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2009 Season Preview: Defensive Line

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Projected 2009 depth chart

DE: George Johnson (SR 6′4, 265 lbs), Justin Francis (RS-SO 6'4, 260 lbs)
DT: Blair Bines (SR 6'2, 270 lbs), Scott Vallone (RS-FR 6'3, 270 lbs)
DT: Charlie Noonan (RS-JR 6''2, 270 lbs), Eric LeGrand (SO 6'2, 260 lbs)
DE: Alex Silvestro (JR 6'4, 260 lbs), Jonathan Freeny (JR 6'3, 250 lbs)

Rutgers returns two starters from its 2008 line (Johnson and Silvestro, although the latter is moving to his more natural position outside), having lost starters DE Jamaal Westerman (now of the New York Jets), and standout DT Peter Tverdov. Francis and Vallone both have a lot of talent, but neither played last year.

Coach Schiano may have cut his teeth as a secondary coach, but at Rutgers, the defensive line has always been his chief focus on defense. From Raheem Orr, to Ryan Neill, Ramel Meekins, Eric Foster, and Tverdov, he has taken a special interest in developing talent on the line, with an obvious focus on hardworking players with consistent motor, intensity, and effort. As Coach lifted the program out from the depths, he tweaked his defensive schemes and personnel groupings, settling on a blitz-heavy package used to create unpredictable pressure from all over the field. This approach is coupled with an attacking, athletic front four, that use twists and stunts with reckless abandon.

Even more than his mentor Dave Wannstedt, Coach Schiano wants speed up front, players who can move. His recent mindset has been to put the team's best four linemen on the field, regardless of traditional positional assignments. That means, throw caution to the wind: if Alex Silvestro is a good player, he's going in there even if he's 250 lbs soaking wet and playing inside. Sure, Wanny likes speed, and pressure, but even he or other Jimmy Johnson disciplines wouldn't quite take things that far. Run-stuffing defensive tackles are easier to come across in the Everglades, or the foothills of Western Pennsylvania.

Schiano has his lemons (relatively speaking), so naturally he's going to make lemonade. That's why undersized Navy runs the triple option, and outmanned Texas Tech (compared to powers Texas and Oklahoma) runs Mike Leach's extreme variant of the spread. They have to innovate in order to stay ahead of the curve. What RU does isn't perfect; for one thing, it's extremely vulnerable to power running attacks between the tackles. Nevertheless, it's all they have, it's what they've grown accustomed to at this point, has worked reasonably well, and will likely be in place for the foreseeable future.

Let's start off with the one starter returning to his 2008 position. What's a fair level of expectations for George Johnson this season? He made a big impression in spot duty as a true freshman in 2006. Watching Johnson over the past two years, I can't help but shake the feeling that he is holding back, capable of playing even better; consistency being the magic word. He's a good athlete, plays the run well, is probably limited by playing on the strong side, and every so often will make a jaw-dropping play that will leave onlookers speechless.

George (Johnson) has the ability to be whatever he wants to be. If you could program one and have it appear in front of you that would be what you would program.

The problem is, he'll follow that up with disappearing for stretches at a time. Injuries haven't helped.

When I rewatched the PapaJohn's.com Bowl a few months ago, Johnson stood out to me as having a phenomenal game. He was the best Scarlet Knight on the field that day. George is a good starter, but I wonder whether what we've seen is what we're going to get, or if he'll put his nose to the grindstone and put together an all-conference level performance this season.

Most Rutgers fans are counting on big things from junior end Alex Silvestro this season. Silvestro was a cornerstone of the team's vaunted 2007 recruiting class, and fought his way onto the field as a true freshman. He ascended to a starting role at DT last season, despite (or, perhaps, owing to) his 250 lb frame. Would Silvestro go the route of Pete Tverdov, another natural pass rusher who sacrificed personal glory for the good of team and depth chart? Despite his extreme size disadvantage, Alex more than held his own last year, despite not having much of an opportunity to showcase his skills as an edge rusher, which was originally supposed to be his major selling card.

"I definitely feel more comfortable there because it’s where I’ve played before. I think I’m more suited for defensive end and the biggest thing is feeling more comfortable."

Now, with the Knights finally building up some depth at DT, and Coach Schiano starting to recruit the classic 300 lb+ behemoths again to that position, Silvestro is right where he supposedly belongs, lining up against opposition left tackles. Expectations are sky high and ever rising, with Knight fans continually whipping each other into a frenzy speculating about his potential. Could Silvestro get eight sacks this year? Nine? Double digits even? By the time the season actually starts, he will have figuratively outleaped Brian Leonard, and chopped down George Washington's cherry tree with Paul Bunyan's axe.

Starting tackle Blair Bines began his career on the banks as a run stuffing middle linebacker, but didn't really have the instincts for the position. Last year, he became the latest on a long line of former linebackers to place their hands on the ground, and move up to the line. Blair is by no means a classic defensive tackle, but being listed at 270 lbs means that he is a relative heavyweight at the position considering who Rutgers has started (and seen very effective results from) over the past few years. Bines saw some spot duty last season as a reserve, and performed relatively well as a pass rusher.

Charlie Noonan is the other projected tackle, and he's more of a question mark, seeing less snaps than Bines last season. Part of the blame can be attributed to Noonan missing time recovering from two injuries. If he's in the Pete Tverdov mold, then Rutgers has nothing to worry about. Personally, I'll be happy if he can be a solid starter, or at least good rotational depth for his two underclassmen understudies.

Behind Silvestro will be Jonathan Freeny. He was a reserve last year, and started the Pizza Bowl in place of the injured Jamaal Westerman, performing relatively well in his stead. He's a pure speed-rushing end, somewhat in the mold of his more famous cousin, Dwight.

Another critical reserve will be Justin Francis, who's back at end after playing as a true freshman at DT. I think he was moved outside in an effort to get the team's best linemen on the field. That's why the 260-lb guys went inside in the first place. If Eric LeGrand is playing inside, then Francis doesn't need to be. Ideally, he could develop into the power end that Rutgers hasn't seen since Val Barnaby graduated; mostly, because those guys kept getting moved inside. Francis was suspended for last season because of an incident with an airsoft gun (he, unfortunately was the first Scarlet Knight arrested since the summer of 2004), and used the time off to undergo a repair procedure on his shoulder. Even though he missed a year, big things are expected out of Francis because of how good he looked in 2007.

"I really think Justin is going to take a huge pop going forward from here," head coach Greg Schiano said. "All of that other stuff is behind him now and I think it takes a while to get back. Not only did he have his off the field distraction, but he also had shoulder surgery — a double whammy so to speak, and when you’re a young kid especially you don’t just come back like that."

Defensive tackle is where I'm really excited for the future, because the two primary reserves there are so good that Francis moved back outside. Eric LeGrand was a fan favorite with the Rutgers faithful long before he stepped foot on campus. Initially brought in as a high school middle linebacker, LeGrand briefly saw time at fullback last year, before settling in at defensive end. As is practically a Rutgers rite of passage at this point, he moved inside during spring practice, and never looked back.

"I think I’m anchored into that nose tackle position. I’m loving that position. I think it’s the best thing for me and the team," he said. "That’s the best spot for me right now since I got a lot bigger and a lot stronger over the break."

Let's see - an undersized, pass-rushing DT, with dreadlocks, and complete adoration from the fans - just call LeGrand "E2", because any comparisons with his namesake Eric Foster, one of the most beloved recent Scarlet Knights, are inevitable. LeGrand has done nothing but impress since the former GMC standout arrived in Piscataway. By all accounts, he shined during spring and fall camps. Mark it down - LeGrand is not only destined to start, he will be a future team captain.

The only obstacle to LeGrand seeing starter's minutes in 2010 would be the ascension of redshirt freshman Scott Vallone, although it wouldn't be a surprise if both started next year. Vallone was a big DT recruit out of Long Island, although very different in critical ways to '09 signees Antwan Lowery and Isaac Holmes. Those two signees were rolls of the dice based on pure potential. They could pan out, or very easily bust. Vallone was far more polished coming out of high school, in terms of both conditioning and skills. He was poised to contribute last year before suffering a foot injury, and doesn't appear to have lost anything in the recovery process. With this dynamic duo waiting in the wings, Rutgers appears set for the next few years at tackle before Holmes and Lowery even enter into the equation.

Rutgers does like to rotate its defensive linemen. Between that and injures, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if more players saw reps this season. End Sorie Bayoh cracked the two-deep last year after Gary Watts went down, but I can't think of all that much that he has ever done. Former end Evan Lampert is now a pass rushing tackle, and he's worth keeping an eye on in the future. Tackle Wayne Thomas is only in his third year in the program, but hasn't done anything at this point to earn playing time. Thomas and former Knight Keith Newell are, unfortunately, cautionary tales that illustrate how top rated linemen recruits don't always necessarily pan out. Marcus Witherspoon has also received recent looks at end, but his final position is yet to be determined.

The 2009 incoming freshmen class at this position is by far the best of Schiano's tenure. Brooklyn's Andre Civil enrolled early for spring practice. He's shown flashes in fall camp, despite being slowed by a hamstring injury. If not for that, and the team's depth at the position, he could have been in the mix for the two deep. Civil too brings a size and physicality to the DE position that Rutgers isn't necessarily used to in recent memory. He's the kind of player that would have been an absolute lock for DT even two years ago.

Jamal Merrell brings more of that speed on the outside that Coach Schiano loves. He displays a lot of athleticism, but will probably redshirt, and has the flexibility to play several different positions. Michael Larrow is another guy that won't likely won't make an impact in 2009, but is an essential component of the team's future plans. He'll initially see time at end, but could move inside depending on positional needs over the next few years. Signing day find Junior Solice could see time on the line or at 'backer, and has even gotten a few recent looks at fullback, so his status is up in the air for the time being.

Tackles Antwan Lowery and Isaac Holmes are the headliners. Both are raw, and highly unlikely to see the field before redshirting. They balance high bust potential with very high upside. Ideally, Lowery will be a penetrating, 3-technique tackle, and Holmes will be a big run stuffing nose tackle.

Coach Schiano isn't exactly planning to reinvent the wheel here. The personnel is still suited for his attacking, pressure-heavy 4-3 defense, and that will remain in place for the near future. RU has always used the 3-4 for a handful of looks during each game, but so do most teams. RU does have plenty of edge rushers, but nothing close to the necessary personnel in the middle to use that look on a regular basis. I'm only mentioning that here, because one innocuous question in the spring led to far too much speculation about this matter, which seems frankly ridiculous. Only a handful of college teams run the 3-4 to begin with, because DT is the hardest position to recruit. Greg Schiano's roster personnel is probably, I don't know, 115th out of 120th in terms of FBS teams that would be best equipped to make the full time transition to that scheme.

I'd like to make one last point, which isn't directly relevant, but I'm not sure where else to put it in my season previews. Coach Schiano, admittedly, does like to blitz an awful lot. Meaning that, he'll frequently bring linebackers and defensive backs attacking into the pocket as additional pass rushers. This is a high risk, high reward strategy. Frequently, the opposing QB will either be hit, have to get rid of the ball too early, or force a turnover. Sometimes, the blitz will backfire and result in a big offensive game. As a result, the Rutgers defense tends to go after the opposing quarterback a lot more than most teams.

This is definitively not the result of "dirty play", excessively late hits, or anything of the sort. Suppose that X amount of QB hits and hurries will result in an injury. Rutgers blitzes more than anyone else I can think of, so they're going to get more hits in. This pressure also can force the offense into making mistakes, like when Pittsburgh tailback LeSean McCoy accidentally backed into their QB Bill Stull last year. Several further injuries occurred on running plays, where brittle, injury-prone option QBs like Pat White and Russell Wilson took normal hits far downfield. A lot of the recent quarterback take outs happened on safety blitzes, where the Syracuse and Maryland lines simply failed to pick up the hard-hitting Joe Lefeged.

I know that Jamaal Westerman is with the Jets now, and that he received a lot of attention on the national stage, but Rutgers is on good hands with Alex Silvestro. It might even be an upgrade, because Westerman wasn't a very consistent rushing threat, and battled a biceps injury during his senior year. The player that Rutgers will struggle to replace is DT Pete Tverdov, the heart and soul of the defense during the past few years (along with Foster in 2007, and D'Imperio in 2008). He was by far the team's best defensive player last year, and it was an absolute crime that he wasn't named to the postseason all-conference team (Westerman made the second team).

There will undoubtedly be a major dropoff from Tverdov to Charlie Noonan, but George Johnson returns as a starter at one DE spot, and the other two line spots look to be upgrades. Who knows whether Johnson will put it all together (he's being touted as a breakout camp performer), but he'll be a quality starter at minimum. It doesn't hurt that Rutgers has ridiculous depth at end, and two players with star potential in Greg Schiano's scheme currently backing up the tackle spots. Blair Bines should be relatively good, as long his recent camp ailments don't linger on into the season.

Rutgers has been able to get to the passer recently. This positional group isn't as strong as the team's linebackers, but it's close, and should be a very good unit, one of the top twenty or so in the country. Just as with the backers, this unit is better than it looks on paper to someone that doesn't closely follow the team. Be stoked about these guys, because they have a chance to shine.