Next up in our series of positional previews is linebacker and where else to start but with junior standout Steve Longa.
Longa led the team with 102 tackles last season after registering a team-high 123 in 2013. Playing on the weakside, Longa has drawn comparisons to former Rutgers great Khaseem Greene, who Longa shadowed during his redshirt freshman season in 2012. With back-to-back 100 tackle seasons, Longa has been a consistent performer for Rutgers, but fans are waiting for him to breakout as one of the conference's top linebackers.
On the strongside is Quentin Gause, who has also been one of the team's top tacklers for the past two seasons. Playing mostly from a backup role, Gause was fourth on the team in tackles in 2013 with 53. Last year, he was second with 72.
With Longa and Gause holding up the outside, all of the attention heading into 2015 is focused on the middle linebacker position, after Kevin Snyder was lost to graduation.
Kaiwan Lewis, a transfer from South Carolina, is one candidate to fill the spot. Lewis graduated from South Carolina in May, so he is eligible to play immediately. Lewis, who grew up in New Jersey and attended St. Joseph's Hammonton, started 10 games for the Gamecocks two seasons ago as a sophomore, before injuries diminished his playing time last season. As a sophomore, he was third on the team in tackles with 54 and had a team-high nine tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in the bowl win over Wisconsin.
However, learning a new system and injuries (it was a minor knee surgery that hampered Lewis last year) are two obstacles that Lewis must overcome in order to earn the starting spot.
Also in the conversation for the mike position are Isaiah Johnson and Brandon Russell. Johnson, a transfer from City College of San Francisco, is an old school, aggressive linebacker. He is known for his run-stopping ability and the highlights back that nation. However, Johnson not only faces the challenges of learning a new system, but he also has to deal with the talent jump from community college to Division I.
Brandon Russell, a redshirt freshman, is an athletic, instinctive player with the ability to play all three linebacker positions, although he projects best at the mike.
The losses of L.J. Liston (transferred to Northern Michigan), T.J. Taylor (ACL injury) and Sidney Gopre (ruled ineligible by the NCAA) raise question marks over depth at the position. Liston and Taylor both saw game action in backup roles last year, with Liston making one start at middle linebacker. The two were also key special teams contributors. On the other hand, Gopre, a highly-touted recruit has been nagged by academic eligibility issues since committing to Rutgers.
Other notable backups include Eric Margolis and true freshman Deonte Roberts. Margolis stands at 6'4" and played wide receiver and safety in high school. He figures to be mainly a special teams contributor this season.
Roberts, who enrolled early and participated in spring practice, was a three-star athlete coming out of Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School. Roberts was the No. 8 prospect in New York in the 2015 recruiting class and the top linebacker of the Rutgers class.
However, concerns over depth may not be all that serious. Last year, the starting three (Longa, Snyder, Gause) played nearly all of the snaps
In the end, Rutgers struggled against the run last season, ranking 13th in the Big Ten with 212.3 rushing yards allowed per game. The defense will have to improve on that in order for success in a conference with some of the best offensive lines in the country (Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, etc.). With a new middle linebacker, it will be a tough task, but the outside combo of Longa and Gause will help whoever earns the starting gig. Both Lewis and Johnson have the talent to fill the role, it's just a matter of who learns the system faster.