Projected 2010 depth chart:
CB: JR David Rowe (6'0, 196), RS-SO Marcus Cooper (6'2, 185)
CB: SR Brandon Bing (5'11, 180), RS-FR Logan Ryan (6'0, 186)
FS: RS-SO Khaseem Greene (6'1, 215), RS-SO Wayne Warren (6'1, 204)
SS: SR Joe Lefeged (6'1, 205), SO Duron Harmon (6'1, 198)
Junior David Rowe stepped into a starting job at corner last season after Brandon Bing was demoted following a poor performance against Cincinnati. Actually, Rowe had briefly dabbled in playing safety during fall training camp before returning to nickel duties. He fared well during the rest of the season, even taking into account that Cincinnati had the best passing attack that the RU defense saw last year. You would figure that opposing offenses would have tried to pick on Rowe, considering that he was starting opposite a player in Devin McCourty who is now a New England Patriot.
Truthfully, it was hard to notice Rowe much when McCourty was generating most of the headlines, and Joe Lefeged was considered the group's other premier player.
"That was a big step for me going, from nickel to outside, basically on an island," he said. "Each game throughout the year, I got better and more comfortable."
There weren't any glaring mishaps. Now the question becomes about whether Rowe can keep improving, and start creating turnovers. There have been no noticeable gaffes from Rowe through the first three games, but analyzing defensive backs is admittedly hard when they're not either getting torched, or actively making tackles and picks. The true mark of a great cornerback is when opposing passers do not ever throw the ball into the corner's vicinity.
After a year of nickel duty, Brandon Bing returns to a starting job after holding off redshirt freshman Logan Ryan in a heated camp battle. Bing admittedly had his struggles against Cincinnati, but that was just one game against a very good team that was a bad personnel matchup. Bing was otherwise fine in nickel duty, which is usually preparation enough to prepare a #3 cornerback to start. Not every player improves as a senior, but he deserves some amount of credit for his experience, and looking solid during spring ball and fall training camp. So far in 2010 he's been a bit of a gambler in coverage.
"I think I’ve been consistent," the 5-foot-11, 180-pound junior said. "I think I’ve still made mistakes, but those are going to happen and I can’t get down on myself. I have to let the coaching staff coach me and help me and not get down, but that’s not what I did freshman or sophomore year. Now I just try to take those moments and make them learning experiences, trying to focus more and take a different outlook on it."
Safety Joe Lefeged enters the season as a three year starter (who also went through a customary internship as a freshman blitzer, which is almost a rite of passage by now for Greg Schiano defensive backss.) He's a big hitter, with a nose for the football reminiscent of how Courtney Greene used to generate turnovers. As the most experienced returning defensive back, it falls to Lefeged to provide leadership on and off the field.
"He gets the secondary together to watch film or just watches it own his own. He corrects our mistakes in meetings, so he’s like a teacher of the game, but at the same time he’s excelling on his own."
Entering his first season as the other starting safety is Khaseem Greene.
"He played in games last year, did a good job when he got in there and in the spring he conducted himself like a guy that belonged," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "He makes plays. It still boils down to production and he produced."
Khaseem is not related to Courtney, but Khaseem's half-brother is Pittsburgh's Ray Graham. Greene was repeatedly highlighted as an offseason standout, and has made his fair share of plays so far through the first quarter of the season. As of now he's proving to be an upgrade over departed senior Zaire Kitchen. Kitchen may have been the hardest hitter ever at Rutgers under Schiano, but was ultimately limited by the effects of multiple knee injuries.
Nickel Logan Ryan has more natural ability than Brandon Bing, and I'm excited as much as anyone about having Ryan as a starter for the next three years. Bing isn't necessarily going to be a shutdown corner, but that's not what teams fairly ask out of their #2 corner. He seems to improved enough to the point of where he's sort of in that Charlie Noonan/Damaso Munoz zone. I.E., he's holding off a better underclassman backup, but the difference for now is not glaring enough to be upset about.
Rutgers has solid depth behind Ryan, with Marcus Cooper and Brandon Jones running neck and neck through camp. Duron Harmon is likely the heir apparent to Lefeged at strong safety. Free behind Greene is murkier. Darrell Givens has the most athletic ability, but the coaching staff has shown a preference for Pat Kivlehan. Or at least they did until Wayne Warren recentlyly passed Kivlehan on the two-deep. That situation looks murky for now, and is worth monitoring over the coming months. Rutgers also brought in a solid group of freshmen defensive backs in corners Gareef Glashen and Rashad Knight, and safety Lorenzo Waters. All three had their moments during training camp, and would be more likely to see time on a thinner team.
This position group, in contrast to the defensive line or linebacking corps, is a salient example of the distinction between two different kinds of depth. At the latter two positions, Rutgers has multiple starting-caliber players, but wouldn't be able to field a three-deep. Here there are several players closely grouped together in search of playing time, which is why the team could absorb losing a transfer like Abdul Smith without seeing the team's depth take much of a hit at all, if any.
Devin McCourty was phenomenal last fall, and Rutgers could not hope to replace his contributions even if several of their rising players exceed expectations. Greene however is proving to be an early asset at safety, and Brandon Bing should at least be an adequate Big East-caliber corner. After some initial worries, this group started to generating growing cautious optimism as the offseason progressed, which has proven to be warranted up to this point. They undoubtedly look far better when the front seven is able to pressure opposing passers, but that is by design for a team helmed by a former defensive back coach.