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Rutgers Football 2019: Defensive Line Preview

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Will they even have a chance to rush the passer?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 Rutgers at Wisconsin
This hit by Tverdov took Hornibrook out of the game.
Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We continue a series of positional previews during Rutgers Football fall camp, published every few days. Next up is the defensive line. For last year’s preview, click here.

Position coach: Corey Brown (2nd season)

Key players lost: Kevin Wilkins (graduation - NFL), Jon Bateky (graduation)

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

Newcomers: Micah Clark (RSo. - from offense), Malachi Burby (Fr. early enrollee), Devin Baldwin (Fr.)

Question 1: How will the rotation shake out?

Coach Corey Brown had a mix of players from every class last year, but it took some time for him to feel comfortable playing the younger players when he had three-year starters Jon Bateky and Kevin Wilkins anchoring two positions. To his credit, Brown realized more quickly than his predecessor Shane Burnham that rotating players up front is absolutely paramount in the Big Ten. Unfortunately, most of the winnable games had already passed and much like personnel changes at quarterback and linebacker, turned out to be too little, too late.

In 2019, Rutgers has only two interior players returning with significant experience, Julius Turner and Will Previlon. The hope is that former four star prospects Micah Clark (moved over from offense) and Corey Bolds (committed but not on campus) would be able to help provide some beefy depth. Ron Johnson is currently dealing with compliance issues before he can join the team from Michigan as well. At the moment, Jaohne Duggan and Brendan Bordner plus an undersized Matt Thomas are providing a breather for the starters. Thomas has been getting more run lately according to sources who have seen all the open practices.

At the defensive end spots, Elorm Lumor and Mike Tverdov are adequate at minimum Big Ten starters. They are being pushed heavily by a number of other players as well. Lumor needs to hold off linebackers Nihym Anderson and CJ Onyechi at the weak-side defensive end (Jack). Tverdov, Robin Jutwreten and Jamree Kromah are getting the most action at strong side end. Anderson and Onyechi look bigger than their listed weights.

Question 2: Will they have pass rush opportunities?

Last season I asked if the team could get a pass rush. The Scarlet Knights ended 2018 with only 16 sacks for the year, the biggest reason being they rarely if ever had a chance to go after the quarterback. Rutgers only held more than an eight point lead one time all season (season opener against Texas State), and therefore opponents were not in obvious passing downs. So Rutgers could never dig in on the defensive line for an all out blitz or pass rush.

When they did get a chance to pin their ears back, Rutgers had some success. The closest thing to obvious passing downs came against Northwestern when Rutgers held an eight point lead in the second half against the Big Ten West Champion. Rutgers secured three sacks (including a safety from Previlon), two other tackles for loss, and eight pass break ups before the Wildcats decided to abandon the pass almost entirely. The Wisconsin game was similar in that the Badgers elected to try and put points on the board before the half despite two RU INTs and several other close calls up to that point. Instead, Tverdov leveled Badger QB Alex Hornibrook and the signal caller was out for an extended period of games causing the home team to abandon the pass for the ENTIRE third quarter to regroup.

When looking at the defensive line, three players project as better against the pass than the run at this point, two of which are interior guys: Will Previlon (23 tackles, two sacks) and Brendan Bordner (only three tackles). Previlon and Bordner are very tall for interior defensive lineman so it takes a lot for them to get low and hold their ground in the run game, but they can use the longer reach against shorter interior opponents to create separation en route to the quarterback or at least get their hands up to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage. Also of note, Julius Turner (34 tackles, three for loss) shows up two pounds lighter than he did a year ago as an undersized nose guard, the key with him is rotating him in as much as possible like Ohio State (yes even the conference champion so it can be done) does with starter Robert Landers. If Rutgers puts opponents in some third and longs during a close game, they should be able to push the pocket a little bit from the middle.

The only true pass rush specialist on the roster is Tijaun Mason. Mason has been viewed as the heir apparent to Kemoko Turay and looked decent before being lost for the year in the very first game. He returned for the spring game and was unblockable once he got into rhythm. Otherwise, Elorm Lumor and Mike Tverdov are two very well rounded defensive ends that will get more sacks if more opportunities present themselves. Lumor (four sacks) has gradually been able to play faster and faster as his career has progressed, no longer being slow with his first step. Tverdov (31 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble) plays with incredible desire and quickness, so in a best case scenario he shifts inside at times on passing downs like his brother Pete did years ago. Linebackers CJ Onyechi and Nihym Anderson also have some skills at the jack position to make it one of the deepest positions on the team.

Question 3: What else is new?

Tverdov was one of the few real successes stories of the 2018 season. Beyond that, the team needs more health and consistency from Lumor and Previlon. Of course as is true with every offensive and defensive line in America, another year of improvement in the strength and technique departments from everyone in the group is critical.

To augment the returning contingent, Rutgers attempted to bring home two former top New Jersey prospects back home who previously went elsewhere in the Big Ten. Ron Johnson graduated from Michigan in three years, though the paperwork is still not complete for him to begin playing at Rutgers. Until that happens, he is going to be unable to participate in practice or games (which require four practices to play in). When Johnson does hit the field, the former four-star prospect out of Camden has cat-like quickness in the run game. The plan is for him to shift to defensive tackle since Rutgers has established depth at end. Defensive tackle Corey Bolds who began his career at Penn State also committed in the off-season, but is not yet on campus. Bolds is also a much better run stopper who could add some more if he arrives as was previously expected, but now seems uncertain.

The biggest offseason story outside of Johnson for this unit was the swapping of former top recruit Micah Clark from offensive line with Manny Taylor who was helping out at DT last year. Taylor was unable to get playing time despite his size, but the staff hopes Clark will finally be able to contribute on the banks after a similar position change. When he committed to RU as the state’s 2nd best prospect, Micah was projected as above average at all offensive line positions, tight end, and defensive tackle. Still listed at 300 pounds, the hops is Clark still has some of the quick twitch explosiveness from his high school days when he was 35 pounds lighter. However, he sat out the scrimmage last week and it’s questionable whether he will make an impact this season at all.

Additional shuffling for Coach Brown includes two true freshmen, Malachi Burby (enrolled early) and Devin Baldwin, both of whom likely need more seasoning.

Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?

Best case

The Rutgers offense can put enough points on the board to build a lead so the defense can do some pass rushing. The run defense is solid enough to force early three and outs and avoid being worn down. Bolds, Clark, or someone else emerges as a bonafide run stuffer in the middle opponents don’t want to run straight into.

Worst case

All the hype about team chemistry fails to result in hunger on game day. The talent/size drop off losing Wilkins and Bateky means opponents run straight up the middle and RU has no chance of stopping it. The Rutgers offense fails to improve and the defense wears out every game.

Most likely

The linebackers like Onyechi and Anderson will work with Lumor to keep at least one spot rather fresh. The results in rotating interior players is inconsistent due to opponents no huddle attacks preventing substitutions. If an opponent does not have a legit running game, Rutgers will surprise fans by being able to to go all-out pass rush without being reliant on a single player. Getting Johnson on the field will be delayed, but a boost to the rotation.

Players listed on the current roster

#7 Elorm Lumor (6’3”, 248 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

Lumor was Ash’s first commit, when he flipped to the Scarlet Knights in December 2015. He has been one of the beacons of development over the course of his career, being nowhere close to ready when he arrived. Then when he first saw the field, he wasn’t quick off the snap. By last season, he overmatched lesser competition, but was stymied by the Big Ten’s best. Can he continue to steadily improve?

#45 Jamree Kromah (6’3”, 251 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Kromah was a dark horse to have showed up on campus and played as a freshman. He seems to be stronger than his body or possibly even weight room stats would indicate. Kromah is behind Tverdov on the depth chart, but if he can give some quality snaps, it would significantly improve depth alone the defensive line.

#50 Julius Turner (6’0”, 280 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

Turner missed 2018 spring due to injury after a great spring in 2017. Comments early in his career revolved around his lack of full commitment to being the best he could be. Almost overnight, that changed and after a year in the rotation, he started last year. Turner has limited upside, but when healthy and fresh, offensive linemen do not want to have to block a man with his quickness. Our hopes that he would be Ramel Meekins 2.0 from an emotional leadership standpoint did not come to fruition, but the individual play on the field is pretty close.

#56 Micah Clark (6’4”, 301 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

With the hype surrounding his commitment, it has been unfortunate Clark hasn’t made an impact on the field yet. It’s safe to say that thus far in Chris Ash’s tenure, Micah and Art Sitkowski are the biggest underachievers, although both have plenty more time to change the narrative. The hope is that with off the field challenges behind him, Micah can focus on football and be the type of athlete Rutgers lacks at interior defensive line. If by some miracle, the Knights had everything break right and went to a Bowl game, there’s a good chance Clark would have had to be an X-factor in the turnaround.

#57 Jaohne Duggan (6’1”, 295 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Duggan is a little bigger version of Julius Turner. He is at his best in one on one grappling, but his football skills needed some time to catch up. He is naturally a very thick human being, so if his current weight does not hinder his mobility, could be a key member of the two-deep.

#85 Matthew Thomas (6’3”, 271 lbs.), Redshirt Freshman

Thomas was the leader among the 2018 true freshmen on the depth chart. After a relatively quiet off-season, Thomas is now getting two-deep reps even on the interior line. I was not wowed by him as a recruit, but there’s no reason as he grows older and stronger he can’t be in the rotation. Don’t expect game changer though.

#88 Brendan Bordner (6’4”, 290 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

It’s hard to figure out what to make of Brendan as an outsider. He is listed ten pounds heavier than a year ago, which he probably needs considering the team requires him to play inside and he didn’t flash enough as an edge rusher to warrant playing time. When he was first recruited I thought he would fit best in a 3-4 two-gap scheme, a college version of what the Pittsburgh Steelers did so well in the 2000s with guys like Chris Hoke, Kimo von Oelhoffen, and Aaron Smith. Bordner has long arms to occupy multiple blockers to both clog running lanes and keep linebackers clean, while delivering an occasional coverage sack now and then. As Rutgers plays more 30 fronts, they are moving closer to his ideal scheme.

#91 Tijaun Mason (6’5”, 240 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Mason was lost for the 2018 season in the opener. He returned for the spring game and was unblockable once he got going. Where will he fall on the spectrum between Kemoko Turay and Elorm Lumor? The team is fine with Lumor and Tverdov starting, but will have an added dimension if Mason can wreak some havoc. Like Clark mentioned above, the best case scenario for this team is that X-factors like Mason all pan out.

#96 Willington Previlon (6’5”, 295 lbs.) Redshirt Senior

Previlon was mostly MIA until coming up with a safety against Northwestern and was a key reason the defense was solidified late in the year. I always liked him as a rotational piece and developmental player out of New Jersey that make every great era of Rutgers fuel run. Will, like Bordner, projects best as a defensive tackle in a 3-4 scheme since he has long arms to free up other players on stunts and bat down a few balls. When college teams overperform it’s usually because their seniors play their best football. On the RU defensive line that begins and ends with Previlon.

#97 Mike Tverdov (6’4”, 255 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Mike showed us his passion and pride as a leader of his recruiting class. After being injured as a true freshman and redshirting, he has been everything you could ask for and more since. His will to make plays makes him an ideal player for a rebuilding team, the face of the defense along with Avery Young. Mike has a motor that just keeps running and a nose for the ball against both the run and the pass. He delivered the best play of the season with his strip sack and recovery against Maryland that in an alternate universe would have been the turning point in a victory. Instead, the Rutgers offense turned the ball right back over on the very next play, pretty much the season in a nutshell.

#98 Robin Jutwreten (6’5”, 259 lbs.), Redshirt Freshman

Robin has 24 pounds more on his frame and is the type of high-risk, high reward player that is a great way to fill out a recruiting class. Expectations are low as he gains so much with every additional rep, though he is pushing for a spot on the two deep at strong-side defensive end. Though he fits better as a traditional strong-side end in a 4-3 scheme, his freakish strength per the weight room staff can offset his current 259 lb. listed body mass. Pass rushing is easier than run support for inexperienced players, so I’d like to see Robin manhandle a few Umass offensive tackles in the opener to build some confidence.

Incoming Freshmen

#95 Devin Baldwin (6’4”, 260 lbs.)

I loved the signing because despite being listed at 6’4” he stays low and fires off the ball on defense. He looks like a guy who could play in any era of football on either side of the ball. Since he has a naturally big frame, the risk for injuries and added weight slowing him down is lessened. I was not joking that his upside is 10-year NFL DE/TE James Jenkins, he has that kind of physical ability.

#99 Malachi Burby (6’2”, 280 lbs.)

Burby enrolled early and got his feet wet in spring practice. I like him as a three-technique who can clog some space in the middle even if he’s not ready this season. His upside is probably limited because he doesn’t show a lot of quick-twitch on film, but his floor is quite high. Filling out a roster requires some steady players like Burby.

Additional Walk-ons

#59 Drew Bethke (6’3”, 230 lbs.) Fr., #90 Freddie Recio (6’2”, 288 lbs.) Jr., #93 Jason Griggs (6’1”, 273 lbs.) RJr.,

Long term outlook: Unknown, but trending upward. This is a little bit of a cop out, but it’s really hard to say. Losing Wilkins and Bateky will probably hurt, but that’s a normal level of attrition for the average college defensive line. The biggest concern is whether the guys who replace them can hold the fort against the run because if you can’t stop the run, nothing else really matters. It’s absolutely easier to fill out a 3-4 which is why almost all NFL teams basically play that way now, but the linchpin nose guard is more critical than any single position in a 4-3, especially from a pool of 18-22 year olds who are not full grown men.

The group will be better in 2020 for certain as it only is expected to lose Previlon after the 2019 season. The three true freshmen is now down to two after Rayyan Buell elected to leave school after the summer session. He was the highest-risk player in the class, but you never want to lose a lottery ticket. I like the mix of high floor and high upside players because in a good program that is not a perennial powerhouse, that’s how you do it.

Previous positional reviews:

Special Teams

Running Backs

Tight Ends / Fullbacks

Linebackers