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2008 Season Preview: Defensive Line

Projected depth chart:

DE: Jamaal Westerman (RS-SR 6'3, 265 lbs), Jon Freeny (SO 6'3, 240 lbs)
DT: Pete Tverdov (SR 6'4, 270 lbs), Charlie Noonan (RS-SO 6'2, 265 lbs)
DT: Alex Silvestro (SO 6'4, 250 lbs), Blair Bines (JR 6'2, 260 lbs)
DE: George Johnson (JR 6'4, 260 lbs), Gary Watts (SR 6'3, 245 lbs)

Or, as I call them (warning, don't GIS smurf if you value your sanity)

As I noted in my DB preview:

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.

Two themes have defined Rutgers football in recent memory; Ray Rice, and an undersized defensive line that goes after the quarterback on every single play. Who can forget the 2006 showdown vs. Louisville, wherein "Papa" Beckford, Eric Foster, Ramel Meekins, and Jamal Westerman terrorized Brian Brohm all night?

And, as I pointed out in my LB preview, the scheme doesn't entirely come up roses.

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.

With speed to burn at every position, Rutgers is well equipped to defend against option schemes such as those run by West Virginia and Navy. Where the team struggled in 2007 (and arguably did in 2006, even though opponents didn't do a very good job of exploiting it) was defending power runs between the tackles. A simple ISO through the middle can wreck unimaginable havoc versus a defensive line that averages around 260 lbs on a good day.

Rutgers returns a lot of experience at defensive end, with returning starters Jamaal Westerman and George Johnson, and top reserve Gary Watts. All go full-bore after the quarterback on most plays. None is a superstar, but all are respectable DI-A players. Likely to be the fourth end is true sophomore Jon Freeny, a second cousin of NFL star Dwight Freeney. Also figuring into the mix will reserves Jameil Farrington (who, considering the depth charts at DE and DT, I hope ends up sticking at DE), Sorie Bayoh, and walk-on Evan Lampert. True freshman Marquis Hamm is unlikely to burn his redshirt in 2008. I don't have much to say about the defensive ends, as frankly, they're not particularly interesting. Maybe a LB or two will switch to DE over the course of the season. It would have been nice to redshirt Watts at some point, I wish the staff was a bit more careful with those things. The 2009 depth chart looks a little thin, meaning that it would be a good idea to go after a junior college player.

The DT rotation is far more interesting to me. Most 4-3 teams will line a "nose tackle" opposite the opposing team's center, whose primary responsibility is to stuff the run. He's usually flanked by an "under tackle"/"3-technique", largely tasked with rushing the passer. With our defense, those labels are mere formalities. The most experienced and biggest tackle gets the task of lining up over center, but that player is still undersized for an under tackle, and typically 30-40 lbs below the weight of the average nose tackle. The other defensive tackle is practically another defensive end (and he's lining up next to a linebacker playing end). Both of them are tasked with plugging on gap, and have free rein to twist, stunt, and do anything within their power to get to the opposing quarterback. Believe it or not, until two years ago, Rutgers used a more traditional defensive line. The current insanity was more or less designed to ensure that the four best players get on the field. Quality defensive tackles are hard to find.

The team's top returning tackle (with the graduation of Eric Foster and transfer of reserve Vantrise Studivant) is Pete Tverdov, who is coming off a strong junior season. Tverdov was a late bloomer in high school. As I recall, he did not receive any offers during his senior year. He had planned on prepping, but his recruitment suddenly exploded following a big performance at a combine. Rutgers and Virginia offered, and more were likely on the way had he waited. Given Virginia's use of a 4-3 scheme, it's entirely likely that Tverdov would be playing outside linebacker for them. And he's supposed to be our top interior lineman. Unfortunately for him, DTs don't really get the opportunities to rack up sacks that pure pass rushers do. I know the Indianapolis Colts love Greg Schiano's scheme, but I can't help but worry that it might be used to negatively recruit against us in the future because it's so difficult to project our linemen into the NFL.

Continuing the theme is the other projected starting DT, Alex Silvestro. Silvestro was one of the top recruits in the class of 2007, and contributed immediately last season as a true freshman. Three starters on the defensive line in 2006 were a sub 6-foot, 200 lb player with a quick first step but poor instincts at linebacker, a skinny high school linebacker that bulked up into a 260 lb DT, and a former walk-on who was the best heavyweight on the school's wrestling team as a freshman. And they played marvelously. The tradition of undersized tackles will continue in 2008.

Going into 2008, there was hope among the fanbase that redshirt freshmen Des Wynn and Wayne Thomas could contribute in the defensive line rotation. Greg Schiano rotates his defensive line a lot, and it's likely that 8-10 will see significant minutes, but Wynn and Thomas have not received many mentions during fall camp. This is not necessarily a cause for concern at this point. Large linemen are among the hardest players to recruit and develop.

It appears right now that the top reserve tackle will be redshirt sophomore Charlie Noonan. Noonan looked poised to contribute early before last season, but injuries marred his 2007 campaign. The good news is that he's rebounded with another strong camp performance. The other top reserve is likely to be converted linebacker Blair Bines. Bines is one of the more-impressive athletes on the team, but did not seem to have the instincts to play linebacker effectively. Putting him in the trenches may give him the best chance to thrive in the future. Also likely to be in the mix is true sophomore Jameil Farrington.

Justin Francis was a top reserve as a true freshman in 2007, and was projected as a starting DT entering spring practice. He was suspended for the season following an incident with an airsoft gun a few months ago. Heralded recruit Scott Vallone may redshirt this season as he recovers from a leg injury. True freshman Eric LeGrand is currently taking snaps at DT in fall practice, but may move to DE or back to LB in the future.

The lost of Francis hurt a unit expected to be a strength of the defense this year. However, with the emergence of Bines and Noonan in camp, things at this position look to be largely settled. Rutgers fans will have to file away their dreams of defensive tackles that weigh more than 270 lbs for at least another season. Expect more of the same from the past few years. I.e., a lot of sacks, and ineffectiveness vs. power running games. Defensive line coach Cary Codette has retired, leaving long-time Purdue DL coach Gary Emanuel to handle the plethora of young players littering this unit. If he can perform anywhere as well as Godette did the past few seasons, the defensive line should again be a relative strength and a strong pass rushing force.