Defensive Coordinator Jay Niemann addressed the media at Friday’s practice. Always even-keeled, his answers began sounding scripted (unlike Coach Kill) about how the team has “started real well” and is “off to a good start” especially the guys who have been there since the new coaching staff came on. “Hopefully we stay on pace and keep improving.”
More of the same on losing Tyreek Maddox-Williams to injury, “It’s hard because he’s such a good kid. You hate to see anyone get hurt, but certainly we were counting on him to factor into the plans as far as a guy who could play first, second, and third down” ... “We are making some adjustments within the linebacking group as we speak” and that will continue. Niemann noted how many guys are getting reps first, mentioning T.J. [Taylor], [Eric] Margolis, and the freshmen.
He didn’t include Ross Douglas initially, so the immediate follow up question came from Ryan Dunleavy. Coach Niemann responded that “[Douglas] provides more athleticism out of the slot .. more coverage variety and flexibility than you would have with a traditional linebacker.” I don’t think Coach Niemann plays mind games or teases the press with what players he mentions first or second when asked about an entire group. I think he just mentions the first guys who come to his mind, likely ones that stood out that particular day compared to previous.
Coach Niemann was asked about Myles Nash being moved back to defense and said "that's something that Coach (Chris Ash) and (Nash) talked about. I don't know that that will be permanent, but I know that we're looking at it. That's as much as I know. This is the first day that happened.''
The next question sent this press conference to it’s biggest takeaway when Niemann was asked what was his number one area of improvement after last season. "Absolutely rushing defense, first on the list. Without question. The numbers weren’t good.'' He continued that just from the naked eye, even when players were in position, they weren’t getting “the kind of physicality at the point of attack to get the disruption you need to be successful.” “Blow delivery” and “getting off blocks” are keys to better run defense which Rutgers has to have to improve in 2017. If the defense doesn’t do better against the run at the beginning of games this season, they will find themselves playing from behind again and subsequently be staring down the jaws of defeat as teams pound the ball to run out the clock.
After that it went back to more basic answers on defensive philosophy, particularly about the defensive line, specifically “hard to evaluate until they get the pads on.” Then a very good question came when he was asked if the defensive ends would get “different responsibility” this season to which the answer was “no, I don’t anticipate that being much different ... we change on third down”. The first guy who’s name he brought up in the defensive end group was Jimmy Hogan and then Darnell Davis. “But we have to let it play out, way to early to say” who will be playing what role. We specifically questioned Niemann’s omission of mentioning Hogan in a spring interview, but this surely indicates he is in the mix.
Naturally that led to one of the team’s biggest question marks that is not about quarterback play, Kemoko Turay. Last year he “wasn’t 100%” and he is a “rare talent.” “We need to continue to bring him along. I expect him to be a guy people have to account for in pass rush, not to discount what he has done in the run game. I’ve been pleased how physically he has played at the point of attack.” None of this is news, but it is encouraging that coach feels so good about where Kemoko is to give fans hope and opponents something they need to prepare for going into 2017.
The last two questions were about the freshmen that will struggle to “have a legit opportunity to beat a guy out because there is so much they need to learn in a short period of time.” On Syhiem Simmons specifically, "maybe not quite as big as a traditional linebacker, but really active. I love his motor, love his energy. He's a kid that really enjoys football. It sounds kind of funny to say that maybe, but some kids really do truly love it more than others. He's all about football. He is going to be a guy who is physical enough to play that position and give us some coverage flexibility."
Then on to Tyshon Fogg. "My early impression of him [Fogg] is he has gotten off to a very good start. He is a very mature young man for a true freshman. He has taken the opportunity to really excel so far at all we've thrown at him. And we have thrown a lot at him so far in the five workouts that we've had. It's not that he hasn't made any mistakes, but he's very coachable and very focused in the meeting room and out on the field. He's had very few assignment areas for a young guy at that position."
Overall, this is par for the course when getting information from an even-keeled coach of a defense that needs to improve on the whole. There’s no point in letting the cat out of the bag on any new wrinkles or inside intelligence on a specific player who might turn some heads when the season kicks off. Niemann does not seem to be an overly sensitive guy to push buttons publicly, as he is very matter of fact and doesn’t speculate on anything. He should be high on the freshmen since he ultimately brought them in, but seems to be very practical on what you can expect them to pick up early on. The fact that the defensive backfield did not come up even once in the press conference should be a good thing. Despite losing the team’s surest tackler in Maddox-Williams, the Knights defense looks primed to build on last season by a lot and return to respectability.
The video of the full press conference here is below: