Spring practice begins Tuesday March 6 for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team.
This series will review the state of each positional group in spring practice that runs throughout March into April and concludes with the spring game on April 14.
We start with arguably the team’s best unit: the Linebackers.
Position coach(es): Jay Niemann (defensive coordinator/ inside linebackers), Toby Neinas (outside linebackers)
Key players lost: Ross Douglas, Eric Margolis, Brandon Russell
Key players returning: Deonte Roberts (Sr.), Trevor Morris (Sr.), C.J. Onyechi (So.), Tyreek Maddox-Williams (RSo., coming off a medical redshirt), Rashawn Battle (RSo.), Olakunle Fatukasi (So.), Tyshon Fogg (So.), Brendan DeVera (So.)
What they did well in 2017: Mix up looks week to week.
The standard Chris Ash defensive package is a 4-3 stack. In this alignment, the strong side linebacker needs to be the most athletic player on the defense because at times he is forced to play as a third safety or even nickel cornerback against no huddle attacks. Rutgers used this look in most of their games, but in other contests, Niemann played predominantly nickel looks either as 4-2-5 or at times looking more like the old West Virginia 3-3-5. As a result, the opponent needed time to adjust in several contests and sometimes they ran out of time (i.e. Purdue). This confused top-10 Penn State early in the game as well before the Nittany Lions figured things out without the Rutgers offense being able to capitalize on the opportunity. The versatility of the true freshman Onyechi who played as a hybrid linebacker and at times even Turay allowed the position flexibility to pull this off. Expect even a few more wrinkles with so much experience back in 2018.
Needs Improvement: Covering backs out of the backfield in the pass game.
Opponents exploited this weakness, particularly against Margolis and Morris. With Rutgers outplaying top-10 Washington, the Huskies flipped the momentum entirely with a series of pass completions to their running backs. Though the Knights contained Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley, other teams were able to replicate the Huskies success. Margolis was used in expected run situations, but in obvious passing downs was replaced by Ross Douglas or even an extra defensive back to try to minimize this risk. Both players have graduated and will need to be replaced in the lineup, possibly by Maddox-Williams who unexpectedly manned the post quite well as a true freshman in 2016, before missing the 2017 season due to injury.
Malik Dixon (RJr.) transferred into the program and will see opportunity at slot corner and therefore at times a hybrid strong side linebacker. Syhiem Simmons (RFr.) is the most similar to Douglas from a physical standpoint and is a dark horse to jump over people on the depth chart. None of the incoming scholarship freshmen are expected to play linebacker after the team brought in five a season ago. Zihir Lacewell and Daevon Robinson, possibly the two best recruits in the 2018 recruiting class, both currently project best as linebackers at the college level but will begin their careers on offense this summer for a unit that desperately needs playmakers.
Of course if the defensive line can get a rush that gets to the quarterback before the back can leak out OR requires a back to stay in for protection, this will be less of a concern. Otherwise, it could be groundhog day all over again for Rutgers.
Changes expected in 2018
Niemann demonstrated an ability to beat teams with scheme in third down packages after playing pretty basic on first and second. With Turay having graduated, Niemann will likely be forced to find a spot for one of his more explosive athletes (perhaps Fatukasi) to be a disruptive playmaker off the edge. Neinas will be key in this evaluation, having been added as the 10th on field position coach, so it will be interesting to see what he can add to the group.
Roberts and Morris are two-year starters, but both are undersized compared to Fogg, Battle, and the natural size of Maddox-Williams. All three have demonstrated good instincts, but lack the pure foot speed of Roberts and Morris. The Ash staff is committed to finding playing time (though not forcing them to start a la Illinois) for the talented younger players in the program, so expect some role beyond simply special teams for the sophomores. If they excel, they could take snaps from the seniors.
Way too early predictions
As much as Morris and Roberts are steady, they are more like glorified strong safeties who have had to put on weight in their careers to hold up in the Big Ten and been remarkably durable. Morris for all the criticism continues to pile up the tackles and has no intention of vacating his starting spot. Roberts is a team captain who was the leader of the defense in every way, so someone will really have to excel to overtake them as a starter. By season’s end, I have a feeling one of them will have a reduced role because someone else can’t be kept off the field due to their athletic playmaking. Fatukasi is already a fan favorite with his special teams hits, so the next logical step for him would be defensive reps.
Maddox-Williams returns to a starting position somewhere in the lineup. Several of the other players have come a long way in their careers, but Maddox-Williams has instincts you just can’t teach. It seems that he or Fogg (possibly even Battle) simply need to be on the field because of their size and talent.
Going into spring, this group does not have major question marks. They have established veterans who have produced at the college level with a number of highly regarded recruits from the 2017 class behind them who should push for reps. The coaching staff has shown an ability to utilize the players’ strengths and turn what was a “mess” in spring 2016 into a solid unit in less than 18 months. The next step is finding a way to make the group one of the elite units in the Big Ten which may be dependent on the play of other position groups.
Once I was sure the opponent was not seriously injured, I watched this clip several times from Fatukasi: