We conclude a series of positional previews with the team’s strongest unit. When Chris Ash and Jay Niemann arrived, they described the linebacker situation as “a mess”, but the Scarlet Knights turned a weakness into a strength. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach(es): Jay Niemann (defensive coordinator/ inside linebackers, 3rd season), Toby Neinas (outside linebackers, 1st season)
Key players lost: Ross Douglas, Eric Margolis, Brandon Russell, Brendan DeVera
Key players returning: Deonte Roberts (Sr.), Trevor Morris (Sr.), Tyreek Maddox-Williams (RSo., coming off a medical redshirt), Rashawn Battle (RSo.), Olakunle Fatukasi (So.), Tyshon Fogg (So.)
Newcomers: Elijah Barnwell (RFr. - from running back)
Question 1: Can they keep offenses guessing?
Last year Jay Niemann came into almost every game with a unique game plan. A few times it worked almost to perfection (Purdue, Maryland, Illinois, Eastern Michigan), and most times it kept opponents off balance initially (Washington, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan) until they eventually figured it out as Rutgers’s offense sputtered in neutral. So perhaps it’s a good sign that it took until the season’s final two games for opponents to start fast against Rutgers.
To regain the element of surprise, Niemann and co. will need to add even more wrinkles in 2018 and speculation abounds that it will be some 3-4 looks. At times last year, Rutgers looked more like a 3-4 team (Purdue game the best example), but they were not playing with four true linebackers on the field. Often Ross Douglas was in there as more of a safety playing linebacker. As the SAM linebacker continues to evolve into more of a big safety, Rutgers may elect to play a safety like Kiy Hester in Douglas’s old spot a good percentage of the time. Or they could flip the deck and use the now healthy Tyreek Maddox-Williams at the spot he occupied in 2016 and go with a fourth linebacker in place of the weak-side defensive end, perhaps Tyshon Fogg. With experience and athleticism at his disposal, expect Niemann to try all of the above in practice and show a ton of different looks in games just to make offenses think Rutgers could employ them all.
Question 2: Can they cover a running back wheel route?
Rutgers had so much faith in their secondary last season, they hoped for coverage sacks that did not come often enough. With a lack of pressure, opposing backs did not need to block and could get into the flat or even deep down the sideline. Smart opposing coaches chose to isolate speedy backs against weak-side linebacker Trevor Morris which caused the fan base to clamor for Fogg more than once even though Morris is Rutgers top returning player according to Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately, Rutgers doesn’t have a Khaseem Greene on their current roster (not Fogg yet), so eventually every running back will get open against a linebacker if there’s enough time. Especially when the edict for the DBs is never to get beaten over the top.
After losing the best outside and best inside rusher from 2017, there’s no reason to expect improvement in this area without schematic changes. Throw in that Ross Douglas often prevented opposing coaches from sending backs to his side and the Scarlet Knights have a big hill to climb. It’s unfair to pick on Morris as fans for the aforementioned reasons, but Niemann needs to come up with a way to prevent opposing coaches from doing it.
Question 3: What’s new?
The possibility of playing four true linebackers rather than a hybrid Jack is definitely new, something we may have not seen explicitly on the banks since Dennis Creehan arrived 20 years ago. Adding Toby Neinas to coach the outside linebackers should make this easier. Though there is only one true freshmen scholarship player even listed at linebacker initially, Fogg and the big hitting Olakunle Fatukasi begin their second training camp. Rashawn Battle has another year under his belt, but all the above will have a tough time beating out Deonte Roberts and Morris who have done nothing to lose their jobs, just pile up tackles. Partially for that reason, the #2 and #3 best prospects in the 2018 class, Daevon Robinson and Zihir Lacewell, will get their first crack on offense.
Depth took a major hit in the offseason with the ongoing credit card investigation as DeVera was dismissed from the team, Syhiem Simmons elected to transfer, and Malik Dixon remains suspended indefinitely. Competition for two-deep spots is lessened with the attrition, but Niemann has moved true freshman Jennings to the strong-side linebacker spot and redshirt Freshman Elijah Barnwell from running back to strong/weakside. To increase training camp battles, Niemann has said the team won’t be as strict with players being locked at particular positions, but he will instead be looking at who with be the 4th linebacker since most players have now been in the same system for multiple years and should know all the positions.
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
The defensive line occupies a lot of blockers in a commonly used two-gap scheme, freeing up the linebackers to make plays. Morris improves in pass coverage and Maddox-Williams is even better than he was before the injury. One of the younger linebackers is so impressive he simply can’t be kept off the field despite steady play of the veterans in front of him.
Fogg gets action only out of necessity because either Roberts or Morris gets injured. Fans don’t realize what they had in the lofty tackle totals put up by the seniors over the past two seasons. Battle isn’t fast enough, Fatukasi isn’t big enough, and Maddox-Williams is banged up again. Opponents are able to run the ball against the 30 front so Rutgers needs to play four large defensive linemen to contain the run game, leaving them vulnerable to mismatches in the passing game. The lack of depth bites Rutgers in a close game.
Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts hold onto their starting positions and are as steady as they have been the past two seasons. Maddox-Williams is used on first and second down but replaced by a safety on third downs. Fogg or Fatukasi improves enough to show flashes on third down pass rush, but not enough to be true three down impact players quite yet. Battle is forced to play Mike linebacker and doesn’t get as many chances at the Jack spot.
Players listed on the current roster
#3 Olakunle Fatukasi (6’1”, 228 lbs.) Sophomore
Fatukasi was a hit on special teams as a true freshman. One of his hits during the Maryland game went viral on a kickoff, a surprise to no one who watched his high school film. His brother was drafted by the New York Jets and hopefully that brings out more of the competitor everyone expects to see. If Rutgers is trailing and opponents are content to run the ball, he should get a look to try and force some turnovers.
#5 Trevor Morris (6’1”, 228 lbs.) Senior
Trevor Morris followed Roberts’s lead from a year ago and changed his jersey to a single digit. During his career he has accomplished more than most people thought he would, leading the team in tackles two years in a row. He should be fully recovered from the elbow injury that kept him out of the spring game and battle to keep his job.
#6 Deonte Roberts (6’1”, 235 lbs.) Senior
Roberts was the leader of the defense in 2017 and will be from the middle linebacker spot again in 2018 as a senior. He recently represented the Scarlet Knights at Big Ten media day and was voted captain by his teammates for a second straight season. He should do more of what he did in 2017. Like Morris, fans will miss him when he’s gone whether they realize it now or not.
#8 Tyshon Fogg (6’1”, 240 lbs.) Sophomore
The heralded four-star recruit from Maryland got some extra reps in spring when Morris was injured and performed well, but not off the charts. He has size and upside that hasn’t been seen since Quentin Gause, maybe longer on the banks. If he can truly become a difference maker, the linebackers will be raised to an elite level of play.
#20 Elijah Barnwell (5’11”, 200 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Barnwell came over from running back. The team needs depth particularly at middle linebacker and weak side backer where only four scholarship players inhabit those two spots at the moment. Elijah was the ultimate competitor and winner in high school at Piscataway and has slimmed down to 200 pounds. He is a wildcard in this group.
#42 Izaia Bullock (5’10”, 213 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
The first walk-on listed, Bullock intrigues me because he was a cornerback in high school, so Niemann and Neinas are probably trying to mold him into the strong-side coverage linebacker spot. He tackled with some attitude in high school, too.
#44 Tyreek Maddox-Williams (6’0”, 220 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Maddox-Williams was all over the backfield during the spring game. He seems back to full strength and is leaner than he was in the past which should help at the strong-side linebacker spot, the position Chris Ash says requires the best athlete on the defense. If he can take another step from where he was a true freshman in 2016, Rutgers will have one of the better starting linebacker groups in the Big Ten.
#55 Austin Rosa (5’10”, 223 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
The second walk-on listed here, Rosa will be needed on special teams. Like Bullock he is more athletic than you’d think and is just one injury away from the two-deep.
#56 Rashawn Battle (6’1”, 232 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Coach Niemann had some positive things to say about Battle being under the radar, which is important considering he is the team’s backup Mike linebacker with no other experienced players at the position after Roberts. Battle has shown glimpses of impressive natural instincts plus surprising agility for his size.
#13 Deion Jennings (6’0”, 208 lbs.)
Jennings has moved to the strong-side linebacker spot out of necessity when he is more of a safety build at this point. Zihir Lacewell and Daevon Robinson may end up here, but for now remain as receivers.
#43 Chike Nwankwo (6’1”, 225 lbs.) Fr., #31 Johnny Yorey (5’10”, 215 lbs.) Fr.
Nwankwo is another player from Bridgewater-Raritan. Yorey is from Warren, NJ but played at St. Peter’s Prep.
Long term outlook: Since Greg Schiano left, linebacker has been a position that has swayed to opposite extremes in its depth. This season is the first time in a decade that linebacker seems to have roughly the right number of scholarship players with a mix of youth, experience, and upside. The team is set in 2018, but questions abound for the following seasons. If you asked six months ago, this group would have looked as positioned as any, especially with the five players brought in the 2017 recruiting class. Since then Onyechi and Dixon have been suspended, DeVera and Simmons are no longer with the team, so Fatukasi and Fogg have a heavy load. They will be the backup outside linebackers and probably need to play coverage units as well.
Jay Niemann seems like he knows what he’s doing, so expect an average at worst unit next season even after the departures of Morris and Roberts. The 2019 class has plenty of back seven players and if need be, Lacewell and Robinson could come over to defense assuming they are not both stud wideouts as true freshmen. Of any position group, it’s a toss up with the defensive backs on which has the most proven talent. The linebackers have more potential stars waiting in the wings which is how they ended up at number one position group in my preview series heading into the season just eleven days away!
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