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Rutgers football 2011 season outlook: linebackers

Note: it's more than a little silly to keep calling these previews given how late they are. But, by hook or by crook, they will be finished. Eventually.

2010 was a tale of two seasons for the entire Rutgers defense, and the linebacking corps was no exception. Manny Abreu played like he deserved all-conference honors before succumbing to a Navy cut block. Antonio Lowery was productive as ever, while Steve Beauharnais was still learning the ropes inside. In search of more team speed, Coach Schiano blew up this unit entirely over the spring with the notable exception of Beauharnais. Khaseem Greene slid over from safety. Manny Abreu bulked up to linebacker, with a presumed future starter and Ka'Lial Glaud soon followed. Schiano certainly knows his defense, but the sudden nature of these personnel moves raised a few eyebrows to say the least.

The Glaud move was puzzling, but makes a bit more sense now given the stellar play of Jamal Merrell this fall. To think, a year ago Merrell was still looking for a position, and was basically an afterthought in comparison to his twin brother. Then Jamil hurts his foot, and the light suddenly goes on at camp. Glaud, who was thought to be the future at linebacker, is seemingly out of the blue shoring up the depth at defensive end. Merrell is playing well enough to make the decision look masterful in hindsight. Both Merrell twins were sort of looked as lottery tickets in high school; projectable athletes who could end up at any number of positions. A few of those types of gambles haven't paid off for Rutgers in recent years, but the worm was due to turn at some point.

Another weird aspect to the moving Glaud around was what exactly would be done with Steve Beauharnais. He looked like Derrick Thomas as a true freshman on the strong side, in what is traditionally a position that the Rutgers defense does not emphasize. It is difficult to exaggerated how great Beauharnais played down the stretch in 2009. The next year he moved to the middle, and while he wasn't a liability per se, all the big plays vanished. Switching Steve back outside so the heir apparent Glaud could take over in the middle made all the sense in the world, until those best-made plans went completely out the window. Beauharnais originally moved to the middle for good reason after all: Greg Schiano is obsessed with speed, and will always go for the athlete who can run at linebacker over a traditional run stuffer. It was back to the middle then, and lo and behold - Steve has looked really good to this point. That's two for two for those who are still counting at home.

Defense has traditionally been a strong suit for Schiano's teams, with plenty of quality players falling by the wayside on a yearly basis in terms of media attention. Justin Francis is getting a few accolades for instance now, but no one cares about how great Scott Vallone is at occupying blockers. Similarly, with Beauharnais forcing turnovers as if his life depended on it, it's easy to lose track of how well Greene has transitioned to the weak side. WLB is traditionally a marquee position in the Rutgers 4-3 defense, so Greene racking up tackles and tackles for loss was a given. He genuinely played very well against North Carolina in the opener, and his unbridled aggression has been a better fit in the front seven then it was when Greene was left to his own devices on an island in coverage last year.

The crazy thing about Merrell's play thus far is that there is a steady drum beat that he may not even be the best strong side backer on the team. There's been a buzz about Kevin Snyder going back a year. He wasn't high-profile of a recruit, but his film was great. You had Pitt and PSU fans coming out of the woodwork to praise Snyder, lamenting why those programs did not make him more of a priority. He was the ideal combination of production and potential, as opposed to say, Quentin Gause. Gause is basically the prototypical Rutgers linebacker in that he is a former oversized safety with eye-popping workout numbers. He's still pretty raw though, and hence is not seeing the field in a year where many freshmen are. If there is any temptation to throw Gause into the fire, it's due to some depth issues at LB.

Frankly, Rutgers moved three upper classmen in Abreu, spring star Marvin Booker, and Glaud to DE who all figured to be in the two-deep. Those personnel changes worked out on both ends, but the end result has depth a little tight behind Beauharnais inside. Dave Milewski was looking to be a nice little unsung gem from a weak 2010 recruiting class before his recent injury. Sam Bergen is still a work in progress coming back from his knee injuries, leaving the depth inside looking very sketchy. There's always Glaud, who would probably play LB for any other program, but now DE is depleted as well. Nick DePaola is officially Milewski's replacement, but you think that if Beauharnais is hurt, resting, rushing the passer, etc..., and Rutgers isn't in nickel or dime, the replacement would be either Glaud, or weakside backup/Syracuse game hero Edmond Laryea (he of the Ed Hochulian forearms), who's battled injuries of his own over the past few years.

Rutgers fans have to feel good about the three starters returning in 2012, and having another player in Snyder capable of taking the reins. It always feels like Rutgers has four really good linebackers, and questionable depth behind them. You figure that Gause is in line to start in 2013 with Merrell and Snyder, and everything else after that trio is a question mark. With the injuries, it would be nice if one of Milewski or Bergen could pan out. No one in the press has said a word about Fred Overstreet all year. Rutgers has an excellent prospect coming in next fall in Steve Longa though, and you have to figure they'll go after another safety in recruiting with the frame to grow into a LB. So yeah, nothing has changed here. Starters are very strong, but they do not exactly have much leeway in reserve if the injury bug hits.