Fall practice starts Friday August 3 for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team. We begin a series of positional previews, working our way from the perceived weakest to strongest units that will be published every few days. First up is the team’s most inexperienced unit: the defensive line. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach: Corey Brown (1st season)
Key players lost: Kemoko Turay (NFL 2nd round draft pick - IND) Sebastian Joseph (NFL 6th round draft pick - LAR), Darnell Davis Jr., Jimmy Hogan, Myles Nash
Key players returning: Kevin Wilkins (RSr.), Jon Bateky (Sr.), Elorm Lumor (RSo.), Willington Previlon (RJr.), Julius Turner (RSo.), C.J. Onyechi (So.)
Newcomers: Manny Taylor (RJr.), Brendan Bordner (RFr.), Jaohne Duggan (RFr.), Tijaun Mason (RFr.), three true freshmen
Question 1: Can they rotate fresh legs as well as they did in 2017?
This is the biggest question for Rutgers on the defensive side of the ball. Shane Burnham was able to learn from his experience the previous year, but new position coach Corey Brown inherits a tougher task. The team returns two starters, Kevin Wilkins and Jon Bateky, that may be more complete players than Turay and Joseph (both drafted) and not want to leave the field. Will Previlon, Julius Turner, Elorm Lumor, and C.J. Onyechi had their moments in their first Big Ten action, but need to make significant strides to be true difference makers. After those six student-athletes, no one with any experience on the defensive line exists on the roster.
So to go eight or nine deep, other players need to get up to speed quickly. Last year’s four true freshmen, Brendan Bordner, Jaohne Duggan, Mike Tverdov, and Tijaun Mason will all get a good long look at manning various 3, 5, 7, and 9-technique positions. How they do in camp could dramatically impact the scheme Defensive Coordinator Jay Niemann elects to employ this fall. Regardless of alignment, Rutgers really could use another big body in the middle. Manny Taylor has switched sides of the ball and walk-on Jason Griggs also will get a shot to get reps at nose tackle, especially in short-yardage situations.
Question 2: Can they generate a pass rush?
The pass rush despite having second round NFL Draft pick Kemoko Turay rarely wreaked major havoc on opponents other than Illinois. Part of that was by design as Jay Niemann used the threat of Turay coming from a variety of spots in the formation to cause opponents to have offensive linemen often blocking no one as Rutgers dropped eight into coverage. Niemann rarely brought pressure on first and second down, relying for better or worse on individual efforts to disrupt early down long balls. If that remains the plan, Mason, Lumor, or even Tverdov will probably need to show dramatic improvement.
With Turay now lining up for the Indianapolis Colts, speculation abounds that Rutgers will look for ways to get more of its deep linebacking corps on the field at the same time. Toby Neinas will work with the outside linebackers, the new 10th on field coach allowed by the NCAA in 2018. He probably will use C.J. Onyechi who proved effective in small doses, and Lumor who may be a better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker than 4-3 defensive end. In addition, other linebackers may get looks at what they can do as blitzers more than in prior seasons.
Question 3: What’s new?
Tverdov, Duggan, and Bordner all came in as long defensive end types who could end up anywhere on the line. Whether or not they reach their final destinations in 2018, at least one of them really needs to be ready to play strong-side defensive end. Kevin Wilkins is slightly out of position at that spot and only plays there because he has the quickness and can create mismatches with his size. The defensive line under a new coach has to replace more production than every group but the kicking units and running back, but the true freshmen probably are a year away so development within is paramount.
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
The Rutgers offense is able to score some points so other Big Ten teams simply can’t play to wear down the Scarlet Knights in the run game. Somebody steps up as an additional run stuffer. Defensive Coordinator Jay Niemann is able to devise a plan that utilizes individual player strengths that doubles as a plan to get rest for the top guys. A solid pass rush comes from every possible source including blitzing linebackers, more collapsing of the pocket, and some individual improvement especially of the redshirt freshmen.
If Bateky or Wilkins goes down, they are in deep trouble. The team struggles to make so many adjustments and needs to do what the offense did in 2017 halfway through the season, get back to basics. The 2018 schedule is backloaded in a big way, so that likely means the season has already gone down in flames. Developing a pass rush isn’t even a problem because opponents are never forced to throw the ball. A lack of size up front gets worn down easily and we see too many 2016 edition garbage time fourth quarters.
Inside, a rotation of Bateky, Wilkins, Previlon, and Turner should be servicable and the staff will be able to find one more player to rotate at the three primary defensive line positions. Somebody regardless of position will develop into a decent enough pass rusher that in obvious passing situations, he will require a double team thus freeing up the rest of the defensive front.
Players listed on the current roster
#7 Elorm Lumor (6’3”, 245 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Lumor got every opportunity to be a disruptive force opposite Kemoko Turay, but never really seized the opportunity. He had 17 tackles, including 1.5 for loss (one sack) and seems to possess enough athleticism to be a good pass rusher. He doesn’t play with a psychotic mentality though, so to make dramatic improvement, he might just needs to develop a mindset to “go nuts” out on the field. No one else on the roster has as easy a path to being a difference maker nor could be a bigger wildcard on defense.
#26 C.J. Onyechi (6’0”, 231 lbs.)
Onyechi was the #2 most impactful member of the 2017 recruiting class last fall. His natural position is really as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he did fine as a weak-side defensive end as a true freshman. C.J. should remain a versatile special teams performer who starts out rotating with Lumor as a pass rusher from the weak side end position. His athleticism allows him to drop back in coverage at times as well. Selfishly, I’d love to see him carry the ball on offense, but that’s probably a stretch.
#50 Julius Turner (6’0”, 282 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Turner had a great spring 2017 camp and was a regular member of the defensive line rotation all season. His contributions were extra important as Sebastian Joseph was slowed by a broken hand during the middle of the season. Julius’s season ended on a slightly sour note as Coach Ash sent him into the locker room before a late season game had ended. His role in 2018 as the team’s only real nose tackle is as important as any other position on the field outside of quarterback.
#53 Brandon Bordner (6’4”, 280 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Bordner enrolled early in spring 2017 after Rutgers somewhat surprisingly secured his services. It seemed he put on too much weight too quickly and ultimately did not see the field as a true freshman. He has the length to be a 5-technique so he might benefit more than any other player if Rutgers adjusts to more 30 fronts. Brandon’s offer list out of Ohio was huge and the staff really could get a lot of mileage out of a success story from him if they want to build an Ohio pipeline.
#57 Jaohne Duggan (6’1”, 292 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Duggan came out of nowhere to get an offer and join the Scarlet Knights. He is in the Julius Turner physical mold but probably has a slightly higher center of gravity. He seemed to project as a 3-technique or inside 4-technique but without much press recently, it will be interesting to see what he looks like this fall. Duggan in previous camps showed tremendous fight in the trenches and hopefully that mentality is contagious.
#72 Manny Taylor (6’5”, 300 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
With the logjam on the offensive line, Manny moved over to the defensive side of the ball in spring camp. When a guy hasn’t played much organized football, defensive line is often a logical destination because it’s more about will than anything else. More often you see defensive players move to offense, but Taylor possessed above average athleticism for an offensive tackle so he should be ok physically on defense. If he can make strides as a nose guard that would add a big body to clog up the middle.
#91 Tijaun Mason (6’5”, 225 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Mason was lauded as having an upside of Kemoko Turay. Tijaun was injured last fall so hopefully he still does. More likely it will take him some time to get strong enough to win in the run game, but his length makes him an attractive possibility at edge rusher. Even without polish, if he can show some flash, the team’s biggest weakness may not look quite so glaring.
#93 Jason Griggs (6’1”, 282 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
How Griggs is only listed at 282 is crazy, he looks a lot bigger than that. Jason was less noticeable in the 2018 spring game then the year before, but who wasn’t with Melton and Sitkowski getting so much buzz. The team needs space eaters and even if it takes until 2019 he could have a shot at time despite being a walk-on from Highland Park.
#95 Jon Bateky (6’3”, 300 lbs.) Senior
Jon was one of only two players Chris Ash mentioned as surely starting in 2018 which is high praise considering the number of other returning starters. Many fans were shocked when Jon played as a true freshman and he has continued to get better ever since. Less hyped than the other three starters on the line in 2017, his injury really hurt the team perhaps more than any other last fall. It’s always nice to have contributors from the state of Maryland and he will be missed when his eligibility has been extinguished.
#96 Willington Previlon (6’5”, 290 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Previlon surprised many by seemingly coming out of nowhere to knock down a few passes starting with the game against Washington. The type of New Jersey top 40 player that Rutgers needs to lock down to maintain Big Ten depth, Previlon has not gotten much buzz heading into the 2018 campaign. The Orange native will be counted on to provide depth behind Wilkins and Bateky, then expected to fill one of their starting roles in 2019.
#97 Mike Tverdov (6’4”, 252 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Mike Tverdov had a strong summer camp in 2017 but missed the entire season due to injury. In the mold of his older brother Pete who seemed to line up everywhere on the line, Mike could be a huge boon to a pass rush in need of a spark. He should be a fan favorite even in limited action.
#99 Kevin Wilkins (6’2’, 306 lbs.) Redshirt Senior
Wilkins could make a case for being the best player on the Rutgers defense in 2017. He has above average quickness despite a 300 pound frame and is a nightmare in hand to hand combat due to his wrestling background. His position in the NFL is probably as a 3-technique but at Rutgers he played more of a 6-technique in 2017. Kevin’s versatility is key to what the defensive line can do in 2018 and if he keeps working could find himself in the NFL next season.
Matthew Thomas (6’3”, 237 lbs.), Robin Jutwreten (6’4”, 235 lbs.), Jamree Kromah (6’3”, 246 lbs.)
None of the three true freshmen come as major recruits so they will likely all redshirt. Thomas played at Midwood in Brooklyn and flew mostly under the radar as a prospect. Jutwreten looks like a pretty good overall athlete, but probably needs more time playing American Football before he’s ready. Kromah was listed by 247 composite as the lowest rated recruit in the class other than punter Adam Korsak, but there are rumors that he is a true sleeper, maybe the most ready to play this year of the three. There’s playing time to be had, so if any of them impresses quickly, he could be in the rotation from Week 1.
Long term outlook: With three incoming defensive linemen, there is no reason to sound an alarm from a numbers perspective. The bigger issue is in the intermediate term because Rutgers is relying heavily on guys who probably project best as inside four or five-technique players, not the current primary alignment. There are enough guys with body types to fit as 3-4 tackles, so a gradual shift to a mid-2000s Pittsburgh Steeler type defense (eagle front) is probably in the works because Rutgers younger defensive linemen have plenty of length.
If Ash and Niemann do that though, it’s critical to have two or three guys who can play the nose. After Turner, there is no one else who is truly a nose guard. If Turner goes down, Wilkins or Bateky will can man Sebastian Joseph’s old post in 2018, but that leaves a huge hole in 2019 and beyond unless Duggan can grow into it. It takes size, quickness, and a little craziness to line up in the middle of everything on every down.
For Rutgers to be an adequate power five, fringe bowl team, being solid but unspectacular on the defensive line may be good enough. To beat top-tier programs though, they will need to do something this staff has not yet done on the banks, develop a pass rusher. We may not see another Kemoko Turay in a Scarlet Knights uniform for twenty or thirty years, but hopefully we can see a Val Barnaby or Jamaal Westerman type again soon.