The Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team’s spring activities have been cancelled just like all other NCAA spring athletic events. With the hope that fall football happens, even if it is delayed or there’s a limited summer training camp, we will proceed with our traditional spring position reviews. With the current worldwide global health crisis, we are living day to day, but hopefully both Rutgers Football and the world at large have brighter days ahead.
This series reviews the state of each positional group based on the best information we have today. In the absence of spring practice, less intelligence is available than it has been in previous campaigns. Also, with the new transfer portal, eligibility questions are best guess and we won’t assume anyone who has already entered the transfer portal will return. The team’s official website does not currently have a 2020 roster posted.
We continue with the group seeing the least turmoil: the Linebackers.
Position coach(es): Bob Fraser (linebackers), Robb Smith (defensive coordinator)
Key players lost: none
Key players returning: Tyreek Maddox-Williams (RSr.), Rashawn Battle (RSr.), Olakunle Fatukasi (Sr.), Tyshon Fogg (Sr.), Drew Singleton (R-Jr.), Nihym Anderson (R-So.), Deion Jennings (RSo.)
Newcomers: Tyreem Powell (Fr. - early enrollee), Jack Del Rio (Fr. arrives for fall)
What they did well in 2019: Run defense
Rutgers trailed on the scoreboard by significant margins for the majority of the time they were on the field last fall. So week in and week out, opposing teams ran the ball into the line in an attempt to break the will of the Rutgers defense and gauge them with a minimum of effort. The defensive line did their best to occupy blockers and rely on the linebackers behind them to relentlessly pursue the ball. The linebacking group regardless of who was in the game never surrendered. Statistically they were last in the Big Ten in yards per carry allowed and second in total rush yards, but the film is much better than that. The best example was the Michigan game when the Wolverines simply could not break the will of RU, carrying the ball 41 times for 141 yards, just a 3.4 average.
Needs Improvement: Coverage.
Fraser, Smith, and Schiano will need to figure out how they want to deploy their experienced personnel. Maddox-Williams (45 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and Fatukasi (85 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 3 pass break-ups) at times were victimized in coverage, but basically everyone is in modern day college football. In their defense, they spent more time in wide open spaces than mates Fogg (104 tackles), Singleton (34 tackles), and Battle (38 tackles). The biggest bright spot in this position group was Deion Jennings (38 tackles, 1 INT), a former safety who has prototypical size at this point for the role (6’0”, 220 lb.) and was involved in a disproportionate number of big plays.
The previous regime did an excellent job rotating all six of the players above and snuck in reps for Nihym Anderson, Mohamed Toure, though hyped freshman Zukudo Igwenagu redshirted. All nine of those players, plus redshirt freshman Chris Conti along with two incoming freshman that project well in coverage, Tyreem Powell and Jack Del Rio, all will get a chance to play snaps this season. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out, but we will hopefully learn more about this group if they are pushed in more close games and passing situations in 2020.
Changes expected in 2020
With a coaching staff turnover, two familiar faces return to the banks, Bob Fraser and Robb Smith. Fraser spent the last few years as an assistant with the New England Patriots so hopefully that only enhanced his ability to develop linebackers like he did so effectively while at Rutgers the first time from 2006-2011. Smith has registered mixed results in his recent stops, but there is no question that his 2012 Rutgers defense was either the best or second best (2006 maybe) of this century for the program. Both coaches have thrived in the same circumstances Schiano has, when they are allowed to bring pressure and motivate players with an underdog mentality.
Expect more blitzing and creative looks than you saw in the Chris Ash era (a low bar, I know). Singleton is a good blitzer who made highlight reel plays a few times by simply blowing up the back assigned to block him and still forcing the quarterback to rush a throw. Fogg is a very complete player himself who can get into the backfield against the run or pass. Maddox-Williams does not possess the elite speed to cover down the field, but has enough quickness is short areas, so with his excellent instincts will not go from a three year starter to riding the bench.
Nihym Anderson and CJ Onyechi were listed on the 2019 roster as linebackers, but have a much better chance to be effective as defensive ends in short bursts.
Way too early predictions
As much as I love Maddox-Williams and Fatukasi, there simply has to be someone on the field who excels in coverage, so they will both probably lose snaps to some of the younger players, namely Jennings. Fogg is just too good and a leader in the middle to give up much ground. Singleton, when rested, brings more game changing natural ability than any of the other upperclassmen, so look for the staff to try and help him reach his potential. Someone of the 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes will leapfrog on the depth chart, so I’ll guess Igwenagu because he played cornerback in high school and the only reason he’s not at safety is that he was deemed too tall. With a year under his belt against stiffer competition in practice than he had in the Massachusetts High School ranks, a major leap forward could be in order. If the season goes south like the last two have, the staff will be forced to reduce the role of the seniors and play for the future.
Above Average. There are a lot of players with potentially higher upside than the seniors on the roster so it will be interesting if any of them can go into true beast mode. Jennings, Brian Ugwu (redshirted), Mohamed Toure (redshirted), and Igwenagu (redshirted) have the talent to become game changers in the right circumstances. Chris Conti (redshirted) has good instincts and the state pride that you know this staff will try and cultivate. Fraser, Smith, and Schiano all have a track record of producing linebackers year in and year out that reached the NFL, although lately have had more mixed results.
Ultimately, the play of the defensive line and backs will determine how good this group can be. For example, I’m not sure if Tyshon Fogg is a better player or not than guys like Steve Beauharnis or Devraun Thompson who manned the middle on better teams. Of course if they can find a Steve Longa or Khaseem Greene-type player to come crashing down and wreak havoc from the weak side, that would help just as much.