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2012 Rutgers football season preview: defensive line

August 6, 2012; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Rutgers lineman Darius Hamilton (91) during Rutgers team practice. Mandatory Credit: William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE
August 6, 2012; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Rutgers lineman Darius Hamilton (91) during Rutgers team practice. Mandatory Credit: William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE

Rutgers enters 2012 in an enviable position on the defensive line. The depth at defensive end is respectable, with a lot of legitimate DI players returning, and promising young players in the pipeline. The depth at defensive tackle however is nearly absurd, with Rutgers practically drowning in four star recruits. They were already loaded, and then Jamil Pollard enrolled to stack the deck even further. He's an interesting instance of what seems to be a growing trend: at least when it comes to their listed height/weight combinations in high school, Rutgers is having some more success with some bigger prospects than they traditionally have went after in recent years. Not just is RU suddenly signing top recruits here, but they're not converted former linebackers either.

As a bit of background, there was definitely a turning point at Rutgers in this respect during the 2005 season. Previously, Rutgers was fairly commonplace in this respect. Greg Schiano came out of the Jimmy Johnson school of personnel, which meant emphasizing size on defense, but one didn't jump from that to 260-lb DTs overnight. Rather, it was the poor performance of the 2004 defensive line, which happened to be one of the biggest groups in the country, that spurred the change. DT recruiting is quite difficult, if only in virtue of the fact that there are only so many prospects who are some combination of big, talented, and motivated. Naturally, when a recruit can hit even two of these three check marks, interest tends to come from far and wide. The seemingly high bust rate at this position only serves to exacerbate that trend.

Rather than continue to swim against the tide, Greg Schiano opted to make lemonade out of his lemons by starting Eric Foster and Ramel Meekins as his tackles, with the results far exceeding anyone's expectations. Thus began a pipeline of standout, undersized defensive linemen that kept coming through the Rutgers program - Pete Tverdov, Eric LeGrand, Justin Francis, with Scott Vallone standing out in that respect for only being moderately undersized instead of being yet another defensive end moonlighting as a tackle. That trend has by no means disappeared either, with the strong possibility that one or both of Jamil Merrell or Mike Larrow plays inside this year remaining, and last spring's recruits like Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick are still considered tweeners on the line who could slot in at end or tackle. Nor as Rutgers given up on speed either, as Francis's shift inside last season paid immediate dividends, as did Khaseem Greene bulking up from safety to linebacker.

Starting inside are ironman Scott Vallone and rising junior Isaac Holmes. Vallone is an excellent player and probably the most underrated in the Big East, having played at an all-conference level in 2009 and 2010, before selflessly moving out of position last fall to nose tackle to help Rutgers get its best lineup on the field. Nose tackle is not a glamour position, as opposed to his natural three technique spot, freeing up Vallone to rush the passer. Vallone is back where he belongs, and he can thank Holmes for that. Holmes was probably the first instance of the big DT trend at Rutgers, and it was so surprising at the time that he seemed a decent bet to move to guard. Even if he didn't, history as shown that the bust rate at the position is very high. Lo and behold though, he came on in the spring and hasn't quit.

Behind Vallone is all-universe recruit Darius Hamilton, who forced his way onto the two-deep as a true freshman. That is ridiculous, nearly-unheard of for a DT (Vallone would have done it a few years back if not for an ill-timed foot injury.) It's even more ludicrous when you consider how highly regarded Ken Kirksey was/is. True, Ken is making his way back from an injury, but he was considered as big of a get as any several years back. Behind Holmes, Marquise Wright has slimmed down in the 280s range (seemingly still a pre-requisite to play as a Rutgers DT), and with Al Page offering a ton of potential as well once he can start shaking off rust, and besting Page on the depth chart thus far. What really makes it absurd is that even past then, there are guys like Daryl Stephenson (who was injured in camp) and Djwany Mera, who were legitimately in the mix for the two-deep.

Defensive end is more of a question mark, but hardly a legitimate weakness. For one thing, Rutgers has three legitimate starting-caliber strongside ends in Jamil Merrell, Mike Larrow, and Marcus Thompson. Thompson was always seen as a raw athlete who lacked discipline, making his emergence in the fall a positive development. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of Larrow, who fumbled badly with an ugly off-season incident that led to a four game suspension. Larrow effectively split the starting job last year with Jamil Merrell; Larrow was hurt at midseason (and showing a lot of promise), just as Merrell was finally working his way back from his own injury. Based on their play last year, I'd probably put the hierarchy at Larrow, Merrell, and then Thompson with all things being equal, but it's really close, and they all warrant playing time.

At the speed-rushing R position, converted linebacker Ka'Lial Glaud looks entrenched as a starter. One of the other ends could move over for depth of course, but no one else seems to have his first step besides reserve Marvin Booker. Oh, Booker; it seems like every year he shows up for a game or two and shines before inexorably getting injured and missing time. It came as little surprise that it happened again vs. Tulane, which does throw a wrench into the team's depth considering that Larrow is gone until October, and Dave Milewski is out for the year and is a question mark to return following a knee injury. Freshman Myles Jackson has pushed for some early playing time. True freshman Julian Pinnix-Odrick has exceeded expectations, and the crazy depth at DT has kept him here. The guy to watch here is another freshman, Max Issaka. He's one of the best pure athletes on the team, but missed all of fall camp attending to a death in his family. That might handicap Issaka through this year, but going forward, he's one of the most intriguing guys on the roster. If you just want to talk athleticism, raw former WR Jawaun Wynn will be worth a look come the spring.

Rutgers has used a fair bit of rotations on the defensive line the past few years. That, combined with some strong recent recruiting, means it isn't necessarily an indictment of a player at all if they are the ninth or tenth man here for the time being. Those guys will play. It's not LSU (Rutgers doesn't have multiple players on the roster that you can say definitively right now will be first round draft picks), but the depth here has gone from famine to feast, and is enviable considering that some of the conference competition are parading around walk-ons and JUCO transfers as genuine contributors. We have the bodies to go after opposing quarterbacks all game long, and it sure will be a tremendous disappointment if Rutgers does not take every possible advantage of that opportunity and mismatch this season.