The leader of the Rutgers defensive line has seen and done a lot in his career on the banks. After sitting out his first year as a redshirt, Kevin Wilkins hasn’t missed a game in three seasons. He has played every position on the line at some point in his career, including starting at nose tackle and defensive end. His versatility and experience will be a major asset this season, as Wilkins is expected to move along the line in various fronts for defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. For Wilkins, his selfless attitude sets a positive example for a very young group of players behind him on the defensive line. He embraces the challenge of playing multiple positions along the line that the coaches ask of him.
“That just shows they have trust in me, in my ability to think on the fly, to do what I’m supposed to do at a high level playing all of those positions,” said Wilkins. “I guess they feel what ever position they put me in, it is to help the team and that’s all I’m going to do. Whatever position they put me at, I’m going to play where I need to be.”
Wilkins and fellow senior Jon Bateky, will serve as the anchors of the line this season. Head coach Chris Ash has said multiple times during training camp that it’s vital for them to develop depth along the defensive line this season. While Julius Turner, Elorm Lumor and Willington Previlon gained valuable experience last year, Rutgers needs some first-time players to step up behind them as well. When I asked Wilkins who of the young players has impressed him the most, he wasted little time in answering the question.
“Mike Tverdov has a lot of oomph to him,” stated Wilkins. “He is a passionate kid. He loves the game of football. He’s raw, very talented kid. He’s aggressive. I like where he is at, right now.”
The value that Wilkins and the other veterans bring to the meeting room is key in the younger players development and he said Tverdov is taking advantage of that. “He sits next to me in the meeting room, so we are always chatting it up, trying to figure out how to get better at certain things.” Wilkins continued, “He is a young guy and he hasn’t played in a college game yet, so he picks my brain, picks Jon Bateky’s brain, picks Julius Turner’s brain. Julius played a lot last year. Mike’s one of those guys that sticks out a lot and he just had his black stripe taken off Saturday, so the coaches are recognizing him as a guy that is going to help us do some special things on the field this year.”
Being that it is the final season for Wilkins, he feels like he and the rest of the veterans prepared very well heading into their last campaign at Rutgers. “I feel pretty good heading into the season. We had a great winter season. We had a great summer session. I’ve been talking to a lot of people and they’ve noticed too,” in talking about where the team appears to be at the moment.
Wilkins explained, “We have a lot of guys that are hungry. You would think in a program where there are older guys and it’s their last year, they probably aren’t as hungry because they’ve done this before, the grind is the grind. Not here. We jumped up a notch to make sure that we made the standard a lot higher than it’s been in previous years to make guys hungrier.”
Wilkins made it clear it’s been contagious in a positive way within the team and it has helped get them off to a good start since training camp began almost two weeks ago. “A lot of guys are hungry and things are looking really good from my standpoint so far. Football wise, we’ve been going out in camp and putting days together, going out there and working,” said Wilkins. He continued, “You can see we are out there having fun, flying around, making sure everyone is feeling good before we go out there with great mindsets. It’s great to see that and is really exciting.”
Rutgers has arguably the most experienced and talent group on the defensive side of the ball entering this season since the vaunted 2012 defense. With fellow seniors Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris at linebacker, as well as a deep secondary that includes Blessuan Austin, Isaiah Wharton, Saquan Hampton, and Kiy Hester all in their last year of eligibility, the time is now for them to make this season count.
“I’ve been telling a bunch of guys in my class that came in together in 2014, we were the first class that was recruited for the Big Ten, so let’s make it a big statement year,” explained Wilkins. “I think everyone who is a competitor feels as though that this is a statement year for us. We are the first class in Rutgers history that was recruited to play (their entire careers) in the Big Ten. We are all seniors this year, so it’s going to show.” When I asked Wilkins if the goal was leave a lasting mark on their legacy as a class by having a top tier defense this season, he said “Absolutely!”
While the defensive line is a position of concern based on depth and experience entering this year, it’s led by a player who has seen and done it all before even playing a down in his senior season. Wilkins has legitimate NFL potential, but for Rutgers’s sake, there is still one more chance for him to do even more at the college level this season. He and the rest of his senior teammates on the defensive end plan to leave it all out on the field in their last go around this season, which could result in the best defense Rutgers has had in years.