It’s been an exciting time On the Banks recently, with many important and positive changes happening within the football program. We have replaced young, inexperienced position coaches with Big Ten veterans. We have had talented preferred walk-ons, recruits, and graduate transfers decide to take their talents to the banks. Best of all, we learned recently that our best offensive player, Janarion Grant, is coming back! With the highest ranked recruiting class (#42 according to 247Sports) since 2012 coming in to fill in holes at every position, the secondary has the potential to see the biggest improvement from the 2016 season.
The performance of our linebackers this season can be summed up in one word, dismal. Like all other position groups, aside from the QB’s, depth issues plagued the linebackers this season. Due to the disciplinary issues plaguing the team last season, we were left with a position group of composed primarily of underclassmen. When senior Greg Jones, proclaimed as HC Chris Ash’s “guy,” suffered a career-ending neck injury early in the season, Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann were left without their best linebacker. Before he was hurt, Jones accumulated 20 total tackles, 12 of them solo attempts, and a sack against #4 Washington. Losing Greg Jones was not only a loss in talent for the Scarlet Knights but in maturity and leadership.
As I mentioned in my season end review of special teams, tackling was a huge issue this season. Niemann had mentioned that the defense was practicing rugby-style tackling to try to improve on their missed tackles. While I am sure it was something they practiced, this rarely showed against B1G 10 competition. All across the defense and special teams, stops were missed due to high, sloppy tackles that failed to wrap up the competition. While I definitely would not want to go head to head with the giants on the offensive lines of the B1G, our guys looked like prey being dragged by their predators as they moved their way downfield. What I mean to say is, it was not pretty, and the mismatch in talent and size proved to be too much all season. Let’s hope the addition of quick-footed and brute force players like OLB Olankule Fatukasi and the sheer size and power of those like legacy DE Mike Tverdov, will build a line that will be a force to be reckoned with in the B1G. The combination of size and skill with the work of strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker should hopefully build a defensive line with which we can intimidate the big-time offenses of the B1G 10.
Sometimes more frustrating than the sloppy tackling was the lack of pass defense. Going into the 2016 season, and reiterated in press coverage, Ash touted the importance of playing aggressively on both sides of the ball. While I do believe that former OC Mehringer was looking to be industrious in some of his fourth-down calls, I did not see that disruptiveness in Niemann's secondary. It often seemed to me that his cornerbacks and safeties were waiting for the receiver to catch the ball and tackle them rather than actively and aggressively trying to break up the pass. Heck, half the time they didn’t even turn around to see that pass coming in their direction.
According to the Big Ten rankings, Rutgers held the penultimate spot for pass defense efficiency this season, squeaking past similarly plagued Purdue by one percentage point. This slow pass coverage lead to the game-winning touchdown pass on a third down conversion in what seemed like a winnable match-up against the Indiana Hoosiers. That same game saw him sack QB Zander Diamont for a 9-yard loss. Turay, a 2014 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten player, missed spring training camp due to multiple shoulder surgeries, so let’s hope he is still gearing up for his big comeback. We could definitely use that fire and aggressive play this season. Perhaps the addition of dynamic players such as NJ safety Eddie Lopez and Alabama safety Syhiem Simmons. These guys show the speed of players like Anthony Cioffi, with the ball recognition and ability to break up passes of NFL stars Devin and Jason McCourty.
There were sparks of potential, with Rutgers leading their opponents in interceptions (8-7), which unfortunately were never capitalized on by the offense. We added twelve defensive players to the team in this class, including 4-star OLB Tyshon Fogg and hidden NJ gem Brendan Devera, with many talented 3-star recruits rounding the group. The strength and physicality seen in their performances should hopefully allow for the aggressive style of play needed to compete in the B1G. Having more talent will hopefully create the depth and competition needed to bring this group to the greatness not seen since the mid-2000’s. Given the reactions on social media, I’m certain I am not the only fan excited to see what unfolds. While these players may not see immediate action, I do believe the competition created will improve the play across the board.
The new recruits aren’t the only young players who will add talent to the Scarlet Knights defense. Damon Hayes and Tyreek Maddox-Williams were bright spots in an otherwise bleak secondary performance. As you remember, both players were named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team this year. Pushed into true freshman play due to depth issues, Hayes started 6 games and recorded 47 tackles with 1.5 for a loss, one pass breakup, and a blocked punt. In an otherwise disheartening performance against # 9 Penn State, Hayes broke up a pass, hurried the quarterback twice, and made four stops. Playing 11 games with one start at cornerback, Hayes made 25 tackles with two for a loss. He broke up three passes and had a career-first 55-yard interception in a tough loss to Minnesota. Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann believes that both players will benefit from their early playing time, and it will be exciting to see how these young recruits will create competition for their starting spots.
The future is bright for these young players, and after a 2-10 season, we have nowhere to go but up. I am excited to see these young stars develops and welcome the Class of 2017 to the banks. The Scarlet Knights fans will be waiting to welcome you with open arms.