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2010 Season Preview: Defensive Line

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Projected 2010 depth chart:

DE: SR Jonathan Freeny (6'3, 250), RS-SR Sorie Bayoh (6'3, 250)

DT: RS-SO Scott Vallone (6'3, 270), RS-FR Mike Larrow (6'3, 252)

DT: RS-SR Charlie Noonan (6'2, 274), JR Eric LeGrand (6'2, 275)

DE: SR Alex Silvestro (6'4, 260), RS-JR Justin Francis (6'4, 262)

After reviewing all of the collective uncertainty on offense, it is reassuring to review what could be the top positional group for Rutgers this fall. They are a relatively anonymous bunch, in spite of widespread preseason accolades as being one of the nation's best defensive lines. There is no surefire star that will be playing in the NFL next season (ala Marvin Austin or Robert Quinn at UNC), with Scott Vallone deservedly generating the most headlines. Rutgers defensive linemen will never overwhelm with textbook physical measurables, but always seem to produce a strong pass rush in conjunction with the team's blitz-heavy schemes.

Alex Silvestro quietly has compiled a very impressive career on the banks, and barring injury will graduate as a three-year starter. Yes, he did only accumulate two sacks last year, but from memory he was a good, consistent pass rusher with several near misses. He's a bigger end and seemed to do well against the run.

‘‘I don’t know (if he flies under the radar), but not under my radar,’’ Schiano said Thursday. ‘‘He’s a guy who played three-technique (defensive tackle) his sophomore year at 235 pounds. I’ve always appreciated him. He has been a consistent performer for us. I think you need those guys. We’re counting on his leadership and play-making for sure.’’

Sack totals don't always articulate how effective a defender was at disrupting an opponent's rhythm (which leads to incompletions and turnovers). For what it's worth, Silvestro's 12 tackles for a loss tied with reserve Jonathan Freeny for second on the team behind George Johnson. Admittedly, I expected loftier numbers after Alex slid out to his more-natural defensive end position last year, but Rutgers has a lot of talent up front. It's difficult for any one contributor to stand out, especially considering that the Scarlet Knights have had a lot of good defensive linemen over the past few years, but I think he ranks right up there with the better ones.

The other case in point towards the misleading value of context-free statistics is Jonathan Freeny, who is the second cousin of NFL star Dwight Freeney. Now, that is not to say that he isn't a good player. While a reserve last year, Rutgers frequently rotates its defensive linemen, and starter George Johnson was frequently battling various injuries. Freeny actually has looked good on the field, especially when starting in the 2008 Papajohn's.com Bowl against N.C. State. He should be a very effective weakside pass-rushing DE this year at the minimum.

"I don't want to be labeled as just a pass rusher anymore, I want to be known as a complete player,'' said Freeny after a preseason practice this week. "That's what I'm working on this year. I want to make my game complete.''

It's not intended as a slight at all, but the reason to get super-anal and particular here is because Phil Steele (to single out one of several similar cases) named him as a second team All-Big East along with Alex Silvestro. That was in spite of the fact that Scott Vallone and George Johnson had better years, and Jonathan Freeny wasn't even a starter! The only plausible explanation is that the postseason awards were based on his 9.5 sacks leading the team. However, a closer glance reveals that 6.5 of those sacks came against the uninspiring trio of FIU, Texas Southern, and Howard. Did anyone even realize that he led the team until that number started becoming a big deal?

The true honor of who was the best Rutgers DL last year is up for debate. George Johnson probably reached the biggest highs, but he was wildly inconsistent from week to week battling frequent nagging injuries. I agree with the consensus that defensive tackle Scott Vallone was the unit's best and most consistent player, which was quite the accomplishment for a redshirt freshman making his way back from a leg injury. It's hard for any one player to stand out in what should be a very effective 2010 defensive line rotation, but the FWAA Freshman All-American Vallone is the closest thing to a star. In fact, he is the best returning starter from what was already a very good defense last year, and all of the camp reports on Scott from the spring and fall have been absolutely glowing.

"(Vallone) is playing at a high level," Schiano said. "Scott is going to have a good year. God willing he stays healthy, and he’s going to be a force."

What made Scott Vallone so ready to step right in and contribute (he probably plays in 2008 barring the injury) is that he came out of high school relatively polished, and his high motor intensity was a perfect fit for the aggressive, undersized approach that Rutgers has favored in recent years. At a listed 6'3 and 270 lbs (as a third-year sophomore), he's a natural progression upwards from an Eric Foster or Ramel Meekins, but still on the lean side even for a three-technique defensive tackle. I would even go as far to say that Vallone has the chance to be a very good NFL prospect, but he may not have ideal bulk for the next level, and may be already close to his ceiling.

Rutgers has always used frequent substitutions on the defensive line under Coach Schiano, and nose tackle provides a useful illustration of that fact with Charlie Noonan and Eric LeGrand. Noonan is a productive and useful player, with a reputation for toughness, but even Rutgers fans overlook him in favor of his understudy LeGrand. It's understandable, considering that LeGrand is the better player (despite still being in the process of growing into the position), and his leadership ability is already drawing comparisons to Rutgers football legend Eric Foster.

"A lot of people have said that," LeGrand said. "We're two different people, but he's a great mentor and hopefully I can play up to his ability and to the best of my ability."

If you want to harp on this point, LeGrand is better and has a higher ceiling, but it's not that big of a deal.

"(LeGrand) has settled in there and he’s doing a good job," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. "Because somebody has to go out there first, Charlie Noonan has been going out there first. But they’re equal starters." …

Think back to last year, or how Eric Foster is used with the Colts. Both Indy and Rutgers have to use a lot of rotation to keep their undersized defensive lines fresh. Neither Foster nor LeGrand are technically starters, but they both log starters' minutes at the position, and are on the field for critical downs. Rutgers is lucky to have both.

That's because it is beyond frustrating to develop quality depth at defensive tackle, which is by far the hardest position to recruit along with quarterback. There are only so many quality players at the position to begin with, and they have a very high bust rate. That's why Schiano started throwing Meekins and Foster out there in the first place, in order to get the team's best players onto the field regardless of traditional personnel groupings. If you can't get the blue chippers (and only traditional powers usually can), teams have to sacrifice either size or athleticism at the position, and RU is looking to take advantage of an underutilized market inefficiency by being one of a handful of teams opting for the latter approach.

Antwan Lowery doesn't appear to be a bust, but he's now an offensive guard. Isaac Holmes may have been a high profile recruit, but he never fit the profile of a Rutgers DT, and the jury will still be out on him for another year. One or more of the bigger ends from the '09 class growing into a tackle is right in line with past trends. In that respect the only real big surprise this fall was that Andre Civil opened up camp at the two deep at DT, before moving to offensive line (which opens up a whole heap of unanswered questions). Just like that, what looked like a very deep line class has thinned out, and Rutgers needs to score another big haul from the 2011 recruiting class.

Jamal Merrell is the redshirt freshman with the most positive early buzz. He profiles as a speed rusher off the edge. With the Knights losing Silvestro, Freeny, and Bayoh after this year, Merrell is actually an early leading candidate to start in 2011. It's important that he sees enough reps this year, which is why I was somewhat disappointed the Bayoh opened camp ahead of Merrell on the depth chart. Probably doesn't matter that much because of the line's heavy rotation, but if there's a close race between a senior and an underclassmen, this seems like one scenario where it'd be wise to opt for the latter.

That was, until it was announced that Civil was moving to the OL, which kinda threw everything here into flux. Mike Larrow, who was another important '09 recruit, seems like the most logical candidate to step in behind Vallone, but it's not a certainty. Justin Francis has flipped back and forth between end and tackle in his career, and at a listed 262 has more than enough bulk for a Rutgers tackle.

”Coach Schiano and (defensive line) coach (Randy) Melvin always talk about the more positions you can dominate, it’s better for the defense,” Francis said. ”I’ve been inside before, I’ve been outside, and both are good for me. I’m used to everything.”

Problem is, he'll be counted on as a starter at end next year to replace Silvestro. Francis inside would open up needed reps for Bayoh and Merrell however. Basically, Rutgers has very good depth at DE, and DT has three starting-caliber players, but probably could use another contributing reserve.

There's also Junior Solice on the line probably, who's also seen looks at fullback and linebacker so far. With all the position switches, he's a logical fit at end, but Solice is somewhat of a mystery at this point considering that he didn't receive as much recruiting attention as the other, more high-profile signees in 2009. Due to non-qualifiers, the only incoming freshman signee here is tackle Taj Alexander, a certain redshirt who could switch to offense. Walk-on Joe Falato was a decent get though (if he can get past the NCAA Clearinghouse), and there's always the possibility that one of the 2010 linebacker signees could grow into a lineman.

This grouping looks like one you often see at Penn State, with a lot of quality frontline depth, but only one potentially marquee star in Scott Vallone. There are three good, starting-caliber players each at end and tackle. DT gets a little thin after that, with a few younger players who need to start getting their feet wet, but Francis has played inside before. The line should be a team strength along with the linebackers this season.

"With so much experience and so much talent coming to the forefront, guys have been playing real well for us," said Vallone, who keyed a unit that limited Rutgers' first-team offense to a pair of touchdowns in the two scrimmages. "Since I've been here this is definitely the biggest D-line that we've had and then you combine that with the athleticism.

Honestly, their biggest challenge will be taking advantage of so much returning talent while finding enough reps to get the underclassmen prepped for 2011. That's when the pressure will really be on with the roster finally coming of age, but defensive end could be one of the few areas of relative weakness and inexperience. It's a good problem to have, and one that everyone should enjoy watching as it's sorted out in the coming months.