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2009 Season Preview: Linebackers

Projected 2009 depth chart

SLB: Damaso Munoz (RS-SR 6'0, 220 lbs), Manny Abreu (RS-SO 6'3, 245 lbs)
MLB: Ryan D'Imperio (SR 6'3, 245 lbs), Jim Dumont (RS-JR 6'1, 215 lbs)
WLB: Antonio Lowery (JR 6'2, 225 lbs), Marvin Booker (SO 6'2, 220 lbs)

That was the depth chart from spring practice, and what I tentatively expect to see in the fall.

It's probably unfair at this point to keep bringing up Munoz's poor play in the middle in 2007 at every mention of his name, and I will try not to beyond this point. (Which is better than scrutiny for taking online courses, though.) He was stepping into a difficult situation, a lot of players suffer in comparison to D'Imperio, and much of this griping is motivated by star blindness - a desire to see Manny Abreu start because he was highly touted coming out of high school.

Munoz's play on the outside last year was more than acceptable. He brings a similar skillset to the table as past Greg Schiano strongside backers like Terry Bynes or Brandon Renkart - Munoz isn't flashy and won't make a ton of plays, but he brings speed to the position, and respectable coverage. Munoz took over for Abreu as the starter at mid-season last year, in one of many roster tweaks at that time. It may not have been the definitive move in keying the turnaround, but Munoz more than held his own.

Q. What about the progress that Abreu has made?

"I think Manny is getting better. I just think that Damaso got better faster that's why he started. But like I said the other day: Manny is a competitor. He's not going to sit back and say `okay, let him take it.' They're going to compete and that's what will make them both better so that's a good thing."

Abreu was by no means bad as redshirt freshman last year, being named to several freshman AA teams. He earned a starting job out of fall camp. He showed flashes of playmaking ability, but did look a step slow in coverage. Manny might be a better fit on the weakside, where Schiano could unleash him on a number of blitzes (even if Abreu doesn't start, he will see a lot of time in special sub packages), and focus on blowing up players in space. Abreu may be the primary backup on the strongside, but I think he's more in the mix at will, and that will be his primary spot at least for this fall.

There was a supposed "competition" between Munoz and D'Imperio for the MLB spot last fall, but let's not kid anyone. Even though D'Imperio was injured the year before, there was little to no chance that he wouldn't seize a starting role. There aren't enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe Ryan D'Imperio's 2008 season. So I won't. Go search for "Scott McKillop" on Google, and cut and paste Ryan's name into each story. Well, maybe not the ones about not having NFL measurables, because "D'Impaler" looks plenty fast to me. He's an incredibly heady and well coached in all aspects of the game. That's a necessity for the middle linebacker position, traditionally the natural leader of every defense.

Ryan shines in all facets of the game. He certainly excels with the big things like run stuffing (the primary reason Rutgers fans saw his 2008 season as messianic), tracking down ball carriers, his relentless motor, and coverage; but it's the little things - technique, play recognition, etc... that put D'Imperio over the top as, yes, a truly elite player. The media is an echo chamber; they won't give Ryan preseason All-American recognition because he was limited in 2007 by an injury. Nor will they project him as a first day pick in next year's draft at this point in time. But mark it down now; write it in blood. Based on last season, you can expect Ryan D'Imperio to play at an All-American level in 2009, and NFL talent evaluators will certainly know his name.

Walk-on Jim Dumont is, by all accounts, a favorite of the Rutgers football coaching staff.

"He’s one of the tougher guys I’ve been around," Schiano said. "He broke his hand and he finished the practice with a little tape on it and casted it up and practiced every other day — every other practice that we had."

RU has had as much, or more, success with former walk-ons as any program, but that fact still gives some fans wariness; as does his relative lack of size in the middle.

"He may not have some of the physical tools that a Ryan D’Imperio or someone like that has, but he’ll throw his body in there and is fearless," Schiano said.

D'Imperio will get scrutinized for his not being as big as a typical starting NFL linebacking, but he's big enough for a Tampa 2 scheme, and makes up for that in other areas.

It's analogous to our view about coaches that lack local ties; we were soured once (2007, Terry Shea). Both had worked at points in the past, but now we're bitter and entrenched in our stereotypes. That's the mentality of being disappointed that a potential run-stopping MLB like Eric LeGrand was moved to defensive tackle (he also had the intangibles for the position). Dumont at least won't take a back seat to anyone in that department, as arguably the toughest player on the entire roster. See "Tough Act to Follow" from the 09/07/07 Philly Inquirer for more on Dumont, and his family's history with Rutgers football.

Kevin Malast had an excellent 2008 season at weakside linebacker, but I am very confident that Rutgers is in strong hands with either Abreu or Antonio Lowery patrolling the sidelines. Lowery is probably the slight favorite (55-45?) to start. A lot of the national media knows about Abreu because of his status as a blue chipper, but it's a pet peeve of mine that Lowery isn't on their radar as much more than Antwan Lowery's older brother.

Antonio is a very good athlete, and actually was a fairly big recruit himself coming out of high school. The main reason he hasn't received much press is because he didn't make it to campus with the rest of the class of '06 signees, and was stuck behind Malast for the past few years. Lowery is poised for a big year if he wins the job, and this spot is one of my prime points of optimism this year, in the face of a lot of uncertainty.

True sophomore Marvin Booker is likely behind Abreu on the two-deep. The Piscataway product burned his redshirt on special teams last year. That, and his status above several upperclassmen on the depth chart could portend to more of a role in the next few years. Or, it could just mean that he came to camp with polish and a good attitude.

Along with the offensive line, RU's linebacking corps has a ton of depth. Redshirt freshmen Marcus Witherspoon (another four star recruit, who initially signed with Michigan) and Morgan Carter will be ready to see action. This is the year for upperclassmen Al-Ghaffar Lane and Edmond Laryea to crack the two deep, or they might not see many more chances to see the field.

Given the depth at the position, I don't expect to see true freshmen Steve Beauharnais, Ka'Lial Glaud, or Jamal Merrell (Junior Solice could play LB or DL) burn their redshirts. It's a solid group. Rutgers has some good speed on the outside on their depth chart, but I'm waiting to see whether Beauharnais or Glaud emerges as the MLB of the future. Rutgers is coached by Greg Schiano, so it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see two or twelve of the other players mentioned here lining up with one hand on the ground before long.

D'Imperio is the man, Munoz is the steady veteran, and Lowery or Abreu will wrack up a ton of tackles, with the understudy waiting in reserve. A walk-on and a true sophomore may not seem like much as top reserves in comparison, but they've earned those roles over upperclassmen, who are still on the roster, by the way. Most of these spots are still open for a spirited competition in camp, and that's why Rutgers is loaded at this position. They go over three deep, and with the incoming freshmen and other walk-ons, four. I'm extremely confident that linebacker is one of the strongest positions on the team. D'Imperio is going to have another big year, and one of Lowery or Abreu will emerge as a star. It's a welcome change from the thinner years at the position earlier in this decade.