Projected 2010 depth chart:
SLB: RS-JR Manny Abreu (6'3, 245), RS-SR Edmond Laryea (6'1, 223)
WLB: SR Antonio Lowery (6'2, 225), SO Ka'Lial Glaud (6'2, 223)
Rutgers loses two multi-year senior starters in MLB Ryan D'Imperio and SLB Damaso Munoz, and yet this year's corps has a chance to be the very best to ever play for Greg Schiano at Rutgers. D'Imperio had a phenomenal junior year in 2008, which constituted the greatest season I have ever seen from a Rutgers 'backer. He was not a liability in last fall's follow up campaign, but didn't actively make as many plays while battling through injury. Munoz struggled in the middle two years ago as Ryan's understudy, but was a very solid on the strong side the past few years. In fact, he was a revelation late in the year after shifting across to the other outside position.
That personnel adjustment is helpful for explaining the distinction between the three linebacker positions in a Greg Schiano defense. Generally, doesn't it seem like Rutgers SLBs are usually converted safeties (Terry Bynes, Brandon Renkart, Munoz), largely counted on to be steady and drop back into coverage? In contrast, the middle and weak side backers are tasked with attacking and making big plays, and Munoz's move provides a particularly salient example. It's hard to recall many highlights of his from the past few years, and all of a sudden Damaso is flipping into the end zone and living in the offense's backfield.
Thusly it may not be fair to expect too many big plays this year from Manny Abreu (pronounced "Ab-roo", not "Ab-ray-oo" like the baseball player who's scared of the right field wall at Yankee Stadium). The Union City native came to the banks as one of the most physically imposing recruits in the country. Abreu started a few games at SLB two years ago, where he honestly looked a tad staff and uneasy. He switched to WLB and had a very good camp last fall, narrowing missing out to another past high-profile recruit in Antonio Lowery.
I worry that there's a little LaVar Arrington in Abreu. Manny's so athletically gifted that he needs to be rushing into the backfield as a disrupting force, not lining up over the tight end and dropping back, but you could probably say the same for any linebacker. Rutgers has a very good player on the weak side in Lowery, who still has one year left of eligibility. The current lineup is the only way to get the team's three best linebackers on to the field at the same time, although they should use a lot of multi-DB packages again to counteract the growing prevalence of spread offenses in the college game.
Steve Beauharnais in the middle is the unit's wild card at the start of the year. Beauharnais received very little recruiting attention due to attending a smaller high school until he was a junior. Rutgers found him, because the staff makes a commitment to visit every high school in the state, and quickly extended one of their earliest offers in the '09 class. Between that situation, and a relatively early commitment, he didn't get very much hype at all, although the Bergen Record did see fit to bestow defensive player of the year honors after finishing with a senior year at St. Joe's.
Beauharnais overcame conditioning issues last season to initially impress as a special teams standout, similar to the way that Antonio Lowery had also made his mark. Steve earned a start midway through 2009 due to Lowery's injury, stepping in on the strong side, with Munoz flipping to the weak. The move was an instant sensation in a special defensive package against South Florida, to the tune of one and a half sacks. As mentioned above, what was so revelatory about his play was that Beauharnais was doing it from the strong side; a position that had otherwise not produced active playmakers over the past decade.
Ryan D'Imperio graduated, and Manny Abreu needs to play. Steve is tasked with manning the middle as a result, and that's just what he did with an impressive spring game performance. Just like past Schiano MLBs, Beauharnais is a bit smaller than the prototype at the position, but more than makes up for that limitation with his nose for the football.
Antonio Lowery is a bit of a forgotten man in terms of national or even conference recognition, and that is not at all fair considering his speed and polish. While not as high-profile a recruit as Abreu, signing Lowery was by far one of the biggest recruiting coups of Greg Schiano's tenure. After holding off Manny in a heated training camp battle where both excelled, Lowery's junior season ended up being far more impressive than Kevin Malast's or Quintero Frierson's. By inference, he should continue improve in his second and final year as a starter.
Nobody's really paying attention because nearly every player in RU's front seven is some degree of good, including his fellow two linebackers. Exacerbating that problem is that he missed the last few games of last season with an injury. Ignorance is no fair excuse here. For now, Antonio Lowery's play remains a secret hidden from all but the true Rutgers football purist, appreciating his skill with the kind of knowing glance that can only come from actually following this stuff. The look betrays the unspoken consensus that Lowery is about to hit the big time, with an excellent season certainly looming. Beauharnais may have more upside, but Lowery is freakin' good, man.
With Lowery set to depart after the season, the odds-on favorite to take over as a starter at one of these three positions next year is sophomore Ka'Lial Glaud. Glaud, who infamously claimed to pick between Rutgers and West Virginia via flipping a coin, was a fairly high-profile recruit, and has generated good buzz out of practices. He's the top reserve for now if anything should happen to one of this year's starters. Glaud's a fair bit ahead of the other '09 signee in Jamal Merrell, who has also seen time at receiver.
Another special teamer, Marvin Booker, was expected to be a top reserve outside linebacker, but has lost some time to rehabbing a knee injury. That opened up an opportunity for Edmond Laryea, who's bounced back and forth between fullback and linebacker throughout his career. With Rutgers de-emphasizing the fullback as part of their offense, Laryea actually stands a fair chance of playing both ways this year. Laryea making the two-deep probably isn't a great sign for junior Al-Ghaffar Lane's chances of ever playing.
The top reserve middle linebacker is senior Jim Dumont. He's a favorite of the coaching staff due to his experience and knowledge of the team's defense.
"It’s nice to know that they appreciate what I do," he said. "Everything defense-wise has been the same for the last five years, so I have that advantage over them. I try to share what I’ve learned to help them out and give them an advantage."
Incoming freshman Marcus Thompson was expected to possibly contribute right away, but he played defensive end against Norfolk State (which I didn't notice until watching the replay). With Rutgers being short on linemen at the moment, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he stuck there, considering that other past linebackers have followed similar career arcs. The only real surprise then would be that Thompson is the one growing into a DE instead of another freshman in Dave Milewski. Milewski, a late bloomer in high school, was starting to push for a reserve role on the strong side as training camp progressed.
Another freshman in Sam Bergen was seen as the team's second best linebacker signee in their '10 class after Thompson. He's a risk/reward gamble, being considered a very good prospect who unfortunately had already suffered two major knee injuries in high school. His future recovery is an ongoing question, and it's probably best to play it safe and give Bergen a redshirt year.
"I'm ahead of schedule," Bergen said. "Anywhere between 6-9 months, maybe seven months at the earliest, so I'm not quite there yet, but I'm getting pretty close. I should be more than ready to go by the time practice starts in August so there's no problems with that."
Yes, Rutgers loses two solid starters from 2009, but both losses have to be considered in context. The defense doesn't ask much of its SLBs; so while Damaso Munoz was very fast, he didn't have much of an opportunity to be a difference maker. That factor could also hold back Manny Abreu, but he does have a NFL body. Losing D'Imperio also hurts in a vacuum, but he battled through injuries last year, and Steve Beauharnais looked awesome in several games of action. Throw in one of the most underrated players around in Antonio Lowery, and another future starter in Glaud as the top backup, and it's not asking all that much for this unit to at least be some variant of good.
If the two new starters can make an impact, especially Beauharnais, then these guys have the potential to be the top linebacking corps in the Big East, and possibly one of the better ones in the country. Considering that every report from spring practice and fall training camp has been glowing, let's go with the upside here. Along with the defensive line, the linebacking corps should be one of the absolute strengths for Rutgers this year. It will be an upset and supremely disappointing if they cannot combine to produce a very good statistical defense that makes life hellish on opposing passers.