had a very good season for a sophomore. Snyder was just something else though, with all observers swearing that he is the next top Rutgers linebacker come next season. Therefore, he forced his way onto the field as the backup sam, although in reality he's the top reserve at all three spots.
Depth was a bit of sore spot last year due to some injuries, but now it's looking stronger. Rutgers has two freshmen who have impressed early in Steve Longa and Quanzell Lambert (who is out for now injured, and might possibly redshirt depending on how things play out.) Quanzilla is your classic run-stuffing MLB who would almost certainly have bulked up to a DE (or bigger) in the past, but this is the new era of Rutgers defense that doesn't compromise on attributes, so now we might actually have a big mike at some unspecified point in the future. Longa is more of your classic, really athletic Schiano linebacker. He will likely start in 2012 with Snyder and Merrell, with Quanzilla jumping in for 2014. For now, Nick DePaola is technically on the two-deep at MLB.
Notably missing however is reserve Quentin Gause, who surely is one of the team's best six LBs with Quanzilla out. Gause was a crazy athletic undersized backer who just looked completely lost as a freshman, with some of the worst buzz to come out of Piscataway in a while. Gause then got some looks at DE, which seemed nuts considering the depth there. He turned it around big time come 2012 however, and ordinarily would have done more than enough to earn a spot on the two-deep if it wasn't for Longa being awesome. That being said, the positional math doesn't exactly work out great for him, but Gause is athletic enough to still have some untapped potential. I wasn't a huge fan of him as a prospect (didn't have a set position, and seemed more like a safety than anything), but definitely saw why Greg Schiano wanted him so badly (Quentin is a terrific athlete.)
He should at least be decent depth, which is better than RU can say for the past few years, where they were playing with a fire a bit here if any injuries were to happen. With some of the strong recent recruiting (Longa, Snyder, Lambert), the Knights are set here for a while, and should be able to put together a strong two deep here for years to come. That's barring injuries, transfers, or position changes of course; all three factors have played a role in thinning out this spot in the past. Still, linebackers have been one of the biggest strengths at Rutgers for the past few years (barring that awful D'Imperio injury in '07 that destroyed the run defense), and there is no reason that level of quality that we have grown to expect should not continue. These guys are good; arguably the best in the conference, and possibly one of the better units in the country. They are certainly the strongest area of the Rutgers roster this year. There are definitely areas that keep Kyle Flood and staff up at night; this, well, is by no means one of them.