Spring practice begins Friday March 8 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 13.
We start with the group seeing the biggest turnover: the Linebackers.
Position coach(es): Andy Buh (defensive coordinator/ inside linebackers), Vince Okruch (outside linebackers)
Key players lost: Deonte Roberts, Trevor Morris
Key players returning: Tyreek Maddox-Williams (RJr.), Rashawn Battle (RJr.), Olakunle Fatukasi (Jr.), Tyshon Fogg (Jr.), Nihym Anderson (R-Fr.), Elijah Barnwell (RSo.), Deion Jennings (RFr.)
Newcomers: Drew Singleton (transfer from Michigan), Mohamed Toure (Fr. early enrollee) three freshmen in summer.
What they did well in 2018: Tackle in the second half of the season.
Rutgers lost several winnable games in the first half of 2018 due to poor tackling, especially from experienced veterans including those at linebacker. Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann did not seem to be the reason (did he teach tackling worse than he did in 2017), but once Chris Ash took more initiative the group improved tremendously. The sloppy plays and lack of energy on display, particularly in the run game, disappeared in near upsets of B1G West champion Northwestern, perennial power Wisconsin, and bowl bound Michigan State. This change was fueled in part by more playing time, other than just special teams duty, for backups Rashawn Battle, Olakunle Fatukasi, and Tyshon Fogg. Off the three, Fogg was the most productive (48 tackles) which comes as no surprise considering he joined Rutgers as a four-star recruit and flashed as a freshman in 2017. Tyshon simply has that sturdiness that even when he is not fully on balance, he can halt a ball carrier’s progress long enough for the cavalry to arrive.
Andy Buh replaces Niemann as defensive coordinator, having joined RU from division rival Maryland where he held the same post. Buh and Ash coached together at Wisconsin, so the logic would be that they have some of the same defensive philosophies. That appears one of the reasons Buh was brought in was because the learning coach between defensive coordinator and head coach will be less steep. Rutgers needs to win games in 2019 so reducing the time needed to get up to speed is paramount. Tackling should not be a problem, but we didn’t think it would be a year ago either. Ensuring a rotation of at least four or five is critical to keeping fresh legs.
Needs Improvement: Making big plays.
Maddox-Williams, Morris, and Roberts piled up the tackles at times, but not many were for loss and surely not sacks. Morris’s 1.5 sacks (5 hurries) were the only provided by the linebackers toward RU’s paltry 16 as a team for the whole year. Niemann was risk averse other than on 3rd down, but Rutgers needs more from their linebackers in terms of QB pressure. Fatukasi generated two hurries in limited time and could be an X factor. I was criticized for saying Buh, who doesn’t blitz often, was still more so than Niemann and am sticking to that claim.
Rutgers improved in coverage from the linebacker spot as the season progressed in addition to tackling and was not bludgeoned by running backs. Weak side linebacker Morris was picked on early in the season like he was in 2017, but was significantly more effective. He managed eight pass break ups and the linebacker’s only interception of the season. He returned it for 31 yards against Michigan State, but that was forgotten when he dropped what would have been his second of the game late in the fourth quarter that would have all but iced RU’s first Big Ten victory of the season.
In the standard Chris Ash defensive package, 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. Tyreek Maddox-Williams returned from injury and was successful in starting all 12 contests adding 48 tackles including four for loss. He is not a big playmaker though, so Fogg, Fatukasi, or transfer Drew Singleton (if eligible) will need to be the difference makers.
Changes expected in 2019
With a coaching staff on the hot seat it would have been tough to secure another Power Five experienced coach to come in, so getting Buh has to be considered somewhat lucky. He’s not renowned as an up and coming superstar, but has a lot of experience and is familiar with Big Ten opponents. Alongside him, Coach Vince Okruch comes over from the offensive side to help with the outside linebackers. Okruch is still in charge of the special teams, so he has plenty of familiarity with the linebackers because they participate on virtually all the special teams units.
The team needs to decide what direction they want to go in with their alignment. The biggest question mark on defense heading into the 2019 season is whether Michigan transfer and former #1 recruit in New Jersey Drew Singleton, will be eligible. Singleton was in the mix for a starting position in training camp with the Wolverines last year but elected to leave the team early in the year when he was left off the two-deep. Drew has incredible talent as evidenced by his recruiting ranking and the fact that he was battling for playing time on possibly the nation’s best defense, surely the best in the Big Ten last fall. If Singleton is granted eligibility (no timetable for that) he could slot into any of the three linebacker spots, but his speed makes him most likely to end up on the weak side.
Maddox-Williams does not possess the elite speed to cover down the field, but has enough quickness is short areas. He steadiness could be a better fit at the middle linebacker position, which also would keep him on the field on all three downs. That said, the team may prefer leaving him on the strong-side for continuity and utilize Fogg in the middle whether or not Singleton is eligible. That would mean Fatukasi would end up on the two-deep at weak side backer, probably his best spot.
Nihym Anderson transferred from Maryland and got into games while still maintaining redshirt status. He is on the bigger side for a modern day linebacker, and could end up at strong, middle, or even defensive end. Rashawn Battle has his most experience at middle linebacker and is a pretty big guy in the center of a defense, too. Mohamed Toure is enrolling early and was one of the higher rated recruits in the 2019 class, he already has Big Ten size for special teams, but may need some time for defensive assignments. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Malik Dixon has returned from suspension stemming from the credit card scheme, and is a natural fit as a hybrid strong-side backer / nickelback. Dixon and the other players are allowed to re-join the team on a probationary basis.
If the freshman that arrive in summer are ready to contribute, Deion Jennings (safety) and Elijah Barnwell (running back), may not be needed for depth at the position again. Zihir Lacewell and Daevon Robinson, possibly the two best recruits in the 2018 recruiting class, remain on the offensive side of the ball.
Way too early predictions
As much as Morris and Roberts were steady, they at times were more like glorified strong safeties that were remarkably durable. Maddox-Williams returned to a starting position alongside the duo and showed Big Ten level talent despite coming off injury.
Going into spring and possibly even fall, this group’s major question mark is whether Drew Singleton will be eligible or not. Regardless, this group has as much talent as any position group at Rutgers and therefore more options.
I’m going to make the bold prediction that Singleton will be eligible (more likely than the other transfers) and by virtue of knowing in advance, play on the strong-side. That shifts Maddox-Williams to the middle and places Fogg on the weak-side where he will lead the team in tackles. As the season progresses and weather gets colder, Anderson will be needed especially if opponents are trying to run down the clock. Of the freshmen, Zukudo Igwenagu is simply too athletic not to get some opportunity, even without enrolling early.