Tuesday marked the third spring practice for Rutgers football, the first in full pads, and co-defensive coordinator Jay Niemann spoke to the media after practice. While defensive backs coach Bill Busch was promoted to co-defensive coordinator alongside him this off-season, Ash made it clear last week that Niemann is still in charge of the defense and will be calling the plays during games. This season will mark the seventh for Niemann at the FBS level as a DC, previously spending five years at MAC school Northern Illinois before joining Ash at Rutgers. We covered their relationship in detail here. Here are some highlights from what Niemann had to say.
Ross Douglas Has Moved Positions
This is something that Douglas is used to in his career. He played running back early in his college career at Michigan, before joining Rutgers last season as a defensive back. Niemann stated moving forward he will play a hybrid “SAM /nickel position”. With depth at linebacker less than ideal this spring, as returning starters Trevor Morris is limited and Tyreek Maddox-Williams is out right now due to injuries, it makes sense to shift someone. Douglas is a veteran who played free safety last season and Niemann called him a “very football savvy kid”, who “knows the game” and is “quick to pick things up”, while offering them a “different skill set” from the rest of their personnel. It should be interesting to watch for his development at this position and hopefully will result in more production in his last season of college football.
Deonte Roberts Is Stepping Up
As a reporter mentioned, Niemann was not shy in labeling the linebacker situation “a mess” heading into last season. One player Niemann said has grown a lot in the off-season was returning starter Deonte Roberts. Despite finishing second on the team last season with 95 tackles and seventh in the Big Ten with averaging 9 tacklers per conference game, Roberts struggled at times. Replacing three-year starter Steve Longa in the middle of the defense would have been a tall task for anyone. Niemann had this to say about his progress since the 2016 season ended:
“He’s done a great job. Any of the coaches would say he had one of the best off-seasons of any player on the team. Great attitude. Can’t say enough good things of the hard work he has put in.”
If Roberts can continue to improve and better understand what head coach Chris Ash and Niemann want from his role ahead of next season, the defense will be better for it.
Defense Is Still Fundamentally A 4-3 Base
There was talk of Ash and Niemann looking to work on “multiple looks” with the defense in preparing for next season. While Niemann acknowledged that was the case, he reiterated that the defense will still be primarily a 4-3 front. They will experiment with some variations of that, but the goal is to get the best players on the field. As I wrote before, the flexibility of the coaching staff in better tailoring their formations to their personnel is a very positive development. It will be interesting to see at the Spring Game how different players are positioned within the defense and how much variety they will implement.
Kemoko Turay Has A Chance For A Special Season
Ash spoke last week about how strong of an off-season Turay has had, including finally being healthy and in great condition now. Niemann stated the same, calling him “very athletic and a special talent”. Later in the presser, he was asked which players have stood out through three practices so far this spring and he mentioned Turay again. We all know how much of a factor Turay can be when he is at his best, both on defense and with special teams. The reality is the shoulder issues Turay was dealing with, in addition to learning a new system, limited his impact last season. It would be very exciting to see Turay hit his stride heading into next season, giving him the opportunity to finally maximize his potential on the field.
Notes: It was announced that Razohnn Gross has rejoined the program and practiced today at fullback. Gross wrestled this past season at heavyweight for coach Scott Goodale after being dismissed from the football program back during the 2015 season. Gross had to earn his way back into school and into athletics, which Ryan Dunleavy of NJ Advance Media covers here. As for his wrestling future, Dunleavy covers that here as well.
Here is coach Niemann’s press conference after Tuesday’s practice: