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Rutgers football 2011 season outlook: defensive backs

Football is a team sport, which makes it is difficult to separate fully the play of one position unit from another. Strong secondaries depend on being able to generate pressure up front, just like good pass rushes need to have confidence that a secondary won't get burned if the opposition can pick up a blitz. Rutgers had a problem going after the quarterback last year, and that had significant repercussions for the secondary. Sure, RU was able to disrupt timing and speed up throws in the first half of the season, but no passers were kissing the turf. When that modicum of pressure disappeared post-Army, that's when the wheels really came off, and teams like Cincinnati were able to carve up the Scarlet Knight defense like a thanksgiving turkey.

Replacing Devin McCourty would be no picnic for any program, but it's not like Rutgers returned chopped liver back there. Joe Lefeged was a proven performer who eventually made it to the NFL. David Rowe had good experience, and Khaseem Greene displayed a knack for coming up with big plays. Logan Ryan's stellar prep film drew comparisons to McCourty before even stepping foot on campus. There was little reason to expect what happened on paper - with Jeff Hafley replacing Ed Pinkham as position coach at year's end, Lefeged's draft stock tumbling, Rowe (to safety) and Greene (to linebacker) making successful position changes the following spring, and Ryan struggling to stay off the bench behind Marcus Cooper.

Rutgers fans hoped that 2010 was a momentary lapse for what had been a team strength in recent years, and this fall's campaign helps to support that assumption. The pass rush up front is back, giving the defensive backs some cushion to play more aggressively. Sure, they get burned from time to time - Rutgers blitzes quite a bit, which means that they have to play a healthy dosage of single and/or zone coverage at times, and the latter can lead to problematic matchups. Injuries to Mason Robinson (out for the year with a knee injury) and Rashad Knight (who might or might not return in December) assured that presumed favorites Duron Harmon at safety and Brandon Jones corner would take over starting roles.

Once again, Rutgers has one of the best secondaries in the Big East. Logan Ryan is finally coming into his own as arguably the top cover man in the entire Big East, which gives Rutgers a lot of flexibility in bringing more blitzers, or in deciding which opposing receiver to double. Brandon Jones isn't exactly a liability himself in preventing completions though. It helps that Rowe's coverage skills helped him make a smooth transition to free safety. Duron Harmon was a highly touted class of 2009 recruit along with Ryan, and was long presumed to be the heir apparent to Lefeged at strong safety. Harmon's really shown a nose for the ball this year. 

The Scarlet Knights have a lot of depth at in the defensive backfield. Marcus Cooper plays quite a bit at corner, as does Wayne Warren as Greg Schiano's designated blitzing safety. Warren should have an interesting battle on his hands next year in the competition to replace the graduating senior Rowe as a starter. He's certainly earned a shot, but Rutgers has two top recruits waiting in the wings in Rashad Knight and Lorenzo Waters; both of whom will probably be starting in 2013. Knight hasn't played this year, which probably gives Waters somewhat of an early edge. RU also has Pat Kivlehan at safety when they have to play option teams like Army and Navy, with sophomore Darrell Givens rounding out the depth at safety.

Gareef Glashen rounds out the two deep at corner with Robinson out. There's a lot of inexperienced depth at corner with Glashen, Jordan Thomas, Johnathan Aiken, and possibly Tejay Johnson - figuring out how to get them all playing time before 2013 (when they'll presumably be thrown into the fire) could be a challenge with so much depth ahead of them. Moving forward, Rutgers didn't sign many DBs last year. Davon Jacobs is coming in for 2012, and there's a fair number of WR/slot types who could figure into the mix on either side of the ball depending on who exactly qualifies. If you think about the depth at WR - Sanu's probably gone, but Rutgers returns Pratt/Coleman/Harrison/Wright, they have Shuler, and lots of recruits are coming in - you wonder whether it might make sense to move a player to defense to kill two birds with one stone. Sanu may be leaving, but Rutgers will still have too many talented bodies at receiver, and they can't all play with only one football to go around on any given down.

So yeah, it's been a good year. Greg Schiano is personally supervising the secondary this year (as a former NFL DB coach), and his influence has relaxed any concerns about Jeff Hafley's groups getting torched at Pitt. Maybe their problem was personnel, or other miscellaneous problems that clearly are no longer an issue. It does not matter. Rutgers has a really good secondary, and only loses one starter in David Rowe next year; everybody else returns. They could be even better in 2012, assuming a decent pass rush up front pans out. And to think everyone wanted Mohamed Sanu moved back to safety last spring. That non-move likely wasn't even considered, and things seemed to have worked out well enough.