Yesterday was the sixth of fifteen spring practices and the coaches have been rotating in terms of addressing the media after each session. Defensive line coach Shane Burham spoke yesterday and discussed his group of players, who head coach Chris Ash called last week the strongest position group on the team. A big reason for that is the experience of key personnel on the defensive line.
DL coach Shane Burham spoke today. He said there's a big drop after the top four DL: JPO, Hamilton, Joseph and Lambert.— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) April 5, 2016
It should be no surprise that these four have emerged so far. All have had varying degrees of success in their Rutgers careers and are all now preparing for their senior season, with the exception of Sebastian Joseph, who will be a redshirt junior. He seems to have made one of the biggest impressions of anyone on the team to the new coaching staff. He was the first player to be "knighted" by having his black stripe removed from his helmet after the fourth practice. Joseph tore his bicep last spring and it did hinder him at times last season, but he is now fully healed and taking advantage of his opportunity. It was expected that Joseph would battle with Kevin Wilkins once again for the starting spot on the line, but it appears to be Joseph's job to lose at this point. In this article from Ryan Dunleavy, he spoke to Burnham here regarding Joseph's progress this spring:
"Different blocks we talk about, he’s playing them better," Burnham said, "whether it’s a block he should keep on the line of scrimmage and keep a linebacker clean, or a block he should be playing off of and penetrating. He just has a better feel and he’s more consistent in his effort and his production right now than anybody else at that position."
"He’s just been a steady eddy," Burnham said. "When I first got here, he was a big, good-looking, 300-pound kid and I thought, ‘Well, he might be stiff.’ He’s really moving better than he ever has from what I’ve been told by him and other people. He’s just relentless in his effort."
Of course, the best news regarding the defensive line this spring has been the return of Darius Hamilton. Ash had said earlier in the spring that Darius knows his body the best of anyone and the staff is allowing him to determine how many reps he takes in practice.
"The most important thing for Darius is to be healthy next fall," Burnham said. #RFootball— Greg Johnson (@gregp_j) April 5, 2016
Hamilton is one of many players that have bulked up due to the revamped offseason workouts led by strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker. From this article earlier in the week, it was reported Hamilton has gained 18 pounds and currently weighs 283 pounds. He has been considered undersized in the past, but with the additional bulk he should now match up better against the big offensive lineman of the Big Ten. The key is for Hamilton to maintain his quickness.
Hamilton, a two-time captain, was a major loss for the defense last season. In retrospect, it's a blessing for Rutgers that Hamilton will return for this transition season under the new coaching staff. His leadership and buy in with the new staff is key in helping with the transition. The former 5-star recruit from Don Bosco Prep is the perfect example of the type of player Ash wants to stack the Rutgers roster with. Included in Dan Duggan's practice report from yesterday was this quote from Hamilton:
"I'm sure people would like to hear me say it's difficult, but these are people who love football. When you get around people who love football and have the same core values and beliefs as you, it's very simple to share similarities and things like that. They're a great staff. Coach Ash is a fiery coach, a defensive coach who cares about how we do on defense. I was real close with Coach (Jim) Panagos; Coach Burnham is probably as passionate as Coach Panagos was. Attention to detail like never before. I'm really excited. I'm getting excited about coaches I don't even play for, like Coach (A.J.) Blazek, I was watching him work with the offensive line guys. It's great to see the kind of staff that (Ash has) brought in, how young, fiery and energetic that they are. That's what we said he was going to bring and that's what he's brought. It's been really exciting to watch, it's been really exciting to work with and I know we can only go up from here."
For Rutgers fans, Hamilton's endorsement of the new coaches should be music to our ears. There are still nine practices remaining this spring, and a lot of work to be done afterwards before preseason camp opens in August. It's easy to be positive right now, but this spring there seems to be some real substance to those vibes. For the defense to be successful next season, it all starts with the defensive line.
Hamilton's return and Joseph's emergence will be keys to that unit's impact on the entire defense. Julian Pinnix-Odrick has shown flashes and hopefully will be more of a consistent difference maker on the line this season. With an entire new starting core of linebackers and a still young and inexperienced secondary, pressure from the front four is paramount. The talent is certainly there and although this group lost perhaps the most popular assistant coach from the Flood era in Jim Panagos, they seem to be adjusting well under new position coach Shane Burham. Hopefully, the line breaks out this fall and helps lead the defense back to prominence, when it defined Rutgers football in the Schiano era. Here is a video of Burham discussing his players and the progress they have made this spring.