Expectations are very high for the Rutgers secondary in 2012. This group was a question mark a year ago, but low and behold, being able to generate pressure from the front seven makes a world of difference on these guys. The skeptics were out in full force last fall, and now they're being counted on as a returning strength. Isn't college football great?
Three of four starters with return, with departed senior free safety David Rowe lost to graduation. In his stead is standout Duron Harmon moves from the strong side to his natural free safety position. That is typically more of a coverage role, and also tasked with making the calls in the defensive backfield. In contrast, the prototypical strong safety will more often sneak up into the front seven to help with run support, and be counted on to deliver big hits. Former top recruit Lorenzo Waters has stepped in there ably so far, and has all the makings of Rutgers's next multi-year standout at the position. Harmon really emerged last year as a force, and should have a good chance to make the NFL in a year; the difficulty Rutgers had a few years back in replacing Ron Girault proves that it is how easy it is to underrate a safety if he's not Joe Lefeged or Courtney Greene and laying the wood on a receiver going over the middle a few times a game.
Corner is similarly strong at the top. Logan Ryan ranks among the best-ranked recruits to ever sign with the Scarlet Knights. After some growing pains as a redshirt freshman in 2010 (when most of the entire defense had issues in the second half of the season) Ryan emerged in the second half of 2012 as the best pure cover corner in the Big East. That will not generate as much attention as a flashy player that generates turnovers, but Ryan was simply able to take opposing receivers out of games by the time league play started. It got to the point where a few overzealous fans were starting to nickname him "Logan Island," in the manner of New York Jets star Darrelle Revis. That was a bit too much, and Ryan did not start out 2012 on a great foot with getting picked on a bit by Tulane. He rebounded to keep USF's Andre Davis largely in check however, and his coverage skills and athleticism are already starting to get him on the NFL radar. Selfishly, you have to hope that he decides that he needs another season to make a Devin McCourty-style leap. Like all RU corners, he knows how to play the run, and Schiano, the former NFL defensive backs coach, was one of the few college coaches to emphasize press coverage during practices.
Rutgers essentially has two co-starters at the other corner spot with the prevalence of nickel packages in response to the spread offense. Brandon Jones is a big, physical corner opposite Ryan, with the main knock on him being a series of nagging injuries. He gave a workman-like effort in 2012, and has shown great awareness in getting in position for interceptions this year. The third corner is Marcus Cooper, who's developed into a solid enough player, after I spent about six months hating him last summer due to rampant Logan Ryan fanboyism in the face of Greg Schiano insisting that there would be an open competition between the two. Another important nickel/dime reserve is safety Wayne Warren, who's shown a ton of value on special teams and blitz packages. What truly makes this a deep unit is the presence of sixth-year senior Mason Robinson at safety. He's been through a lot in suffering through multiple knee injuries. In theory, safety should be somewhat of an easier load on him than corner; it's so awful to think of where his speed could have taken him before the tears though.With all the returning veteran experience, naturally, that's created somewhat less of an opportunity for younger players to work their way up the depth chart here, which has coupled with a few bad breaks, non-qualifiers, and transfers (Jordan Thomas, Rashad Knight, Charles Davis, etc...) to create a few question marks next fall behind Ryan and Waters. Like with Ryan, you do have to be confident in Tejay Johnson's athleticism at corner; he should be an early favorite to start. Beyond that, there's Gareef Glashen, who seemingly lost some momentum after a fast start, but still has plenty of time. With everyone else, it's not 100% clear, because it's not yet clear whether some of the freshmen like Davon Jacobs and Jevon Tyree will be corners or safeties. It's also possible that top incoming freshman Nadir Barnwell might pull a Darius Hamilton and be in the mix early here, although that will be by no means easy.
Safety is a little better. I liked J.T. Tartacoff as a heady slot receiver in 2010, and he fell out of the two deep here because of Mase moving. John Aiken was in the mix too there, so there are bodies. The player who eases your worry a bit is South Carolina transfer Sheldon Royster, who is another top recruit (and still hypothetically has a chance to land at corner.) Royster is a top talent, but struggled with Type I diabetes issues in the spring and summer. At minimum though, he makes up for Knight; we just happen to still be down one guy with no Thomas. One answer could be another position switch with all the receivers recruited as of late (Jeremy Deering has been floated as a candidate for safety. Miles Shuler could be a really good corner, but is probably too valuable at receiver. Ben Martin briefly got a look on defense before moving back to RB in the fall. Maybe one of the '12 class WRs too?)
Basically, we need to find a dime back and free safety for 2013, but for the time being, things look pretty good. They'll get torched here and there given how often the defenses blitz, but even more frequently will be bailed out by pressure forcing the opposing QBs into errant throws. It's hard to get a feel for new coordinator Robb Smith's coverage tendencies yet, as Schiano liked to mix it up between zone and man, as a coach who rose up the ranks using zone schemes, but converted to a blitz fanatic on the banks. Ideally, if Rutgers is going to keep going with the pressure, you want one or two guys who can be counted on in single coverage without help. Ryan didn't just lock down receivers last year; he was the secret weapon freeing up the ability to bring a sixth or seventh man to the line of scrimmage, drawing blockers away from the likes of Justin Francis. That aspect of playing CB is always underrated despite its utmost importance.
The Rutgers defense, like it or not, will always be seen as more of a schematic team effort than as a triumph of superior talent. It's not at all fair, or accurate given the high level of athleticism on all levels and the proven track record of pro success in the NFL. The lay observer will always care more about turnovers or even pass breakups than a defensive back who does his job in coverage so well, so ably that an opposing quarterback does not see fit to even challenge them. This is unavoidable, but hey, anything that could mean an extra year of Logan Ryan can't be all that bad.