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2011 spring practice: previewing the Rutgers defense/special teams

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Continuing from this morning, it is again time to briefly, timidly speculate and spout banal platitudes, while at the same time leaving plenty of room for future backtracking. 2010 was a tale of two seasons for the Rutgers defense, with the first half being mostly successful (despite limited help from the offense), but marked by less of an emphasis on big plays which appeared markedly out of character for the program. The rush up front fell off a cliff in the second half, with Greg Schiano hinting at causes but hesitant to assign direct blame.

Greg Schiano built his legacy at Rutgers on attacking defense and special teams, and now looks to restore that approach with a myriad of changes. A multitude of position changes appear geared towards upgrading defensive speed (reminiscent of 2005's roster makeover), coming at a number aggressive even for an athleticism-focused coach like Schiano. The assistant staff was reshuffled and in places reassigned, with GS promising to take back more of a hands-on role with the defense and secondary.

DE: Manny Abreu is moving to DE from LB, where he stood out last season. Similar moves have been successful over the past decade on the banks, and he should excel absent coverage responsibility burdens. Abreu and Justin Francis will likely start, as Francis has significant experience, with the depth here somewhat thin in numbers and experience beyond that duo. Early enrollee Djwany Mera offers a lot of potential. Is Jamil Merrell considered an end or a tackle now? His twin brother Jamal is also switching from LB. Schiano additionally name checked walk-on Shane Meisner at his pre-spring press conference.

DT: Scott Vallone has one interior tackle spot locked up, and can play at an all-conference level provided that other bodies emerge capable of preventing double teams and providing solid rotational minutes. The other job is one of the bigger question marks entering the spring, with underclassmen like Mike Larrow, Isaac Holmes (who will be limited), newly-eligible Michigan transfer Anthony La Lota, Taj Alexander, and heralded freshman Ken Kirksey all vying for time. Rutgers usually employs a heavy rotation up front, and this fall should be no exception regardless of who technically wins out.

LB: Returning starter Steve Beauharnais moves back to the strong side, where he was very explosive in 2009. Ka'Lial Glaud has been groomed for a starting job for two years, ending up in the middle. Safety Khaseem Greene is a big hitter, and will be able to play more aggressively from a weak side linebacker slot (typically designated as a chief playmaker in Schiano's defense). Coach Schiano also hinted several weeks back that a healthy Marvin Booker would likely be the unit's top reserve. One redshirt freshman in Dave Milewski will sit out, while two others in Sam Bergen and Fred Overstreet see their first meaningful reps. Like the defensive line, the linebacking corps is in dire need of a numbers infusion come the fall. Is Edmond Laryea, if granted a sixth year of eligibility, going to be slotted in here?

CB: Another defensive position that saw extensive offseason tinkering in an effort to upgrade team speed; from the outside there appears to be a genuinely open competition brewing. Schiano continually talked up Marcus Cooper at corner last season, while Logan Ryan was a top-ranked recruit several years back, and Brandon Jones also saw time in 2010's jumbled rotation. Shifty Jordan Thomas moves over from running back, with Mason Robinson's position change infusing even more athleticism. It would be nice to see him stick as a regular after years of injuries and looking for a defined role. Freshmen Gareef Glashen and Johnathan Aiken are the biggest unknowns of all at a spot nobody has the faintest clue about at the moment.

S: David Rowe has starting experience at corner, but has flirted with safety before, and will get another look there in the spring. Assuming that sticks, he will be a probable starter along with Duron Harmon, who earned playing time in 2010 as the third safety and Joe Lefeged's heir apparent. There is still a bit of a numbers crunch even with losing a starter in Greene. Upperclassmen Wayne Warren and Pat Kivlehan split the fourth spot in the two-deep last year. High School AA Darrell Givens has yet to crack the two deep. Recruiting analysts saw redshirt freshman Lorenzo Waters as a probable multi-year starter. Now things are even more crowded with the additions of Rashad Knight (another reasonably big recruit) from CB, and Jawaun Wynn (one of the best raw athletes in the program) from WR. Unsolicited idea: as long as the coaching staff is experimenting with positions, what about moving one of these guys to LB?

ST: San San Te's accuracy from 40+ yards out remains a concern, although it is not entirely clear to what extent those ongoing issues are attributable to injuries and holding/snapping. Te split kickoff duties last year with punter Teddy Dellaganna. Freshman punter Anthony DiPaula enrolled early and will participate in spring practice. Nick DeLouisa is the only known backup following walk-on Kyle Sullivan's transfer (who was also last year's holder). Punt returner Mason Robinson is back, but explosive kick returner Joe Lefeged is off to the NFL, with Robinson and Jordan Thomas holding the next-most experience on the roster. Robert Jones won the long-snapping job last season following Rob Horrell's injury.