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 continue with arguably the team’s most inexperienced unit: the defensive line.
Position coach: Corey Brown
Key players lost: Kemoko Turay, Sebastian Joseph, Darnell Davis Jr., Jimmy Hogan, Myles Nash
Key players returning: Kevin Wilkins (RSr.), Jon Bateky (Sr.), Elorm Lumor (RSo.), Wil Previlon (RJr.), Julius Turner (RSo.)
Newcomers: Terrence Harris (RJr., transfer), Manny Taylor (from offensive line), four redshirt freshmen, three true freshmen in summer
What they did well in 2017: Rotate fresh legs.
New position coach Corey Brown will try to replicate what his predecessor Shane Burnham did last year: rotate as many guys as possible. Burnham acknowledged he rode his seniors too much in 2016 and changed it up in 2017 with better results from a less proven group. Rutgers was up to nine deep on the defensive front and only in the last game of the season when Michigan State set a record for time of possession did the unit look completely gassed from top to bottom.
It’s easy to say you will play a lot of players, but are enough game ready defensive linemen on the roster? This will be more difficult in 2018 as five players, three former starters, have graduated. How many guys can be in the rotation is dependent on the progress made by last year’s four freshmen, Brendan Bordner, Jaohne Duggan, Mike Tverdov, and Tijaun Mason. Also helping out is Manny Taylor (pretty athletic for an offensive tackle) who has switched sides of the ball. Jason Griggs is a walk-on who occupied a lot of space in the middle during last year’s spring game. Walk-ons have had success on the defensive line, most recently Darnell Davis.
Needs Improvement: Pass rush.
The pass rush was better than 2016, but when you hit rock bottom there is nowhere to go but up. Brown will be aided by Toby Neinas who was added to work with the outside linebackers, as generating edge pressure will likely be a combination of personnel, scheme, and unpredictability with no proven pass rusher on the roster. Brown coached Miami (OH) to a school record eight sacks against Eastern Michigan. After letting the sting of that reference wear off, this seems like a good fit.
One thing Jay Niemann did in 2017 was use true freshman linebacker C.J. Onyechi as a hybrid defensive end / linebacker. This worked in spurts especially on obvious passing downs, but when offenses were ready for it, they ran right at the undersized end even on third and medium at times. Rutgers got some pressure in third and longs, but to show improvement will need to be more disruptive in the backfield on early downs with a four man rush. They have not gotten pressure with only four consistently since 2014, which is no coincidence. Lumor seemed to have it click a little in 2017 and showed a few flashes, but without Turay on the other side may struggle. The wildcard here is whether redshirt freshman Tijaun Mason (6’5, 225) can burst onto the scene like Kemoko did. Don’t expect as many sacks out of the gate but his athletic ability will hopefully add a dimension no one else on the current roster can provide.
Changes expected in 2018
Yet another group with a new position coach, the defensive line has to replace more production than any other group on the roster other than running back and punter. Wilkins and Bateky are two of the best football players on the entire Scarlet Knights team with the ability to play inside or outside in early downs. After them, everyone else will need to do more than they did a year ago. Unlike other positions that could remain placid, there will be big changes on the line no matter what this season.
None of the three true freshmen (Jamree Kromah, Robin Jutwreten, Matthew Thomas) come in as big-time recruits so they will likely all redshirt. Jutwreten may possess the physical ability, but coming from Sweden has played a lot less organized football than everybody else. So much falls on the redshirt freshmen. Tverdov, Duggan, and Bordner all came in as guys who could end up anywhere on the line, so at least one or two of them could fill a role like Wil Previlon did a year ago, often stunting to free up other guys. Bordner like Previlon put on a lot of weight real quick, so it may just be an adjustment period. Bordner’s long reach will hopefully be used as effectively as Previlon’s, who became a fan favorite due to his ability to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage.
Way too early predictions
Inside on passing downs a rotation of Bateky, Wilkins, Previlon, and Turner should be passable. In the run game, it would be nice to add another big body, most likely Harris or even Griggs to clog up some space. Occupying blockers is a key component in the Chris Ash system to keep offensive linemen from getting free releases to the linebackers. If Harris can play first down inside, Wilkins can be unleashed to wreck havoc as a defensive end often blowing up running plays off tackle or even power plays against a tackle and guard.
Outside is a different story. The team used Myles Nash on both sides of the ball a times to add fresh legs as a defensive end so it will be critical to find guys who can play snaps on either side. Previlon did at times, but does not possess the athleticism of Kevin Wilkins, then again very few guys in the entire Big Ten do. I think the staff will try Bordner here first, but I envision Duggan as a Julius Turner 2.0 who will force his way onto the field even at end. The staff will be forced to use a linebacker; Onyechi, the bigger Rashawn Battle, or Tyshon Fogg (assuming he doesn’t start at linebacker) to generate pressure. Mason will be used only if the team is ahead and the other team absolutely has to pass.
Playing on the defensive line has the same three core concepts as the rest of the defense: assignment, alignment, technique. After that, it’s about pure willpower, a love of contact, and perhaps more than any other position in any other team sport, effort. This group needs the effort first and foremost to keep pace with the other two units on the defense who return a lot of experience and talent. The defensive line is a huge wildcard coming into 2018 and the success of the Rutgers defense ultimately falls on their ability to grow up in a hurry more than anything else.
Previously covered groups
Rutgers will sure miss this man, but good luck to Kemoko Turay at the Rutgers Pro Day after running well at the NFL combine!