After completing a two week stretch against Ohio State and Michigan that saw Rutgers get completely dominated, the results still only amount to two losses, despite the combined score amounting to a 136-0 deficit. However, a bigger concern in my opinion is the collateral damage that the team experienced during that brutal stretch. Injuries are piling up and with a winnable game against Illinois on deck and one position group in particular is wearing very thin with healthy bodies.
On August 8th, when Rutgers opened fall training camp, an updated depth chart was released. Now just two months and a few days later, no position group is more in flux than the linebacker core. This was what the two deep looked like at the start of camp:
WLB: Trevor Morris / Brandon Russell
MLB: Deonte Roberts / Kevin Marquez
SLB: Najee Clayton / Greg Jones
Morris and Roberts have started every game this season and have shown some improvement as first year starters. They are the top two tacklers for the Rutgers defense, combining for 84 in six games this season. Unfortunately, according to Ryan Dunleavy of NJ Advance Media, both players were wearing green jerseys in practice on Tuesday. That indicates they are in non-contact drills only and are nursing some type of injury. So where will Rutgers turn if one or both players are unable to go or are limited on Saturday?
Brandon Russell, who was slated as the backup to Morris at the start of camp, appears to have fallen off the depth chart and hasn’t played much at all. Eric Margolis has served as the backup job at WLB, but he was also wearing a green jersey at practice. Dunleavy did indicate that Margolis ran with the first team during practice, so whatever issue he is dealing with, it must be less severe than Morris .
The two deep at middle linebacker has stayed the same all season, with Kevin Marquez backing up Roberts. However, Dunleavy said that Marquez did not practice on Tuesday. Senior Isaiah Johnson, who has mostly played special teams this season after backing up Kaiwan Lewis last season, was playing with the starting defense at practice.
As for the strongside linebacker spot, Clayton left the team for an undisclosed reason in September. Jones, who won the job over Clayton during camp, suffered a career ending injury two weeks ago against Ohio State. True freshman Tyreek Maddox-Williams has replaced Jones and earned praise from head coach Chris Ash this week for his play. He has been a pleasant surprise this season after coming to the banks as a unheralded recruit.
As Rutgers is dealing with uncertainty health wise for this Saturday’s game against Illinois, our Griffin Whitmer highlighted the opponent’s multi-faceted run game here. With Illinois starting quarterback Wes Lunt questionable to play this weekend, Rutgers will have to prepare for run first signal caller Chayce Crouch. The backup to Lunt ran for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns last week against Purdue, coming off the bench in the 2nd quarter. Illinois also features three running backs, rotating them throughout the game. While the fighting Illini are just eighth in the Big Ten in total rushing yards this season, they are third in the conference with a 5.8 yards per carry average. If Crouch does start, Illinois will be much more run heavy on offense against Rutgers.
With the linebacker core severely banged up and Illinois focused on the run, the importance of the defensive line is even greater for this game. Although Rutgers allowed 293 rushing yards to New Mexico earlier this season, senior captains Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick were a two man wrecking crew, as both registered double digit tackles and made several key stops in the 4th quarter. Sebastian Joseph also played well in that game. All three players will need to step up on Saturday and create havoc in the trenches for the defense to be effective.
Obviously, if Morris and Roberts are healthy enough to play on Saturday, they will be starting. Hopefully, Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann are limiting the duo in practice as a precaution and less so because of the severity of the injuries they are nursing. If they can’t go, an inexperienced position group will be even more so without their presence. We will find out this weekend, as Rutgers faces their best chance to win a conference game all season. However, a major key will be the defense’s ability to stop the run. If the linebacker duo of Morris and Roberts are on the field Saturday, it will be a big lift for a team in desperate need of one.