Projected depth chart:
CB Jason McCourty (SR 5'11, 190 lbs), Brandon Bing (SO 5'11 165 lbs)
CB Devin McCourty (RS-JR 5'11, 185 lbs), Billy Anderson (6'0 185 lbs)
FS Courtney Greene (SR 6'2, 215 lbs), Glenroy Lee (SR 6'2, 195 lbs)
SS Zaire Kitchen (JR 6'2, 215 lbs), Joe Lefeged (SO 6'1, 200 lbs)
The hardest part of evaluating secondary play is that it's so dependent on having a pass rush up front. Rutgers not only uses a defensive scheme relying on smaller, quicker linemen that often twist and stunt, but Schiano loves to blitz from all over the field as well. Linebackers, safeties, even corners; while a George Johnson drops back into coverage. Perhaps the New York Football Giants were taking notes. Rutgers generated 41 sacks in both seasons, ranking sixth and fifth vs. the pass, respectively. It's a high risk/high reward scheme, one that's very vulnerable to big plays when everything does not go as planned.
With the graduation of the team's top three cornerbacks from 2006 - Derrick Roberson, Manny Collins and Joey Porter; depth was a major challenge going in to 2007. Jason McCourty had some experience, and he and his twin brother Devin were considered solid, projectable athletes with a lot of in-game smarts. Dmitri Linton had a solid spring practice last year, but gave up football in the fall due to injuries. Leslie Jackman would find himself buried on the depth chart, and transferred after the season.
Rutgers was perilously thin at cornerback, and I think it's miraculous that the pass defense did not completely collapse. The depth last season consisted of Jackman, former walk-on Billy Anderson, true freshman recruit Al-Majid Hutchins (who red-shirted), and freshman Brandon Bing. Bing actually came on campus last year with a track scholarship. However, he impressed enough in fall practice that he was given a football ship.
The McCourty twins weren't terrible last year. Our defensive schemes had them give large cushions to opposing receivers, which was frustrating at times. Both made key plays at several opportunities, including at the end of contests vs. USF and Pitt. Bing and Anderson both held their own, but it's difficult at the moment to try and forecast how their careers will progress from only one year of experience. With the team's top four CBs from 2008 returning, Al-Majid Hutchins ready to contribute, and Robenson Alexis shifting over from wide receiver, this is one of the deeper areas of the team going in to 2007, with very heated battles for playing time behind the McCourty twins. True freshmen David Rowe, Brandon Jones (also a candidate for safety), and Eddie Poole are probable redshirt candidates.
Ron Girault, a four-year starter at strong safety, has moved on to the NFL's New York Jets. In Coach Schiano's scheme, the strong and weak sides are flipped, which has repercussions throughout the defense, but none more evident at the safety position. While listed on the depth chart as a strong safety, Girault was more of a heady ballhawk that primarily dropped back into coverage. Returning starter Courtney Greene, who briefly applied and withdrew from last year's NFL draft, returns for his final season at the free safety position. He is the primary playmaker in the Rutgers secondary, with excellent ball skills and a knack for delivering big hits. I don't think he was the greatest in run support last year, but neither was anyone else on the defense.
There isn't really a traditional coverage safety on the roster to pair with Greene as a starter in 2008. The three main candidates are primarily known for their ability to deliver big hits. In fact, I think they're likely the three hardest hitters on the team, and they're all vying for one job. Glenroy Lee first made an impression in 2005 with a bone-jarring hit vs. the Pitt Panthers, and has been a special teams contributor and primary backup for the past three seasons. He worked with the starters during spring practice and reportedly was impressing, but apparently has fallen into Schiano's doghouse at this time.
Zaire Kitchen has had an up and down career to this point. Coming out of high school it was believed that he may have ended up at linebacker at Rutgers, but he's remained at safety. And his play there hasn't really been a problem. After a strong rookie campaign in 2006, he injured his knee in the finale against Syracuse, and his career was believed to be in jeopardy. He returned with a full head of steam in 2007, only to injure his other knee vs. Pitt. Yet, reports have so far indicated that he's cleared to contribute this year. I thought he played tentatively at times last season, and was only getting back up to game speed when he was injured. At worst, he'll be a valuable special teams player; but Kitchen could definitely play a major role if he stays healthy.
Seeing considerable minutes in 2007 was true freshman Joe Lefeged. Schiano primarily used him as a blitzer from a safety position, and it didn't take him long to make opposing QBs aware of his presence. Lefeged was charged with two late hits last season, including one that gave a concussion to Maryland QB Jordan Steffy. Surprisingly Lefeged was behind Lee in spring practice.
Also in the mix will be converted RB Davon Smart. He has mostly been limited to S/T duties the past few years, but finally started to see the field a bit after moving to the secondary. He might be the only safety in the mix who will focus mainly on coverage.
Besides Greene, it would not be a surprise if any of the four other safeties saw time. Expect to see all of them in multi-DB sets at times, on special teams, and Lefeged especially in a secondary blitz package. True freshmen Khaseem Greene and Pat Kivlehan will likely redshirt barring injuries, and either of them are potential candidates to move to linebacker. True freshman Wayne Warren is recovering from an injury, and will almost certainly redshirt. Walk-ons Marc Orosz and Jawaan Westerman will likely be limited to special teams duty.
The bottom line is that, going into the season, the secondary returns 75% of its starters from a respectable unit a year ago. There are several experienced backups, and the unit boasts one of the best safeties in the country in Courtney Greene. The defensive backfield should be a major strength in 2008, and one of the strongest units on the team.