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Rutgers Football 2017 Preview: Linebackers

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Returning starter Maddox-Williams is out for the season, but lots of potential here

NCAA Football: Howard at Rutgers
Roberts needs to be the heart of the defense
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

With practices for the fall season underway, we continue positional previews with the Scarlet Knights 2017 linebackers. This comes a week after Tyreek Maddox-Williams was injured and reported to be out for the season. All of the players listed as linebacker will be reviewed in turn by jersey number, followed by the incoming freshman.

#6 Deonte Roberts (6’1”, 235 lbs.) Junior

Roberts enrolled early and saw time on special teams, even adding a start as a true freshman. He emerged from “mess” as the starting point of Niemann’s revamped linebacking unit last year. As the season went along the alignment and assignments of back seven improved as Deonte got more comfortable. Had it not been for a huge leap in his leadership within the defense, he may have moved outside. Now that Maddox-Williams is injured, it would be shocking to see anyone else at middle linebacker barring an injury. Roberts is the key to the unit because it’s not just his play, but the alignment and communication of the entire defense that he is responsible for.

#15 Trevor Morris (6’1”, 232 lbs.) Junior

Trevor Morris was the definition of an athlete when he arrived at RU. He quickly settled into a spot at linebacker, getting a ton of time on special teams as a true freshman. He emerged last year as a starter and ultimately led the team in tackles, even though even he would probably admit he did not play to the level he wanted to. For all the tackles he made, he never really seemed like a difference maker. Hopefully he can get a signature moment in 2017. Despite the experience and stats he will really need to hold off freshmen gunning for him, though the injury to Maddox-Williams likely gives him a little extra cushion early on. Now that he has put on weight (at least 30 pounds since he started his college career) he should be able to shed blocks better. I liked Morris as a recruit with his 4.4 speed at 6’1, but thought he needed some time. As a third year player like Roberts, now would probably be when he truly is ready to be an impact defender. Unfortunately he had to play before he was ready.

#21 Ross Douglas (5’10”, 205 lbs.) Redshirt Senior

Douglas was hyped as a plug and play guy after already graduating Michigan in three years. An injury derailed his season and I said, “a second year at the same position on the same team would be a welcome change for him”. And then he got moved to linebacker. Everyone raves about his football I.Q. having been all over the field and the potential upside in coverage. I’m sure though if Rutgers finds themselves behind or against a team trying to power run he will likely get rotated in and out to get some bigger guys in there to take the punishment. Hopefully his versatility in coverage can reduce some of the big first down passing plays RU surrendered in 2016. If not, perhaps he becomes a third down linebacker or even a third safety, a role like the Patriots use former Knight, Duron Harmon. I don’t see him holding up as a three down linebacker in the B1G East, but if utilized efficiently can be an area of improvement this year.

Penn State v Rutgers
Margolis plays to the whistle.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

#35 Eric Margolis (6’3”, 240 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

Margolis was a late add as a wide receiver by Kyle Flood’s staff but ended up at linebacker where the depth was lacking. He is a an example like many from his recruiting class as a solid role player. Eric has a ways to go before becoming a solid starter long term, though he performed admirably in his one start against Maryland. A very skilled player, I’m surprised he hasn’t been asked to become an H-back. Hopefully that’s because he can contribute more in the linebacker two-deep. His spring game performance was solid as well. He will probably back up at strong side linebacker.

#36 T.J. Taylor (6’3”, 221 lbs.) Redshirt Senior

Taylor is the type of New Jersey athlete Rutgers will need to develop to compete in the B1G and much in the mold of the guys currently committed for 2018. He was originally a safety where he looked to be playing at another level than his high school competition before surfacing at linebacker after several knee injuries. If fully healthy (always a question with him), he may even get another crack as a starting LB as he is a similar type of linebacker to Douglas, but bigger and potentially more of a centerfielder at Free Safety. Had he not been slowed by injury, he might have become a starter as a ballhawking defensive back rather than a two-deep undersized linebacker. I’ve always liked him, but he has never been able to combine skilled play, opportunity, and health. He could literally be anywhere from starter to scout team to training table.

#44 Tyreek Maddox-Williams (6’0”, 232 lbs.) Sophomore

Maddox-Williams was one of the few bright spots in the dismal 2016 season as a true freshman. Coming into this season as a presumed starter perhaps the most complete player on the entire defense, it was devastating news that he injured his ACL and will miss 2017. Unlike a year ago, the team has more experienced bodies to replace him but perhaps no one with as good of instincts at his position. On the plus side, he will be able to utilize a medical redshirt and have three years of eligibility remaining. He will have to re-earn his starting position, but there is no reason to believe he won’t assuming a return to full health because he has instincts you can’t teach.

#49 Brandon Russell (6’0”, 235 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

It feels like Russell has been around forever, in the mix at multiple linebacker spots and on special teams since Day 1 as an early enrollee. Alongside Margolis, he also started against Maryland and led the team with 12 tackles. Despite the gaudy stats, he does not profile as a big hitter or speed guy so he will need to really show a lot to start. IF there were other playmakers on the defense, a steady guy like him would likely get more of a look. He is the most logical choice to be the understudy at middle linebacker, as he should be able to call the defense if Roberts were to go down with an injury.

#55 Austin Rosa (5’10”, 220 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

The only walk-on listed on the training camp roster, Rosa has consistently been in the mix at practice despite minimal hype as a recruit perhaps due to his height. He showed true linebacking instincts in high school and was a champion in the 400 meters so I previously listed him “out of nowhere” candidate for 2017 among the transfers and walk ons. There are so many success stories of linebackers walking on and becoming starters all over the country like Gary Brackett who you have hopefully heard of. Rutgers hasn’t had a walk on linebacker start in a while, maybe Rosa will emerge ahead of the highly recruited freshmen, but it’s a long shot.

#56 Rashawn Battle (6’1”, 235 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Already the size of a B1G ‘backer, Battle was viewed by many as a sleeper for early playing time in 2016. He should grow into a spot at Linebacker or maybe follow Manning to defensive line. As Scott’s final thoughts mention, linebacker was the deepest unit in the 2016 class yet Battle is the only one still at that position and healthy in 2017. The staff wants to get faster, but if they realize they need to go bigger, especially late in games he could get time. In the spring game you could see his potential as the game wore on but probably needs another year to fully get it. I could see him not playing in 2017 but then passing several guys next year he was way behind this season on defense. His size and tackling will be an asset on special teams if he gets an opportunity and can embrace the concepts.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Rutgers
Russell does hustle.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Incoming Freshmen

#3 Olakunle Fatukasi (6’1”, 230 lbs.)

Fatukasi was considered a risk to decommit, but stuck with the Knights and wow this guy can deliver a blow to the opposing ball carrier. Talent, speed, and side aside, it’s his energy that might be what this team needs more than anything. I expect him on a kicking unit trying to set the tone pretty early in his career.

#8 Tyshon Fogg (6’1”, 249 lbs.)

The Calvert Hall product was a huge grab out of Maryland. A consensus four star recruit he rivals Micah Clark as the highest regarded true freshman. His size is there and the staff mentioned his maturity, so he would likely be the least surprising true freshman to start in quite some time. That said, he will have to earn it with all the veterans ahead of him. Had he been in the 2016 class he probably would have started day one. This season, it’s less likely.

#25 Syhiem Simmons (5’11”, 214 lbs.)

Simmons, like Fogg, lived in New Jersey as a kid, though he played high school ball out of state. It seemed like a steal when he was poached back from SEC country. He was initially talked about more as a running back or safety, but now likely is the heir apparent to Douglas’s role as an undersized, coverage linebacker. I don’t see him on defense right away but if he is as fast as advertised, special teams may be in his immediate future.

#26 C.J. Onyechi (6’0”, 231 lbs.)

C.J. played all over the field in high school. He is the type of guy Rutgers will aim to bring into the fold each year from New Jersey. The most under the radar member of this group and among the least heralded members of the entire 2017 recruiting class he probably projects as having the most special teams versatility. Success there could parlay into time on defense itself, though that is probably a year away unless he just dazzles. I’d say that’s unlikely since we haven’t heard his name yet as a surprise in camp.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Maryland
Morris has finally reached the point he is not undersized.
Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Predictions:

Personnel: Roberts and Morris are a returning starters. Douglas has slid into Maddox-Williams’s spot initially and has the first opportunity to lock down the 3rd starting position. Margolis, Russell, and Taylor all have plenty of experience at this juncture but will be pressed by the freshmen HARD. Ash left no doubt that the team wants major contributions in special teams from linebackers, so it will be a short leash for the upperclassmen on those units if Rutgers dismal field position resurfaces. All three returning starters played themselves as true freshmen at a position where if a guy can play, he will be out there early in his career. I fully expect by midseason one freshman will be on the two-deep and by the end at least two of them.

Scheme: By the end of the season as Niemann pointed out, most of the time guys were in the right place, they just didn’t execute. Rutgers played a 4-3 stack in 2016 almost exclusively as mentioned in the defensive line preview. As Niemann said, the defense, number one area of improvement is rush defense and the primary area of emphasis is getting off blocks and not getting washed down. Especially if the defense is on the field for long stretches, more players need to be rotated in and out which also may allow the staff to utilize different players’ skill sets. Especially when linebackers are small, they need to expend a ton of effort in one on one battles and tire quicker. Rugby style tackling was not a problem in year one, but a regression could compromise all the other positives on the defensive side of the ball.

Long term outlook: With a good balance of eligibility in this unit, the arrow is pointed up. Of course when the team, most notably it’s run defense hit rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up. This staff elected to focus on stabilizing the defensive secondary in 2016 and now linebackers seem to be the emphasis in 2017. Early playing time was discussed in recruitment and expect at least two freshmen to be special teams warriors right out of the gate. Fogg who already has the body to go along with maturity praised by the coaching staff could work his way into a platoon with Douglas early on. If he excels, Tyshon could complete a true freshman season like Maddox-Williams had a year ago as an unquestioned starter.

Like defensive line, the position group has upside so Rutgers fans can have hope going into the season, despite the 2016 growing pains. Football may be headed toward being more like flag football in 20 years, but until then, Rutgers linebackers need to demonstrate that type of swag, hustle, intensity, and attitude. If they do, it could truly be Knight and Day from one season to the next.

Of any position group, this one of the #10strong will benefit the most from watching the pump up video every morning ...

Previous positional reviews:

Wide receiver

Defensive line

Tight end