Today was the third of fifteen practice sessions allowed during the Spring and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann spoke with the media for the first time. While there has been a lot of speculation and excitement regarding the new spread offense that coordinator Drew Mehringer is installing, the development of the defense is paramount to any progress this team makes next season.
Last season, the defensive line had trouble putting pressure on opposing offenses, the linebacking core struggled in pass coverage, and the inexperienced secondary suffered through a steep learning curve. The defense ranked #112th out of 128 Division I football teams last season.
The veteran Niemann, who was the defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois the past five seasons, is tasked with rebuilding a unit that lost all three starters at linebacker. Our lead football writer Griffin Whitmer covered each positional group leading up to the start of Spring practices and previewed the defensive line here, the linebackers here, the cornerbacks here, and the safeties here. As to be expected, the new coaching staff is using the spring to evaluate who the best 11 players are on defense and make positional switches they see fit.
In addition to being the coordinator, Niemann is also the linebackers coach and had this to say regarding that group today:
Asked Jay Niemann about the LB depth chart. His response: "It's a mess." Lots of guys in the mix with no experience.— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) March 29, 2016
Players that were thought to have a leg up to start headed into the spring were Deonte Roberts at strongside linebacker, Isaiah Johnson at middle linebacker, and T.J. Taylor at weakside linebacker. In addition, Ash and Niemann welcomed three incoming freshman linebackers who enrolled early this semester in Jonathon Pollock, Elorm Lumor and Solomon Manning. The latter two seem to be settling into roles:
Looks like early enrollee LB Elorm Lumor will move to DE.— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) March 29, 2016
One player that shifted positions before spring practice started was Najee Clayton, who moved from safety to linebacker. Last week, head coach Chris Ash singled out Clayton as a player who has made strides developing physically and has a better chance of getting on the field quicker at linebacker. Niemann had this to say about Clayton to Keith Sargeant after practice today:
"Very athletic,'' Niemann said. "The way we're using our SAM (strongside linebackers) with all the spread offenses that are out there right now, that guy is kind of a hybrid between a linebacker and a safety. So (Clayton) possesses really good movement skills. And obviously having been a safety that's going to serve him well moving into the linebacker spot.''
Moving Clayton to the SAM spot makes a lot of sense, as he has pass coverage skills and experience to go along with a physical style of play as a big hitter. It's also comforting to hear Niemann signaling a change in defensive philosophy from previous coordinator Joe Rossi.
In regards to the secondary, Dan Duggan asked Niemann about his philosophy with that position group.
Niemann said it'll be a mix of man and zone. Needs to find out if they have guys capable of playing man https://t.co/2EuzSdXa6F— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) March 29, 2016
A major feeling out process is taking place as the new coaching staff evaluates the players they have to work with on defense. The defensive line certainly appears to be the potential anchor for this unit, as it has far and away the most experience of any position group, with veterans such as Darius Hamilton, Kemoko Turay, Quanzell Lambert, Sebastian Joseph, Jimmy Hogan, Kevin Wilkins, and Julian Pinnix-Odrick. The importance of the defensive line getting penetration and putting pressure on the opposing quarterback will be a major key to the success of the defense next season. Not doing so consistently, or even at all at times, left the undermanned and inexperienced secondary out to dry last season.
Niemann, along with the defensive expertise that Ash possesses, will be monumental in improving the defense for next season. Remember, Niemann had significant success in his five seasons as the defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois. Last season was actually a down year for the traditional MAC power, but even so, their Niemann led defense held Ohio State to under 300 yards of offense on the road, losing by just a touchdown. His defense forced Ohio State into five turnovers and the Huskies finished in the top ten last season nationally in takeaways.
Another great stat is that Northern Illinois went 3-2 against the Big Ten the past four seasons with wins over Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue. Big Ten offenses averaged just 21 points a game in those five contests against Niemann's defense.
Fixing the Rutgers defense would be a big notch in Niemann's belt as a coach and he is fully aware of the task at hand. He had this to say back in January as to his approach in rebuilding the defense:
"You can't fit square pegs in round holes," Niemann said. "We have to see what our guys can do and hopefully we can build a defense around what they're capable of."
"One of our big jobs is to decide what our players can do and make sure we're not stuck in our ways and set on things to the point that we can't make adjustments in the scheme to fit the people that are playing it," he said.
After the frustrations of last season that saw few adjustments week after week despite blowout losses, Niemann's words should be music to Rutgers fans ears. With less than a quarter of spring practice complete, Niemann will surely tinker with different lineups throughout the next month. The spring game on April 23rd will be our first chance to see the revamped Rutgers defense in action. After that, Niemann will have additional personnel joining the defensive side of the ball in June when the incoming freshman join the program.
On a side note, I love Niemann's hard edge and no nonsense approach. Even when he is being interviewed, he appears in a zone and almost uncomfortable, clearly preferring put in the work on the field, rather than talk about it. The once proud Rutgers defense has been torn to shreds the past three seasons and fans should have confidence that Niemann, along with Ash, and the rest of the defensive coaching staff, will get them back on track.