Prior to the season opener we got an official depth chart for Rutgers Football. Since then, Rutgers has won just one of its eight games. Every week we hear the same things, primarily these two phrases, “it’s a process” and “lack of depth at certain spots”. So this had me thinking, has the depth chart really changed much since the beginning of the season?
Rather than give out letter grades at the bye week, I took a dive into each spot to see if that position has injuries, updates, and a quick thought on how it is trending. There may not be a new official depth chart posted, so this is a best guess based on snaps in critical situations.
Yesterday we covered the offense, so let’s finish with the defense and specialists.
SDE: Kevin Wilkins. Mike Tverdov.
NT: Julius Turner. Jaohne Duggan.
DT: Jon Bateky. Wil Previlon. Brendan Bordner.
WDE: Elorm Lumor.
Tijaun Mason. Muhammad Wainwright.
Suspended: C.J. Onyechi.
Injured: Mason (out for season), Lumor (week to week).
Well, maybe that Kemoko Dragon guy and Sebastian Joseph were better than we thought ... After the 2016 season, Rutgers graduated Darius Hamilton, Quanzell Lambert, and Julian Pinnix-Odrick, yet were actually better on the defensive line in 2017. Development of other players in a deeper rotation, improvement by 5th round draft pick Joseph, and a return to health for 2nd round NFL draft choice Turay allowed Rutgers to keep games close at least for a while in 2017. So maybe it’s the fact that six of the top eight from two years ago (Darnell Davis also graduated and Jimmy Hogan is playing his 5th year at Temple) was simply too much of the foundation lost.
Kevin Wilkins (38 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 PD) and Jon Bateky (30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks) have played a lot of football in their careers. Both have made plays this year and demonstrated enough to possibly continue their playing careers on Sundays. Wilkins particularly is a physical freak of nature who is 300 pounds but quick enough to play defensive end. Beyond them, other players have not been able to step up.
Julius Turner (20 tackles, 2 TFL) is undersized and was not able to take the next step from his 2017 performance when he joined the rotation. Turner is good in bursts, but if he is out there for too many plays he looses just a little quickness and it makes a big impact. Wil Previlon (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 safety) was mostly MIA this year after returning to his 2017 form, including his safety last week against Northwestern. He is best as a rotational guy who is good at soaking up double teams.
Elorm Lumor (24 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 sacks) makes the defense a lot better when he is healthy because he has some pass rush ability even against the better offensive tackles RU has faced. Lumor allows Mike Tverdov (24 tackles, 2 sacks) to play his more natural position on the other side and shift Kevin Wilkins inside on passing downs for a trickle down effect. Tverdov has really shown a lot this season as he and Lumor are the only guys who have noticeably improved since last season. When Lumor has been out, Tverdov is the only guy who seems to be able to get heat on the QB.
Muhammed Wainwright is a great story, but a fringe defensive end in the Big Ten who isn’t quite as good as a Darnell Davis. Jaohne Duggan (3 tackles) and Brendan Bordner (2 tackles) have been unable to show much as redshirt freshmen, though defensive linemen often take three years to really “get it”. Tijuan Mason was lost for the season in the first game which was a huge blow to the pass rush as C.J. Onyechi (Tverdov-like freshman season in 2017) remains suspended indefinitely. The team would benefit by a return (this year or next) of Onyechi who may not receive any serious punishment from the credit card investigation as the report so far indicates he did nothing illegal. Though I did request some Chatman snaps in the offensive update, the defensive true freshmen may not get any looks other than Robin Jutwreten (debut last week) because the coaching staff indicated everyone who is ready to contribute has already played this season.
Personally I think the Rutgers program and fans were spoiled by so many adequate defensive linemen for a period of time when it is the most difficult position to recruit. This is a massive reality check and the staff needs to figure out quick how to replenish the cupboard, losing Bateky and Wilkins after 2018, or things will only get worse. Of course the offense giving them a little more rest would help, but still ... TRENDING DOWN.
SLB: Tyreek Maddox-Williams. Olakunle Fatukasi.
MLB: Deonte Roberts. Rashawn Battle. Nihym Anderson.
WLB: Trevor Morris. Tyshon Fogg.
Suspended: Malik Vaccaro-Dixon.
The starters in this group were the three starters in 2016. Maddox-Williams missed 2017 due to injury, but Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris started last season before all three were reunited in the starting lineup in 2018. Maddox-Williams (33 tackles) is a very good football player, although he is not great in coverage and has many of those responsibilities as the strong-side backer in Jay Niemann’s defense. Tyreek also gets a lot of these assignment because Roberts (55 tackles) and Morris (67 tackles) are not good in coverage at all despite arriving on the banks as hybrid safeties. I was very down on Roberts (despite his effort against Kansas) and some on Morris as neither player has shown the leadership and playmaking you would expect from veterans. Shouldn’t they be helping get the team in better alignment and not being lazy with technique? They both pile up tackles though as the defense spends so much time on the field, particularly with opponents trying to run the clock out. Both seniors played A LOT better against Northwestern, with a lot more fire, but it might be too little, too late.
In the spring Rutgers had at least nine players legitimately fighting for spots in the two-deep. During the credit card investigation, Brendan DeVera was dismissed from the team, Syhiem Simmons elected to transfer, and Malik Dixon decided to remain enrolled on the banks. Dixon was expected to play a hybrid linebacker/safety role in passing situations to spell the aforementioned Maddox-Williams and none of the other three guys fits that role. Olakunle Fatukasi (11 tackles), Rashawn Battle (7 tackles), and Tyshon Fogg (30 tackles, 2 TFL) all are better than they were in the spring, but have not done enough to force themselves into a starting role. Fogg particularly makes plays that make you want to see him get more reps each week on the weak side. Transfer from Maryland Nihym Anderson also has played four games so it will be curious to see if the staff plays him a lot the last four games or not at all to preserve a redshirt opportunity.
For all the experience, the linebacker group has not been an elite unit. Many of the huge gains RU has given up this year you would think should have been plugged up by a linebacker or at least forced by the linebackers to a waiting safety. The explanation from the coaching staff at one point was that guys weren’t pushing each other enough. Well you have six guys in the two-deep so to me that means the starters may have been gifted their positions a little too much and then the reserves figured there are no scholarship players behind them so they got too comfortable. The solution was to try and have a competition for the 4th linebacker spot regardless of position, but that didn’t seem to do much. In the last two games, yes even the Maryland game, the linebackers were at least a Big Ten level unit. Maybe I’m putting too much stock in the Northwestern performance to give them, TRENDING EVEN?
CB: Isaiah Wharton. Damon Hayes? Jarrett Paul.
Blessuan Austin. Avery Young. Tre Avery.
SS: Damon Hayes. Kiy Hester. Rani Abdulaziz.
FS: Saquan Hampton. Tim Barrow.
Suspended: Naijee Jones, Kobe Marfo
Injured: Bless Austin (out for season), Tre Avery (week to week), Kiy Hester (week to week)
I’m sure that a lot of whiteout is used in the coaches’ room as no position group has been hit harder by injuries and suspensions. During the credit card investigation, presumed starter K.J. Gray was dismissed from the team, Eddie “Tank” Lopez elected to transfer, while Kobe Marfo and Naijee Jones decided to remain enrolled on the banks. Neither Marfo nor Jones was in the rotation in 2017, but had a chance to contribute in 2018 in sub packages. Regardless, heading into the season it still seemed that with a plethora of 3 star recruits and a coaching staff geared to coach up defensive backs this group would be one of the better on the squad.
With Tre Avery, the team’s nickelback shelved with an injury already, Bless Austin went down for the season in the season opener on a play where he intercepted the ball. So true freshman Avery Young (42 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 6 PD) was pressed into starting duty AT the horseshoe in Week 2. Young was victimized a few times, but showed signs of becoming a nice player from the beginning. Isaiah Wharton (36 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD, several PI) on the other side has split the fan base in their opinions of the four year starter’s performance. When Tre Avery does play, he seems like a solid nickel corner, but when he doesn’t, no one has stepped up so Damon Hayes (44 tackles) has been sliding up from the safety position to nickel corner.
Speaking of Hayes, the plan to move him to safety has not worked as well as hoped. In coverage he is fine, though still better as a corner, and has hauled in a team leading two interceptions. His pursuit angles have not been great, though when he does get a hand on the ball carrier the play is usually made. The team has not been able to shift Hayes full-time back to corner because Saquan Hampton (34 tackles, 7 PD) has been sometimes awesome, sometimes horrible as he has been his entire career while Kiy Hester (17 tackles) is not the same player he was a year ago. I love Hester as a player but he is not the ballhawking missile he was when healthy the previous two seasons.
Perhaps the most perplexing situation in the Chris Ash era, shouldn’t the defensive backfield be the best group on the team every year? You have a head coach who was a defensive coordinator and played safety in college alongside his college position coach in Jay Niemann, the current DC. PLUS two well respected assistants in Noah Joseph who had success coaching safeties at Indiana and Cory Robinson who did the job with corners at Toledo and Temple the last two years. Even with the defections and injuries, there are TEN healthy scholarship defensive backs on this roster who were at least three-star recruits at positions that in theory are the easiest to contribute at the college level right away.
So now what? They have shown some flashes, but are far from an elite Big Ten unit. Over the last four games Avery Young will bring it each game but maybe Kessawn Abraham or Tim Barrow should get some looks too, particularly in sub packages. Abraham particularly has been a special teams warrior as a gunner on punt coverage most notably. Jarrett Paul is also a true freshman and despite being on the initial two-deep hasn’t got much action, but maybe he can get some snaps from Wharton. Abraham and Paul have played every game so they can’t qualify for a redshirt. Speedster Chris Izien has played four games already so he will probably sit out the rest of the year. Walk-on Rani Abdulaziz has gotten some looks at safety and is a redshirt freshman himself, so perhaps he can become a success story. Overall though not nearly enough development here and huge questions for 2019. TRENDING DOWN.
K: Justin Davidovicz. Gavin Haggerty.
P: Adam Korsak. Nick Johnston.
LS: Billy Taylor. Matthew Sportelli.
H: Cole Murphy. Adam Korsak.
Tre Avery. Isaih Pacheco. Raheem Blackshear . Jon Hilliman. Hunter Hayek.
PR: Avery Young. <—> Raheem Blackshear.
In other seasons, we would be overjoyed to have this much consistency at the kicker spots. Credit Coach Okruch who for the second consecutive season in trotting out solid and at times a spectacular kicking game. Davidovicz is solid on kickoffs and just booted a clutch 52 yard field goal last week. Korsak has adjusted well to the American game and was recently added to the Ray Guy award watch list for best punter in the country. Taylor has been excellent again and Murphy has stepped in nicely at holder. The backups at these spots have not been tested on gameday, but should be improving in practice each week in the event they are eventually pressed into service. Gavin Haggerty is the only one who has seen action, missing a field goal attempt but converting on two extra points. Rutgers has not allowed any blocked kicks from what I recall and has blocked a few.
At the return spots, it’s been a revolving door. Avery Young looks good with the ball and Pacheco is decent when he can field the ball, though has had a few hiccups including dropping the ball at the 1 yard line last week on the opening kick. Tre Avery also seems to have some moves but has been held back due to injuries. The return game has not been great overall on kickoffs, but these days most of the time you should just fair catch to get the ball at the 25. Punt returns have been an adventure, where an inability to catch the ball has caused some field position flips to put an already anemic offense deep in their own territory too many times.
Coverage units have been great if not awesome. The kickoff team usually is not tested because Justin Davidovicz can usually kick a touchback virtually every time. When they do have to make a play, other than the first kick against Illinois which was called back for holding anyway, the team has been rock solid like they were in 2017. The punt coverage team gets a lot of action and lately Kessawn Abraham has been the star gunner flying down the field and preventing any sort of return. Long snapper Billy Taylor is also an above average tackler a la Pro Bowl NFLer and former Knight Clark Harris. RU opponents would be best served simply fair catching the ball every time. TRENDING UP.
Rutgers has not been hit by injury as bad as other teams around the country probably have other than at offensive line. This is a credit to Kenny Parker, but a lot of luck also. The biggest concern is a lack of development, particularly in the defensive backfield. Rutgers needs to add bodies on the defensive line which is a tall task and the linebacker play needs to be better if they want to mold their program like Northwestern or Michigan State. The defense should have been better in 2018 and loses a number of seniors so 2019 could see more regression. Of course it’s an easy mistake to think guys were as good as they are now as freshmen and not see the development when it is there. That being said, what players are entering the rotation successfully after their freshmen or redshirt freshman years that could be late bloomers? Not many and that’s a huge issue.
Which defensive group are you most disappointed in?
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