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Rutgers Football Season Review: Defensive Line

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Thought to be the strength of the team, the line didn’t quite reach expectations.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Rutgers
JPO won the team MVP award.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Playing on the defensive line has the same three core concepts as the rest of the defense: assignment, alignment, technique. After that, it’s about pure willpower, a love of contact, and perhaps more than any other position in any other team sport, effort.

Call the defense

Chris Ash felt confident enough in Jay Niemann to let him own the defense, and to an equal extent Shane Burnham. Burnham’s group had autonomy with virtually everyone returning from a group that really flashed potential from it’s younger players, so the hope was they could set the tone for the rest of the program’s #10strong. The new coaching staff philosophy differs a lot in defensive back technique, some in linebacker alignment, and defensive line responsibility. They seemed to play less 50 fronts, relying on the lineman to clog up more blockers giving the LBs space to crash down and make plays than Rossi’s. The philosophy was more of a change that relied on players winning their individual battles up front.

First step

This unit was built across the last 5 recruiting classes and the table below indicates how various sources rated the scholarship players before they ever enrolled at the college level. Final starters are in red, rest of the two deep in gray. Each source has a slightly different methodology, i.e. Phil Steele does not differentiate by DL position in his rankings.

Lumor and Wiafe were highly ranked as post graduates. Moore’s ratings are from when he was recruited to Boston College initially.

History Lesson: Hamilton played in a rotational role as a true freshman. In 2013, he was a starter and leader. By mid 2014, Turay burst on the scene joining Hamilton when the team had the lead or faced obvious passing situations. JPO and Lambert started to see some action. For the 2015 season, Joseph joined the starting lineup and JPO shifted inside with Hamilton injured. Lambert played all over the line including as an undersized DT along with Davis, Wilkins, Hogan, and Bateky (a true frosh) who all showed late season promise.

Impact and React

From early in spring practice, with Joseph getting Knighted, this unit had their 4 starters locked in. The reserves also had a year of experience under their belts.

Games 1-4: Washington, Howard, New Mexico, Iowa

The Good: They battered the Hawkeyes in the team’s best defensive effort of the season by far.

The Bad: Did they really trail 14-0 to Howard and 21-0 to New Mexico?

The Ugly: Washington did literally whatever they wanted.

The Questions: If Grant didn’t go down, could they have pitched a shut out against Iowa? What will they do next year to wake up in the first quarter against inferior competition?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Rutgers
Iowa never got into a rhythm but escaped Piscataway with a win.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Games 5-8: Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota

The Good: RU only trailed 9-0 late in the second quarter against Ohio State on the strength of inspired run defense, but of course the Knights offense punted on their first 10 drives and eventually the defense wore down. RU wouldn’t have one the game but could have spared themselves from national embarrassment for one more week.

The Bad: Down 21-3 against the Gophers. If the defense could have held them to 3 on just one of those drives OR the line simply stopped Minnesota on their final drive when they pounded the ball, RU would have had the win.

The Ugly: 78-0. The offense did not record a first down until late in the 4th quarter, but 78-0? 481 yards rushing allowed? Michigan tried to run out the clock and it’s on the big boys up front to stop the scoring or just basic dive plays.

The Questions: Rutgers defense kept them in the game, but it was not enough with the offense on a 3 game scoring drought. If RU didn’t turn it over 5 times (3 inside the Illini 25), do they win and avoid the cellar?

Games 9-12: Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Maryland

The Good: The first half the team trailed 9-0 against Big Ten champion Penn State and the defensive line was a big part of it. The crowd was in the game and the team fed off it.

The Bad: During the middle stretch against Maryland the defense kept RU in the game. Maryland stayed committed to the ground game and eventually the Knights buckled, gauged for 318 yards rushing.

The Ugly: Michigan State and Rutgers came into the game with identical 2-8 records. Yet Michigan State completely overwhelmed the Knights 49-0, rushing for 277 yards on the ground in the defensive lines worst performance of the year.

The Questions: If RU’s offense would not have had 7 straight 3 and outs against Indiana, would the defense have surrendered another point to IU and held on for victory?

Final stats, with overall ranking within the team for total tackles.

Stat review and one final thought on each player.

Darius Hamilton, being 4th on the team in tackles as a defensive tackle constantly doubled is good even for a 5 star recruit!

Julian Pinnix-Odrick, 5 sacks, more than double the est of the unit, deserves props.

Quanzell Lambert, please leave your inspirational play to someone. 16 tackles in only about 10 quarters is impressive.

Sebastian Joseph, you need to be the leader and make more plays. 1 sack!?!?!

Darnell Davis, just keep doing what brought you from walk-on to starter. 40 tackles and the amazing 75 yard fumble return TD is no joke!

Kevin Wilkins, you are the biggest, quickest guy down there, clog up some blockers!

Myles Nash, get in a one on one contest in every phase of preparation with Kemoko Turay to drive both of you. We need 5 times as many sacks between the two of you next year.

Jon Bateky, just keep getting better and pushing these old timers.

Kemoko Turay, watch some film of 2014.

Jimmy Hogan, the DBs will get better so you should be able to get some coverage sacks with infectious hustle.

Everyone else, figure out one thing you can do to be a piece to this puzzle.

Rutgers v Minnesota
The game against the Golden Gophers was one of the missed opportunities that fell on the front 7.

Defensive line play is about getting hit and holding your ground anyway. Not sure if rugby tackling had anything to do with their performance, but they have to make more plays at and behind the line. Like the O Line, the D line was far from the biggest problem for the team, but they did little to pick up the rest of the #10strong. They needed to take on more blockers to free up the linebackers behind them and get an occasional sack to put the opponent off schedule. They simply did not win enough individual battles to offset the inexperience behind them.

Swarm and Finish the play

Joseph moving to DT should give him more room. Turay as a third teamer will be motivation.

First stab at the spring 2017 depth chart was here. Updated above. I covered the possibilities for the class of 2016 and 2015 guys previously. Initially I expect the staff to move Joseph and see if he can be better at Hamilton’s old spot allowing the real big boys to play nose. The DE most commonly associated with the old staff’s “rush end” designation is a complete toss up which I give Hogan’s hard work the initial edge. Placing Turay on the third team will hopefully motivate him to work harder and become the player we have hoped his entire career.

This group has more turnover than any other group on the team than wide receiver. In 2017 expect to see more instinctual play at the line as two years in the same system should reduce the thinking needed. Being able to switch from run mode to QB attack mode happened rarely if ever with this team, so there is nowhere to go but up.

As mentioned with the offensive line, this team needs to improve in every area. The defensive line will have a lot of old faces getting a lot more reps, can they equal the performance of the graduating seniors? If not, it will be another long season in Piscataway. If Turay can become a force in passing situations, and RU can actually force them, this unit could surprise everyone.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan
Lambert’s versatility and hustle will be missed, here winning a coverage battle against All-American Jake Butt.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports