We continue the series of positional previews with arguably the team’s strongest unit. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach(es): Andy Buh (defensive coordinator/ inside linebackers, 1st season), Vince Okruch (outside linebackers, 1st season - 4th overall)
Key players lost: Deonte Roberts (graduation), Trevor Morris (graduation)
Key players returning: Tyreek Maddox-Williams (RJr.), Rashawn Battle (RJr.), Olakunle Fatukasi (Jr.), Tyshon Fogg (Jr.), CJ Onyechi (RSo.), Nihym Anderson (RFr.), Deion Jennings (RFr.)
Newcomers: Drew Singleton (RSo.), Mohamed Toure (Fr. early enrollee), Zukudo Igwenagu (Fr.), Chris Conti (Fr.), Brian Ugwu (Fr.)
Question 1: Should we expect more?
Yes. Last year Jay Niemann didn’t get as much as he did the year prior despite the same personnel and an added year of experience. Simply put, the linebackers put up a lot of tackles, but the group should be considered a disappointment. Trevor Morris (105 tackles, two forced fumbles) who crossed the century mark for the third straight year and was better in coverage than previous years, has graduated. Deonte Roberts (81 tackles) dropped from back to back 90+ tackle seasons and also graduated after his second year as defensive captain. Tyreek Maddox-Williams returned after missing the previous season due to injury and was adequate (44 tackles) at the Strong-Side Linebacker spot even though he lacks elite athleticism.
Even with the lack of depth for the defense, they still had a more than adequate second string contingent of Tyshon Fogg (47 tackles), Olakunle Fatukasi (20 tackles), and Rashawn Battle (16 tackles) yet Niemann hesitated to play them early in the season. During that time, the Scarlet defense played very uninspired football with the linebackers failing to set the tone. Perhaps the starters were too cozy in their positions or the reserves didn’t push them enough. Regardless it wasn’t until Chris Ash fired up the defense off the bye week that we saw sustained periods of gutty play.
Not every player needs to be an on field cheerleader who celebrates even the most minimal successes on the field, but at least one player needs to bring that enthusiasm, cockiness, confidence, attitude, chip on their shoulder, etc that is infectious. It seemed the starters just did their jobs in a business-like fashion, but college football is about passion and fun. Even with the graduations, a little more of that may be enough. New defensive coordinator Andy Buh has a little more energy than Niemann, though Buh’s enthusiasm would never be confused with a PJ Fleck. Will it be Fogg or Fatukasi? Maybe even a freshman?
Question 2: 4-3, 3-4, does it matter?
No. Buh said while answering to reporters earlier in the week; “In terms of schematically, yeah, we’re a 3-4 defense.’’ This comes as no surprise even if Chris Ash’s defense officially is a 4-3 over. The weak-side end, known as “The Jack” at Rutgers, is playing a 7-technique outside the offensive tackle, heads up on a Tight End if he moves to that side of the formation. For most college and pro teams, the spot is manned by a hybrid DE/LB regardless.
So without doing a full on film review, this means that we will see more linebackers on the field in base or nickel packages. Like most Power Five teams, Rutgers has plenty of bodies that project as at least average at the jack spot, but will shift some of them like Mike Tverdov closer to the ball in an effort to get more speed on the field. This opens up reps for Nihym Anderson and CJ Onyechi (8 tackles in 2017) to be a 4th linebacker that can put his hand on the ground or stand up.
Then when Rutgers adds an additional defensive back on the field, the strong-side linebacker (Maddox-Williams) is removed for a safety or cornerback. As a result, the staff seems more than happy to let the other guys battling in the two deep who project at multiple spots, like Drew Singleton, to be at mike or will linebacker. The key is getting opposing teams into obvious passing situations so Rutgers can be more variable in their fronts and personnel.
Question 3: What else is new?
Other than Buh who arrives from Maryland, Vince Okruch moves over from the offensive side of the ball to work with the outside linebackers. Okruch is more than familiar with everyone returning since all outside linebackers play on his special teams units anyway. I’ve always liked Vince’s focus on the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, plus he brings a love of the game every day that young men wouldn’t expect from an older coach.
Fogg (Middle) and Fatukasi (Weakside) have the lead in the battle for playing time right now to replace Roberts and Morris. Fogg and Maddox-Williams are both captains, but after last year’s debacle it’s absolutely paramount that they re-earn their first team reps every single week. Drew Singleton has elite size and reputation as the former #1 recruit in New Jersey out of High School and Buh indicated their would surely be a role for him. Rashawn Battle has always been around the two-deep and even though he doesn’t look super fast, he makes plays when he does get on the field. Deion Jennings is in a similar position having impressed in the spring game by always being around the ball.
The crop of neophytes all have talent as well and linebacker is a position where true freshman will play right away if they are ready. Mohamed Toure is the farthest ahead having enrolled early and is already on the two-deep with a body already Big Ten sized. Zukudo Igwenagu is a freak of nature, but having played cornerback in high school (Massachusetts) needs an adjustment period for the Big Ten physical rigors.
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
The LBs have more impact plays (like forced fumbles) than the past two years and bring an attitude that sets a tone for the entire team. The entire group comes out fired up every single week even when opponents are in a position to just pound away the clock. Singleton, Igwenagu, and Fogg emerge as the best players by mid-season with appropriate energy allowing the best athletes on the field.
The lack of experience causes communication break downs. Coupled with bad tackling, we see regression in all areas, especially coverage. Fans long for the tackling numbers of Morris and Roberts.
Tyreek Maddox-Williams is his usual self. Fogg plays a lot like Roberts in the middle, but delivers a few more big hits. Fatukasi and Singleton continue their fight for the starting job on the weak-side every single week. One of the freshmen dislodges a veteran for reps and simply must be on the field.
Players listed on the current roster
#3 Olakunle Fatukasi (6’1”, 229 lbs.) Junior
Fatukasi, known as O3, was a hit on special teams as a true freshman and began to get some playing time on defense as a sophomore. He plays bigger than a shade under 230 lbs, and I’m glad he hasn’t put on weight because he has compact strength to shed blocks as is. Most importantly, he brings the swagger that the team has lacked the past two years at the position. He has the right build to be good in coverage, but is he good enough to be a bonafide Big Ten starter?
#6 Rashawn Battle (6’1”, 230 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Battle has always hovered on the two-deep radar, but bounced around a variety of positions. Even though he is deceptively good in coverage I always thought his home would be at the Jack position. His chances of being Tyronne Stowe’s second coming are dwindling though. This may be his last chance.
#8 Tyshon Fogg (6’1”, 237 lbs.) Junior
Fogg should have played more as a true freshman and surely as a sophomore last year. When given the opportunity he stonewalled plenty of ball carriers and seemed to fuel the entire defense with his confidence. His sideline to sideline effort in a start against Michigan State was one of the reasons the Scarlet Knights refused to allow the heavily favored Spartans to just run the ball right at them as other opponents had done earlier in the year. His four-star rating out of high school was well deserved and the team needs him to become a truly elite Big Ten player.
#9 Tyreek Maddox-Williams (6’0”, 228 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Maddox-Williams simply eats up inferior competition because he just has too many football instincts. That said, he does not have elite size, strength, or athleticism so he is removed in sub packages and is best suited to play alongside players with a little more burst and emotion. All that said, he is a solid Big Ten starter at any of the three linebacker spots.
#11 Drew Singleton (6’2”, 233 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Singleton has yet to make an impact in a game that counts since getting injured as a high school senior when he was the #1 prospect in all of New Jersey. He was in a heated battle for a two-deep spot at Michigan before electing to leave Ann Arbor and come closer to home. Singleton is taller than Fogg and has elite Big Ten size with the potential to be better in coverage. In a best case scenario, something clicks for Drew to be a major X-factor somewhere on the defense. With this versatility it could be at any of the four linebacker spots.
#13 Deion Jennings (6’0”, 220 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Jennings looked like a completely different human being in the spring game. He arrived at Rutgers much like Deonte Roberts did, projecting as a strong safety. Roberts was pressed into heavy special teams duty as a true freshman and starting linebacker as a sophomore. Jennings is on the same timeline, but the difference is he has WAY more players ahead of him on the depth chart at this point.
#26 CJ Onyechi (6’0”, 237 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Onyechi patiently waited through his suspension last year before returning to the team. He was a godsend as a true freshman in 2017 playing as an undersized Jack, yet greeted All-American Saquon Barkley in the backfield twice at Penn State. He’s one of those Swiss-Army knife type football players that Rutgers needs to contribute in as many ways as possible. There’s a chance he could end up being the team’s best pass rusher.
#40 Nihym Anderson (6’1”, 240 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Anderson came over from Maryland early in the year after the tragedy in College Park, so he was recruited by Andy Buh once already. Nihym is built like a tank, but moves better than you would expect. Like Onyechi, he probably has more talent than incumbent starter Elorm Lumor at the jack spot and the staff will try to get him on the field especially when teams try to wear RU out.
#30 Chris Conti (6’2”, 220 lbs.)
The revisionist history if Conti becomes a starter will surely be entertaining. He has excellent size for a freshman and could not have done any more at the high school level to prove he is a Division 1 player. He probably needs another year or two before he competes for a starting role at Mike linebacker, yet will garner plenty of special teams duty prior.
#10 Zukudo Igwenagu (6’4”, 220 lbs.)
What a ceiling for this young man. Despite being recruited as a linebacker, he played cornerback in high school and wanted to play safety at Rutgers. As Coach Okruch joked, that would be the tallest safety in America had he gone that route. His potential as a strong-side linebacker with elite coverage skills is Chris Ash’s best lottery ticket to building an elite defense over the next few years.
#58 Mohamed Toure (6’1”, 220 lbs.)
Toure’s commitment seemed questionable, but once he arrived as an early enrollee became a well established part of the team quickly. Like Fogg, he has the ability to halt ball carriers in their tracks and prevent them falling for extra yards. His best position may end up being on the weak side, but he is at strong for now it seems.
#44 Brian Ugwu (6’3”, 225 lbs.)
I was high on Ugwu from the beginning and if he’s the 4th freshman linebacker on your team, things are looking promising. Brian was a very similar player to Onyechi at the high school level despite not playing as much football as most other Power Five recruits. As a pure linebacker he needs some time, though if he became an NFL prospect no one would be surprised.
#55 Austin Rosa (5’10”, 213 lbs.) RSr, #28 Aslan Pugh (6’0”, 218 lbs.), #43 Chike Nwankwo (6’1”, 228 lbs.) RFr., #31 Johnny Yorey (5’10”, 205 lbs.) RFr., #46 Matt Gibney (6’0”, 230 lbs.) Fr., #41 Jack Quander (6’2”, 220 lbs.) Fr.
Long term outlook: Excellent. The size of Rutgers’s defensive line may still be a tick below the Big Ten powers, but the linebackers surely are not this day in age. The talent is surely there throughout the depth chart and all it should take is one guy becoming elite and everything else will fall into place. Rutgers won’t be nursing many (if any) big leads this year so figuring out who has the heart to dig in and refuse to be blocked is what will separate the players who deserve playing time.
Running backs thinking they will have it easy against the scout team this fall are definitely in for a rude awakening. There’s a chance the four recruits all become starters down the line. With so much eligibility left, this position group is poised for sustained success.
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