Replacing the previous starter at a position always presents a challenge for any player, especially at such a critical spot like middle linebacker. Having to replace three-year incumbent Steve Longa, who left for the NFL after successfully holding down the position once the 2012 Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Khaseem Greene, also went pro, is a major task to take on. Last season, sophomore Deonte Roberts won the right to quarterback the defense and fill those past stars shoes. He performed admirably given the circumstances and steadily improved as the season wore on.
He started every game at middle linebacker and was second on the team with 95 tackles and was seventh in the Big Ten with a 9.0 tackle per game average in conference play. The former 3-star recruit took some time to adjust to the responsibilities of the position, but he seemed to grasp more and more of what the coaches asked of him each week. It was obvious that Roberts had potential and the good news is he has the work ethic as well.
There was a lot of praise for Roberts during Spring practice a few months ago. Co-defensive coordinator Jay Niemann commented that the coaching staff felt he had one of the best offseason’s of any player on the roster. Head coach Chris Ash said “Deonte Roberts is probably the most improved kid on the team” after the Spring game. Our David Anderson made insightful observations of many performances during the Scarlet-White game at the end of April and mentioned this when listing Roberts as someone who improved his stock:
“Deonte Roberts looked steady, in line with the praise by the coaches, even Ash who said he is the program’s most improved player. Subtle things like moving TJ Taylor half a step on one play and communicating with the secondary were exactly what we wanted to see and did.”
Roberts learned from some missteps in the 2016 season and used it as motivation to improve his game. Ryan Dunleavy of NJ Advance Media spoke with Roberts during the spring and the rising junior was refreshingly critical of his play during the 2016 campaign:
"I didn't like what I saw. There were a lot of things I wanted to change about myself, being more physical, attacking, trusting my speed and instincts. I know I'm a great football player, and I've got to play that way."
Part of his mental approach in having a fresh start for the upcoming season is a change in uniform number. Roberts will now wear #6 instead of #26, which he told J.P. Pelzman of the Asbury Park Press that it was his number in high school at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn. Being a fierce competitor and his toughest critic will only help Roberts fulfill his potential on the field next season.
With a rather inexperienced defensive line in front of him, Roberts will need to assert his leadership and communicate well with a potentially strong defensive backfield. A bigger, stronger, more wise Roberts leading the Rutgers defense should be a promising thought heading into the 2017 season. If the offense can show solid improvement and give Roberts’ unit time to breath, something uncommon last season, the defense should make even more strides this coming fall. If that happens, Roberts will be in the middle of it all.