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2019 Rutgers Football Position Review: Defensive Line

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Wilkins and Bateky are gone, team needs players to make major strides.

Texas State v Rutgers
Tverdov contributed from day one.
Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Spring practice begins today, Friday March 8 for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team. We wrote about key things to look for during this spring camp here.

This series reviews 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 continue with arguably the team’s most inexperienced unit (again): the defensive line.

Position coach: Corey Brown

Key players lost: Kevin Wilkins, Jon Bateky

Key players returning: Elorm Lumor (RJr.), Willington Previlon (RSr.), Julius Turner (RJr.), Mike Tverdov (RSo.), Brandon Bordner (RSo.), Jaohne Duggan (RSo.), Tijaun Mason (RSo.), Robin Jutwreten (RFr.), Jamree Kromah (RFr.), Manny Taylor (RSr.), Matt Thomas (RFr.), CJ Onyechi (Jr.),

Newcomers: Micah Clark (RSo. - from offense), Malachi Burby (Fr. early enrollee), two more true freshmen in summer

What they did well in 2018: Occupy blockers.

Occupying blockers is a key component of the Chris Ash system to keep offensive linemen from getting free releases to the linebackers. Playing a 4-3 stack intends to allow the linebackers to react and flow downhill to the ballcarrier with minimal inhibition if possible from chipping linemen, tight ends, and fullbacks. If a defensive lineman can occupy two offensive lineman, great. If he can take on two offensive lineman AND hold his spot or “sit down,” even better, because that clogs up the entire area, forcing running backs to go around it regardless of the play design.

In his first season, position coach Corey Brown inherited possibly the two best players on Rutgers’s entire team in Kevin Wilkins and Jon Bateky. Both have departed and could very well play on Sundays, but beyond them it was mostly a play the hot hand situation. Regardless of who else was in the game, on run plays they were mostly asked to hold their ground. When Rutgers was rotating fresh legs and the RU offense could possess the ball at all, this worked pretty well. Early in the season, the back seven were offenders of poor tackling at times which led to big plays, but once that was cleaned up the front did a decent job battling in the trenches.

Needs Improvement: Interior disruption.

Rutgers did a serviceable job of controlling the middle until late in games when they were completely worn out and the opposition was just pounding the ball up the middle to kill the clock. Once that happened in 4th quarters against Wisconsin and Northwestern, the top B1G West programs abandoned the pass and focused all their efforts in running up the middle. Once they were gassed, Rutgers had no answers and running backs were getting three or four yards upfield without being touched because the RU line was being blown off the ball.

The bigger someone is, the more he can use strength and anchor his weight to fight pressure. The only returning rotational player close to 300 lb. is 5th year senior Willington Previlon (6’5”, 295 lbs.). Fellow classmate Manny Taylor (6’5”, 310 lbs.) was moved over from offense last year to clog up some space, but spent most of his time on the field goal units. A similar position change is expected with former top recruit Micah Clark heading into this offseason. Clark is listed at 6’4”, 300 lbs., but did most of his damage in high school much closer to 250 pounds, so it will be interesting to see what playing weight is most effective for him and the team. If he can develop quickly at an inside spot, it’s a game changer for this line and possibly the defense at large. Julius Turner (34 tackles, 3 TFL) is a nice player in spurts, but at only 282 lbs. is not an every down, all game player at nose guard.

The four now redshirt sophomores, Brendan Bordner, Jaohne Duggan, Mike Tverdov, and Tijaun Mason were expected to contribute if RU could pull off a deep rotation. Mason went down to season-ending injury in the very first game, but Tverdov filled in admirably across from Elorm Lumor. Both Lumor and Tverdov made their share of plays on the outside, often showcasing talent to win one-on-one battles and make plays against the run and the pass. If they can be even better to funnel the ball into the middle by setting the edge, it will reduce the risk of missed tackles leading to big gains on the perimeter and improve the effectiveness of players like Duggan and Turner who possess good short-area quickness. Bordner, who Rutgers won several recruiting battles for, is a little bigger version of Tverdov and could play his way into the mix somewhere if he can flash the same effort and punch.

Changes expected in 2019

Wilkins (50 tackles) and Bateky (47 tackles) were two of the best football players on the entire Scarlet Knights team with the ability to play inside or outside in early downs for four years. Taylor, walk-on Jason Griggs, Clark, Turner, and Previlon will battle for their snaps inside. Turner and Previlon are the front runners to start, but a strong effort from someone else, including early enrollee freshman Malachi Burby, could shake it up.

On the defensive end spots, Rutgers is adequate at minimum with Lumor, Tverdov, and CJ Onyechi who has been reinstated on a probationary basis. Onyechi did what Tverdov did as a true freshman in 2017 at the jack position and if Mason is healthy, he will be mixed in with the other three in passing situations. Of course RU did not face many obvious passing downs in 2018, so its contingent on the RU offense to put up more points allowing this pass rush to show what it can do.

None of the three true freshmen (Jamree Kromah, Robin Jutwreten, Matthew Thomas) played himself into a big role, though Jutwreten (one game) and Thomas (two games) got their feet wet. Thomas was the biggest of the three a year ago so he could have the leg up. With college teams preferring a ten man rotation, they all could easily earn a spot with a strong spring.

Way too early predictions

Defensive line is currently the toughest position to recruit in college football. None of the 2019 recruiting class seems to be the next Darius Hamilton who played as a true freshman, so it’s key that the older players all take a step in their development. With the advances in weight training in recent years, offensive lineman can be beefed up to 300 lbs easily, but defensive lineman still need to possess that same quickness while adding the same weight.

Turner’s quickness and experience mean he should be the lead at nose guard once again. Duggan is the next best option in that role and probably serves as the backup initially. Previlon has the inside track to start, but as the season progresses, hopefully Clark can take snaps from him, making them both more effective. Thomas is probably the 5th guy inside that will see action as soon as someone is banged up. Taylor and Griggs will really help the team in short yardage if they can get more “old-man strength.”

On the outside, Lumor and Tverdov have shown the most so far, although Onyechi has the best athleticism of the three if he can regain his freshman form with more strength. Expect the three to rotate with Mason getting a look if RU has a lead and the opponent has to pass OR RU is playing a spread team who doesn’t run the ball much.

Bordner is the second biggest X-factor after Clark, so if he can use those long arms to wreak havoc can pick up Previlon’s old role at minimum. Jutwreten is a tweener like many of these players and it will be interesting to see how he does in his second year of football on this side of the pond, but is probably a year away. Kromah appears to be a sleeper and has a body that can probably add some weight, but he also might need another year of development. I like the upside of Devin Baldwin and Rayyan Buell long-term, but not this season. With a spot like defensive line, rarely do players peak early in their careers so there is plenty of hope someone makes a big jump when it “clicks” like it did for Lumor last year.

Rutgers should be deep and experienced in 2020, but 2019 will probably be a struggle early on.

Previously covered groups

Linebackers