Linebacker play was not a strong point of the Rutgers football team in 2007.
Rushing defense certainly depends a lot on the play of the defensive line, but consider this statistic: in 2006, Rutgers improved from the #36 rushing defense in 2005, to a #17 ranking; surrendering 2.94 ypc, 101 yards per game, and 10 TDs. Those numbers were significantly worse in 2007. Rutgers ranked #60 in FBS vs. the run. They gave up 3.98 yards per carry, 156.9 yards per game, and 18 touchdowns.
There are several ways to fix that stat in 2008. Schiano can use his safeties in run support more often, but that has the drawback of leaving opposing WRs in single coverage. It also removes a safety valve to prevent big plays against top runners like Shady McCoy and Noel Devine. Beefing up the interior DL would help a lot vs. teams not named West Virginia and Navy; indeed, this appears to be in the cards. Most importantly however, will be to improve the play of a LB corps that struggled in 2007 to replace Quintero Frierson and Devraun Thompson. Brandon Renkart has moved on to the New York Jets, and the unit also sees the departure of assistant HC Darren Rizzi. Robert Fraser has replaced him on staff.
Projected depth chart:
SLB: Manny Abreu (RS-FR 6'3, 245 lbs), Damaso Munoz (RS-JR 6'0, 215 lbs)
MLB: Ryan D'Imperio (JR 6'3, 240 lbs), Blair Bines (JR 6'2 260 lbs)
WLB: Kevin Malast (SR 6'2, 235 lbs), Antonio Lowery (SO 6'2 225 lbs)
Manny Abreu (not to be confused with John Kerry's favorite player on the Red Sox, Manny Ortez) was expected to make an impact as a true freshman in 2007. He was injured early in the year playing special teams, and was out for long enough that it was decided to redshirt him. He is one of the most-heralded recruits to ever sign with Rutgers, and him breaking out in 2007 would do wonders. A prototypical strongside backer, Abreu could fill any number of roles, including covering the opposing team's tight end and rushing the passer.
Damaso Munoz started for the majority of 2007 at MLB in D'Imperio's absence. In my opinion, he was a poor fit inside. His game is mostly based on utilizing his safety-caliber speed and athleticism. Getting him out of the middle is a huge plus; however, he might be able to make some plays on the outside. Of course, I've been anticipating Abreu and Lowery on the field for so long that the less I see of Munoz, the better. He missed spring practice, and has fallen down in the depth chart as a result.
RS-Sophomore walk-on Jim Dumont will also be in the mix in 2008. He earned time on the two-deep last year, and should at least see considerable time on special teams. RS-Freshman Al-Ghaffaar Lane will be another possibility at both linebacker and defensive end.
Ryan D'Imperio returns to claim his rightful spot as the team's starting middle linebacker. A contributor as a true freshman in 2006, D'Imperio had been expected to start last year, but was injured in spring practice. His status for 2007 was murky, but he did return late in the season to play a bit role. Before his injury, the buzz on D'Imperio was very high. It's possible that he could break out in the manner that Scott McKillop did for Pittsburgh in 2007.
Backing him up is junior Blair Bines, up to a bulky (for Rutgers) 260 lbs. That would make him a prototypical run-stuffing MLB at many schools, but it almost makes him a defensive lineman here. Bines is one of the most impressive physical specimens on the team. He has battled injuries in his career on the banks to date, and also is known for having mental lapses at times. Bines will also be in the mix to start on the strongside.
Senior Chris Quaye has not accomplished much in his Rutgers career to date. He will likely be limited to special teams duty in 2008. True freshman Eric LeGrand is one of the more-polished recruits of the 2007 class. it's entirely possible that he could earn his way onto the two deep with a strong camp.
Much was expected of Kevin Malast in 2007, but like the rest of the LB corps, he was a major disappointment. Malast has also dealt with some family tragedy recently, which might have affected his play.
Backing him up is Antonio Lowery, who saw S/T duty last year as a grayshirt freshman. Lowery was a top recruit coming out of the Miami area in high school, but had to delay his enrollment on campus due to legal difficulties. True freshman Marvin Booker will be in the mix here and on the weakside, but he will probably end up redshirting. RS-Sophomore Edmond Laryea is currently listed on his roster. He has bounced between fullback and linebacker, and his career was thought to be in jeopardy last year due to injuries.
Brandon Renkart, a brainy engineering major, was a favorite of Greg Schiano due to his smarts and intangibles on the field. However, it's hard not getting excited about some of the younger linebackers on the team. This unit has been a weakness throughout the majority of Schiano's tenure, with a number of high-profile players (William Beckford, Berkeley Hutchinson, Chenry Lewis) who failed to meet expectations in some capacity. While the LB corps might still be a relative weakness in 2007, it should make huge strides. Ideally, Ryan D'Imperio will emerge as an impact player, Kevin Malast will have a solid year, and one of Abreu or Lowery will flash the playmaking ability that Rutgers fans have dreamed about for years.
edit: this preview was written over the weekend. We have since learned that Munoz will be starting off in the middle, and Bines is moving to DT (that's probably for the best). I would have guessed that would put Dumont as Abreu's backup, but Schiano singled out Laryea.