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Five Questions For The Rutgers Defense Ahead of Spring Practice

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A very important month for the program begins Thursday.

Rutgers v Minnesota

The Rutgers football team begins spring practice on Thursday and will see their first action on the field since last year’s season ending loss at Maryland. Last week, we took a look at questions surrounding the offense. Here we look at the defense.

What Will The Defense Look Like Formation Wise?

According to Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media in this article, head coach Chris Ash and co-defensive coordinator Jay Niemann are “expected to experiment with different defensive looks this spring, utilizing both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes as base packages, according to people familiar with the new defensive approach. The goal is simply to get the best 11 defensive players on the field.”

I’m a fan of Ash’s willingness to be more flexible in year 2 of his tenure. While we knew the addition of new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill signaled a shift towards utilizing personnel in a way that best suits them, this is a new and positive development for the defense. After having a second winter of workouts under strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker, Rutgers should be stronger and more athletic on the defensive side of the ball. Spring practice will be a critical period for Ash, Niemann, and co-defensive coordinator Bill Busch to determine what schemes and formations could be strengths heading into training camp in August.

Who Will Step Up On The Defensive Line?

With starters Darius Hamilton, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, and Quanzell Lambert lost to graduation, that leaves Sebastian Joseph as the only returning starter and a lot of opportunity for others to move up. It’s the last call for Kemoko Turay, the talented but oft-injured pass rusher who has been unable to recapture the glory of his sterling debut during the 2014 season. Whether he can become a consistent contributor this fall will be a major storline. Seniors Darnell Davis and Kevin Wilkins, as well as juniors Jimmy Hogan and Jon Bateky have flashed potential at times, but now have the chance to grab more substantial roles. Even so, we know Ash and Niemann like to rotate 8-9 players on the line, so others have a chance to solidify their standing in spring camp as well.

Will The Secondary Be a Strength?

The short answer is it could be. With the core of veterans returning that include Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton at the corners and Kiy Hester, Saquan Hampton and Douglas at safety, this unit has a tremendous opportunity to be much improved this coming season. Add in rising sophomores K.J. Gray and Damon Hayes, who had their moments in their debut seasons, the secondary appears to have the highest ceiling of any position group on defense. One player I’m curious to see play this spring is JUCO transfer Kobe Marfo, who redshirted last season. He could work his way up the depth chart with a strong spring.

What Impact Will Last Year’s Early Enrollee’s Have?

On the defensive side of the ball, it will be interesting to see where Solomon Manning and Elorm Lumor land on the depth chart at the end of spring camp. Both enrolled early last year and will look to hit the ground running this March. There will be opportunities at linebacker, despite all three starters from last season still on the roster. Ryan Dunleavy of NJ Advance Media reported earlier today that Tyreek Maddox-Williams will miss all of spring camp and Trevor Morris will be limited. That gives Manning a great shot at establishing himself on the two-deep with a strong effort this next month. Lumor’s versatility as a pass rusher will give himself a chance to find a role as well within the front seven.

Who Will Fill The Leadership Void?

The obvious candidate would be fifth year senior Sebastian Joseph, the lone returning start from the defensive line last season. With natural leaders and co-captains Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick gone, Joseph should assert himself as a leader of the defensive line, at a minimum. He was solid on the field and was an academic All-Big Ten selection last fall as well. Joseph should be considered a favorite to be named a captain on the defensive side of the ball before next season begins. Other veterans who could step up from a leadership perspective include Michigan grad transfer Ross Douglas and lineman Darnell Davis.

Two more days!!