Projected depth chart:
CB: Brandon Bing (JR 5'11, 180 lbs), David Rowe (SO 6'0, 195 lbs)
CB: Devin McCourty (RS-SR 5'11, 190 lbs), Billy Anderson (RS-SR 6'0, 185 lbs)
FS: Zaire Kitchen (SR 6'2, 215 lbs), Khaseem Greene (RS-FR 6'1, 210 lbs)
SS: Joe Lefeged (JR 6'1, 205 lbs), Pat Kivlehan (SO 6'2, 205 lbs)
Rutgers finished 66th in team pass efficiency defense last year, but that statistic masks the stark contrast between the first and second halves of the season. Rutgers couldn't buy a stop in the air or on third down in September and October, and the culprits weren't the front seven. Rutgers struggled to replace a four-year starter at safety in Ron Girault, and future pros Jason McCourty and Courtney Greene made frequent mental mistakes in coverage. McCourty was coming off a generally solid 2007 campaign, and Greene was a star defender, among the best defensive backs in program history.
After months of abuse, their respective play picked up as the entire team found its mojo as the year went on. McCourty limited the mistakes, and started to keep pace with his twin brother Devin. Greene started to resemble the playmaking and turnover machine from years past. Overall, it was a disappointing campaign for a positional grouping that appeared to enter the year with a lot of experience returning. Coaching turnover on the staff may have also played a role in the secondary getting off to such a poor start.
When the McCourty twins first stepped foot on campus five years ago, Jason was pressed into action right away, while his brother Devin sat out during a redshirt season. Both were recruited as raw athletes. I recall posters on Rivals saying that one or both had an opportunity to end up having better college careers than Florida State commit Michael Ray Garvin, which they did. Jason struggled as a senior in 2008, but still flashed top-level athletic ability. It's the latter that has Devin on the NFL's radar this season, and it helps that he looked far steadier in coverage than Jason last year.
Both McCourty brothers are smart kids, with good heads on their shoulders. The time has passed for Parent Trap-level shenanigans though (at least, I hope the twins were taking advantage of that ability, because I know that I would in that situation). As the only senior starter here, the responsibility for showing leadership in the secondary falls squarely on Devin's shoulders as a team captain.
"This spring has been about my new role on the team," McCourty said. "Last year, I was a leader on the team, but I felt like I was a co-leader back there with my brother and Courtney (Greene), who played more snaps than I did on the field. So I just felt like I was another guy in charge with them. But this year, I'm the guy with the most experience."
When Coach Schiano first arrived on the banks, his number one priority was to upgrade the overall level of team speed and athleticism. RU has had its share of track stars in his tenure, and corner Brandon Bing is only the latest. Bing actually came to his first camp in 2007 as a walk-on with a track scholarship. He impressed during spring and fall camps, holding off a handful of talented younger players for the right to get the first crack at replacing Jason McCourty in the starting lineup.
Zaire Kitchen is one of several ferocious-hitting safeties on the roster. After sharing time with Joe Lefeged last year, both Kitchen and Lefeged are both pegged as starters for the opener. Kitchen's career is mostly notable for two facts. One, I'm not tossing around a word like "ferocious" here lightly. Dude hits like a ton of bricks. Kitchen looked like a rich man's Glenroy Lee as a true freshman in 2006, and was immediately pegged as a future starter.
That's things started to go off the hinges. Kitchen tore his ACL late in that breakout 2006 campaign. After a grueling rehab, fate remained unkind, with another cruel injury to the other knee in to come the following season. It speaks volumes to Zaire's toughness that he was able to come back for a second time, nevermind split reps at the position with the rising Lefeged last year. Now, he claims to be at 100%, although Greg Schiano isn't going to set the bar that high.
"I think with Zaire, there is a trust level with our coaching staff," Schiano said. "There are some things physically where Zaire’s body has been rode pretty hard with the surgeries, and there are some things that he struggles with. But he makes up for it with his knowledge and understanding. You know that he will use every ounce of his being to get the job done."
You don't really think of safeties as track stars, but Joe Lefeged will get some looks returning kicks this season, being one of the fastest players on the team. That speed was readily apparent as a freshman, where he was Schiano's designated secondary blitzer in fire zone packages. Backs staying in the pocket for pass protection were left in a state of shell shock as Lefeged whipped past them, crashing into the quarterback's blind side, and possibly scrambling their brains. He missed spring practice, but came back at full force for the season.
Lefeged split time with Kitchen last year, although I think Joe did see more time with the ones. He'll have to keep progressing, but Lefeged has a shot to turn into a top starter over the next few seasons. Both of these guys can hit, and presumably chip in by walking up to the box in run support. The question mark remains about whether either can step into a coverage role downfield. Rutgers badly missed the departed Ron Girault in that role last season (who was also responsible for unit calls and assignments). Courtney Greene struggled to adjust to those responsibilities for a while, which goes to show that pure talent may not be enough to get it done.
Sophomore David Rowe saw looks at safety (presumably, to maybe provide more help in coverage) in training camp, but the team's final preseason depth chart had Rowe back at corner. Regardless, he'll see a lot of time in nickel and dime packages this year. Schiano used Rowe on blitzes last year. Along with special teams duty, that seems to be one of Coach's preferred metrics for player development. As opposed to Bing and McCourty, Rowe brings more size to the secondary, which could help with regards to certain, more physical matchups.
Rowe has put on five pounds and grown two inches since arriving on the banks as a 5’10" 190-pound freshman, but the 6’0" 195-pound Rowe likes to get physical when he’s out on an island rather than sitting back and reacting.
"[I like] bump and run and getting in their face," he said. "[I] try and not let them off the line."
Former walk-on Billy Anderson opened camp as a starter, but quickly fell behind Bing. He'll see time in multiple-DB packages too, while trying to hold off talented youngsters like Brandon Jones and Logan Ryan. Anderson is a favorite of the coaching staff.
Backup safety Pat Kivlehan is sort of following the Girault career path. Pat didn't start as a true freshman (as Ron did), but note the other similarities: both went to St. Joe's of Montvale, the Bergen County power that has served as a feeder program for the Scarlet Knights in recent years. Both were NY residents playing in New Jersey for the chance to face superior competition. Both were late offers or near signing day (the strong RU/St. Joe's relationship doesn't hurt), and both look to be coverage specialists
"[Schiano] called me and offered me, and I accepted it right then and there," he said. "I wanted to play here all along. This was the place I wanted to be. I’m glad I’m here."
Freshman Khaseem Greene was battling Rowe off for that last safety spot in the two deep, and appears to have prevailed (although Rowe will see more overall time as a nickel). He's more of a hitter than Kivlehan, although I honestly don't know all that much about either, beyond the fact that Greene is already 21, and the older brother of Pitt freshman back Ray Graham.
Co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Ed Pinkham said Greene stood out during spring practices. Players earned "production" points for plays like tackles and interceptions -- and lost them for missed tackles. Greene was consistently above average.
"He knows that where we start is nowhere near where we finish," Pinkham said. "He understands right now where he's listed. He can easily work his way up. He certainly is a guy who has the capability and potential to play a lot of football here at Rutgers."
Brandon Jones is another younger corner with a bright future. The coaching staff has seemingly made an emphasis on stockpiling talent at the position. Jones didn't see as much time as Rowe last year, but both bring ideal height, and will be in the mix going forward. He saw a look at receiver last year, but now is exclusively a DB.
I hesitate to write off players after only three years in the program, but it doesn't bode well for CB Al-Majid Hutchinson that he's not in the three deep, and behind several younger players.
Safety Wayne Warren remains a mystery at the moment. The former high school quarterback missed all of last season with an injury, redshirting in the process.
The Rowe/Jones combo is reason enough for optimism, but Rutgers really landed a dynamite group of defensive backs in the class of '09 recruiting class. RU felt confident enough with the late addition of Darrell Givens to move star freshman safety Mohamed Sanu over to offense.
Logan Ryan, the Philadelphia Inquirer's 2008 South Jersey defensive player of the year was, along with Sanu and Tom Savage, one of the absolute gems of what was by all accounts of a terrific class. The only thing holding him back from the fourth corner role is a deeper depth chart. Still, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see him or Jones pushing for more time by midseason. It's going to be a lot of fun following that competition over the next few years. Ryan did a fairly good job matched up against Penn State WR signee Justin Brown at an all-star game held in Rutgers Stadium last June. As of now, he's ahead of the other freshmen challengers.
"He is going to be really good," Schiano said. "I don’t know when, whether it will be this year or not. But he has the tools."
Ryan, ranked as the No. 1 cornerback prospect in New Jersey by Rivals.com, said that he’s just trying to get a hold of the playbook and get used to college life.
"It’s intense, the college playbook, so I think that McCourty has helped me a lot with that," Ryan said. "I’m rooming with him and following everything he does, and hopefully one day I can be like him. … I didn’t know what to expect. I just came here with open eyes. It’s challenging. I’m taking it in and accepting it."
Speaking of PSU, Darrell Givens was a late addition after their academic support staff bungled his transcript advising, failing to inform Givens that he needed to retake an additional class that was part of the school's core requirements. Givens has as much raw potential as any freshman defensive back in the country. Rutgers is deep, numbers-wise, at corner though. He looks like needs some conditioning work too, so a redshirt wouldn't necessarily hurt.
Quron Pratt has seen looks at several positions during fall camp, but I'll list him here for now. Pratt's another good athlete, and he broke through his sleeper label with a breakout senior campaign. Now the challenge is to maintain that level of momentum.
Pratt was named the Burlington County Times Defensive Player of the Year last December. The 6-foot-1, 170-pound defensive back amassed 20 interceptions during his career with the Panthers. Last season, opposing wide receivers caught just five passes thrown to his side of the field.
Abdul Smith is from Trenton, but played QB in Pennsylvania last year. He was considered a tweener between cornerback and safety. Rutgers was his favorite throughout the recruiting process, but the coaching staff was a little hesitant to offer before they got a look at Smith up close during their prospects camp in late June. Smith impressed in coverage, received his offer, and didn't hesitate to quickly pull the trigger. However, recent circumstances (read: S Sanu to WR, addition of CB Givens), may dictate Smith sliding back to safety after all when all is said and done.
Duron Harmon is yet another standout from a very deep recruiting class. He's been lost in the shuffle a bit, which is unfair, because he was one of the best prospects in the East last year, and may be the most-heralded safety to attend Rutgers since Jay Bellamy. Harmon played corner in high school, but will shift to safety in college.
On the eve of the season, the factor that remains the most worrisome is that neither starting safety has much of a track record in coverage. That's not to say that they can't do it, but, unlike their hitting, that will remain a question mark until one proves his aptitude on the field. One would think that Lefeged has the speed to help out in that area, but he's been in more of an attacking role at this point, which is seemingly his strong suit. I'm as big a Courtney Greene fan as anybody, but there's no denying that his poor play in this area was a large factor in the team's awful start last year.
They'll need to stop the Bearcat passing game to have any shot of winning on Monday. Part of that is generating pressure up front, but the secondary needs to do its part. In the best case scenario, this season could end up being the inverse of 2008. The defensive backs don't enter the year with much in the way of preseason hype or accolades, but they could surprise. McCourty and Lefeged are mostly proven, and I think CB is about a year away from being an absolute strength. Downside being, as talented as those guys are, they're still green. The kids should improve as the year goes on, and be poised for big things in 2010.