Alabama. LSU. Ohio State. Florida State. These are schools where the word "rebuild" is not in the vocabulary when discussing defensive depth. Even when players graduate or leave for the NFL, they don't rebuild, they reload. Can Rutgers achieve the same feat this year? That is the question on everybody's mind heading into the 144th season of Rutgers football. RU has built its reputation on churning out aggressive, blitzing, turnover-inducing squads going back to the early 2000s, and that identity has never wavered.
Players graduating and moving on to the NFL is just another facet of the college game, and an issue that every team must deal with. However, Rutgers must also reload its coaching staff (again). After a successful run as RU's defensive coordinator, Robb Smith joined the plethora of former Rutgers coaches down in Tampa. In the months leading up to the 2012 season, many pundits and publications believed that the RU defense would regress with the loss of defensive guru Greg Schiano. Schiano was the man who instilled the tough identity into RFootball, and his leaving was seen as a severe detriment to the future of the program. Twelve months later, after having the best defense in the Big East, the defense will again start the season with a new face calling the plays, with Dave Cohen being promoted from LB coach.
Can the Rutgers defense prove once again that the success of the unit is tied to more than just one or two people? Is the system in place strong enough to reload, instead of rebuild? In 2013, we will find out if the legacy of the Scarlet Knight defense will live on, and if new faces can carry the torch.
|48||Marcus Thompson||DE||6'2"||260||Sr.||Oakland Park, FL (Boyd Anderson)|
|92||Jamil Merrell||DE||6'4"||255||R-Sr.||Bear, DE (Hodgson Vo-Tech)|
|7||Max Issaka||DE||6'3"||250||R-So.||Port Reading, NJ (Woodbridge)|
|49||Myles Jackson||DE||6'4"||245||R-So.||West Chester, PA (West Chester Henderson)|
|90||David Milewski||DE||6'4"||250||R-Jr.||Sayreville, NJ (Sayreville)|
|56||Nick Internicola||DE||6'3"||230||Fr.||Pembroke Pines, FL (University School)|
|91||Darius Hamilton||DT||6'4"||260||So.||West Paterson, NJ (Don Bosco Prep)|
|72||Isaac Holmes||DT||6'3"||280||R-Sr.||Jersey City, NJ (Hoboken)|
|95||Kenneth Kirksey||DT||6'1"||275||Jr.||Daytona Beach, FL (Fork Union Military Academy)|
|98||Daryl Stephenson||DT||6'3"||280||R-So.||Sayreville, NJ (Sayreville)|
|93||Djwany Mera||DT||6'4"||260||R-So.||Hollywood, FL (So. Broward/Hargrave Military Academy)|
|99||Al Page||DT||6'2"||280||R-So.||Bronx, NY (Christopher Columbus HS)|
|97||Jamil Pollard||DT||6'3"||280||R-Fr.||West Deptford, NJ (West Deptford)|
|53||Julian Pinnix-Odrick||DT||6'5"||250||R-Fr.||Montclair, NJ (Montclair)|
|51||Sebastian Joseph||DT||6'4"||270||Fr.||Stroudsburg, PA (Stroudsburg)|
|73||Josh Klecko||DT||6'2"||260||Fr.||Colts Neck, NJ (Red Bank Catholic)|
If football is won in the trenches, consider Rutgers in good shape for 2013. Like the offensive unit, the defensive line has three seniors (two who are fifth-year seniors) and a former consensus five-star recruit/son of an NFL Pro Bowler (with Josh Klecko currently a back up DT, that gives the RU D-line two NFL legacy players). Defensive end will be manned by Marcus Thompson and the recently announced co-captain Jamil Merrell. Both are very experienced players and should have no trouble getting to the quarterback, a problem area for D-line coach Jim Panagos in 2012. Thompson will be manning the "R" position (speed rusher) this year after playing the "E" (draws double teams) last season. This was the basis for his somewhat lofty prediction getting 24-sacks this year (not including other players; for perspective, the entire unit managed just 26 sacks all season). Max Issaka returns this season in good health, showing solid depth at end. Add in Myles Jackson, and the rotation for end is looking very solid. David Milewski, who seems to have been on the injured list since forever-ago, appears to be having a very good camp, so cheers to his return. True freshman Nick Internicola was recruited at LB, but apparently he did play DE as well unless this Orlando-Sentinel article is confused. Rutgers has a history of turning bigger LBs into undersized, faster DEs anyway, so this doesn't really come as a surprise.
The interior of the line boasts plenty of depth this year, as well as some solid game experience. Ike Holmes returns to nose tackle after suffering a wrist injury at Arkansas last season, which sidelined him for the year. Holmes was having a great season up until that injury, so it's a blessing to the rest of the team that he looks healthy for his senior season. Sophomore Darius Hamilton should benefit the most from Holmes' return as his progression at the three-technique position continues. After backing-up iron man Scott Vallone in 2012, Hamilton looks poised to have a truly breakout year as starting DT. For the two-deep, Kenneth Kirksey is set to be the number two at the nose tackle position. Redshirt sophomore Al Page still seems to be less than 100%, so the rest of the reserve lineup is unclear. Daryl Stephenson looks like the favorite to provide depth for Hamilton and the three-tech spot, while true freshman Sebastian Joseph has been showing flashes of greatness lately in camp. Djwany Mera is another candidate for the three-tech, but he has also gotten some reps at DE against the No. 1 offensive unit. Julian Pinnix-Odrick is out for the season with a torn ACL, and Jamil Pollard is having a very quiet camp. True freshman Josh Klecko rounds out depth at defensive tackle.
|45||Kevin Snyder||LB||6'3"||235||Jr.||Mechanicsburg, PA (Cumberland Valley)|
|37||Jamal Merrell||LB||6'4"||220||R-Sr.||Bear, DE (Hodgson Vo-Tech)|
|3||Steve Longa||LB||6'1"||220||R-Fr.||Saddle Brook, NJ (Saddle Brook)|
|50||Quentin Gause||LB||6'1"||220||R-So.||Rochester, NY (Bishop Kearny)|
|43||Nick DePaola||LB||6'0"||210||R-Sr.||Parkton, MD (Hereford)|
|25||L.J. Liston||LB||6'2"||230||Fr.||Grand Blanc, MI (Grand Blanc/Hargrave Military Academy)|
|22||Quanzell Lambert||LB/DE||6'1"||230||R-Fr.||Sicklerville, NJ (Timber Creek)|
|54||Justin Mills||LB||6'1"||230||R-Jr.||Sayreville, NJ (Paterson Catholic/Camden Military Academy)|
|38||Myles Nash||LB||6'5"||205||Fr.||Sicklerville, NJ (Timber Creek)|
|58||Kemoko Turay||LB/DE||6'6"||220||Fr.||Newark, NJ (Barringer)|
|56||Anthony Milito||LB||5'11"||235||R-So.||Basking Ridge, NJ (Ridge)|
|46||Dallas Whitaker||LB||6'2"||215||R-So.||Milford, NJ (Immaculata)|
|59||Darnell Davis, Jr.||LB||6'2"||235||Fr.||Union, NJ (Avon Old Farms School)|
When you lose a two-time defensive player of the year, a lot of people will be skeptical that this year's linebacker unit will be up to par compared to previous seasons. Fortunately, the starters at LB have the combination of sheer talent and experience to make up for the loss of Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais. For MLB, Steve Longa is using what he learned from his redshirt year to jump into the role of defensive signal-caller. Kyle Flood has given a ringing endorsement of Longa thus far into camp, so all signs point to his having an easy transition to starter. Kevin Snyder takes over the WILL position after Greene's graduation and departure to the NFL. Snyder has seen plenty of live game action and should have no problem taking over the role weakside LB. Fifth-year senior and defensive co-captain Jamal Merrell and his long 6'4" frame return to the strong side, with very few doubts that he will be a real force for the front seven.
Filling out the two-deep is where things get really tricky. L.J. Liston is making a good impression even as a true freshman, and it looks like he is learning the role of MLB behind Longa. That would mean the two-deep for MLB could be occupied by two players who have never played in a real game, a potential problem for a position labeled as the "quarterback of the defense." Quentin Gause, who received the Most Improved Defensive Player award during last year's spring game, looks to be the backup SAM behind Merrell, while fifth-year senior Nick DePaola is slotted as the backup to Snyder. Myles Nash is another lanky LB at 6'5", but he will likely redshirt since he is a paltry 205 lbs. I imagine the coaches would like to see him bulk up before they put him in to see actual game time.
Two players are being tried out between the DE and LB positions. Quanzell Lambert was a highly-rated prospect during his recruitment, and there were high hopes he could be the next star LB at Rutgers. The coaches are currently trying him out at DE, which is interesting since he is a tad too undersized at 6'1". True freshman Kemoko Turay was originally listed at DE, but is now trying out at LB, possibly for a hybrid type of role. At 6'6", Turay has the physical gifts that others don't, so it's easy to see how difficult it could be trying to find a permanent role for him. It should be easier once he adds some bulk to his frame, since he is currently listed at 220 lbs.
|21||Lorenzo Waters||SS||6'0"||205||R-Jr.||Accokeek, MD (DeMatha Catholic)|
|18||Jeremy Deering||FS||6'2"||200||Sr.||Tampa, FL (Leto)|
|26||Johnathan Aiken||SS||5'11"||190||Jr.||Fort Lauderdale, FL (Chaminade)|
|9||Tejay Johnson||FS||6'2"||205||R-So.||Egg Harbor, NJ (Egg Harbor/Fork Union Military Academy)|
|27||Delon Stephenson||FS||5'11"||190||Fr.||Sayreville, NJ (Sayreville/Milford Academy)|
|35||Sheldon Royster||SS||5'11||185||R-So.||Woodbridge, NJ (St. Peter's Prep/South Carolina)|
|5||Bryant Gross-Armiento||S||6'1"||190||Fr.||Sunrise, FL (American Heritage)|
|82||J.T. Tartacoff||S||5'11"||195||Sr.||Skillman, NJ (Montgomery)|
|29||Davon Jacobs||S||6'0"||190||R-Fr.||Paterson, NJ (DePaul Catholic)|
|36||T.J. Taylor||ATH||6'3"||190||Fr.||Kendall Park, NJ (South Brunswick)|
Safety appears to be settling in on starters, since both Lorenzo Waters and Jeremy Deering have yet to relinquish their status as current No. 1s. That either says they are that good or the rest of the competition isn't good enough. Based on Kyle Flood's demeanor and choice of words, I'll go with they are that good. Waters has starting experience while Deering brings sheer talent to the mix. Jeremy also played safety in high school, so it's not a completely foreign transition. Tejay Johnson is currently the backup to Deering at FS with freshman Delon Stephenson battling him for the number two position. Johnathan Aiken rounds out the two-deep for Waters. SCar transfer Sheldon Royster is buried on the third team at the moment, which is disappointing considering he was expected to compete right away. The rest of the bodies can provide depth to a fairly green position, but as of right now, both safety positions are more of an unknown than anything else right now.
|2||Gareef Glashen||CB||5'10"||180||R-Jr.||Miami, FL (Carol City)|
|23||Ian Thomas||CB||6'1"||200||R-Fr.||Baltimore, MD (Franklin)|
|24||Lewis Toler||CB||5'11"||190||Sr.||New Castle, DE (William Penn/WMU)|
|12||Nadir Barnwell||CB||5'11"||190||Fr.||Piscataway, NJ (Piscataway)|
|8||Jevon Tyree||CB||5'11||185||R-Fr.||Somerset, NJ (South Brunswick)|
|31||Anthony Cioffi||CB||6'0"||180||Fr.||Springfield, NJ (Jonathan Dayton)|
It won't be easy replacing the trio of Logan Ryan, Brandon Jones, and Marcus Cooper. However, I do think that cornerback is currently in better shape than safety. Gareef Glashen has been around those guys for years now and has the practice experience to help him make the transition to starter. That is easier said than done, but after three years in the system, he should be ready to make the jump. Former wideout Ian Thomas appears to be making a smooth transition to cornerback and is holding steady as starter opposite Glashen. Behind Thomas, you have WMU transfer Lewis Toler, who started seemingly every game while at Western Michigan. Similar to R.J. Dill's transfer, Toler is currently slotted at the No. 2 spot behind Thomas, but both players are capable and should be fine on gameday.
Several players could still transition in between safety and cornerback, but at the moment it looks like some true freshmen will need to suit up this season. Four-star recruit Nadir Barnwell is learning the ropes as a backup cornerback, so his number could be called at a moment's notice. There's definitely something to worry about regarding the defensive backfield for 2013, but it is far from a panic situation. If you remember before the 2011 season started, many pundits thought Rutgers secondary was too inexperienced then. That unit ended up being the best pass defense in the Big East that year, shutting down every quarterback they faced.
The first scrimmage in the stadium is tomorrow, followed by FanFest with player autographs. So far, it has been a relatively healthy (fingers crossed) camp for Kyle Flood, which shows that the players conditioned themselves very well in the offseason. How do you think the defense will shake out for Fresno State? Leave a comment below.