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 a group that added the most in the transfer portal: the defensive line.
Position coach: Jim Panagos
Key players lost: Willington Previlon (graduation), Elorm Lumor (foregoing final year for NFL), Malachi Burby (transfer - Rhode Island), Freddie Recio (transfer - TBD)
Key players returning: Mike Tverdov (RJr.), Julius Turner (RSr.), Jaohne Duggan (RJr.), Brendan Bordner (RJr.), Tijaun Mason (RJr.), Robin Jutwreten (RSo.), CJ Onyechi (RJr.), Matt Thomas (RSo.), Jamree Kromah (RSo.)
Newcomers: Ireland Burke (transfer - Boston College), Malik Barrow (graduate transfer - UCF), Michael Dwumfour (graduate transfer - Michigan), Wesley Bailey (early enrollee), Troy Rainey (expected for fall)
What they did well in 2019: Stay fresh.
Occupying blockers was the major responsibility bestowed upon this unit in 2019. Everybody knew the opposition would try to get in and out of their games with Rutgers as quickly and painlessly as possible by utilizing runs up the middle and play action pass off of it. The Rutgers defensive coaching staff, particularly Corey Brown (who has been replaced by Jim Panagos), identified that his undersized personnel had no chance against the hog mollies of other Big Ten clubs unless they were well rested. This was a challenge considering how often opposing offenses had the ball, but since Rutgers lacked a playmaker as it was and was using players outside of their best positions, why not do hockey style line changes?
The end result was some good strides from players like Jaohne Duggan (8 tackles), Robin Jutwreten (17 tackles, 2.5 for loss), and even a player who was starting to be written off as a bust, Brendan Bordner (20 tackles, 3.0 for loss). Tijaun Mason (back from injury), Matt Thomas, and Jamree Kromah (7 tackles) also saw their first major action. Though the results in the win column were not there, at least Rutgers got playing time for as many defensive linemen as possible that hopefully some of them can springboard into more success down the line.
Needs Improvement: Sacks, we need stats!
Rutgers did a serviceable job of controlling the run game, but opposing quarterbacks had seemingly all day to “make and eat a sandwich before throwing the ball” in the words of one BTN commentator when they decided to go to the air. Hence the biggest debate of the off-season on OTB ensued about how high of a priority defensive end should be for the new coaching staff. That was even before Elorm Lumor and his team leading three sacks decided to forego his final year of eligibility for a shot at the NFL. The team’s best lineman, Willington Previlon, graduated and his ability to push the pocket from the middle (team high 7.5 tackles for loss) leaves a gaping hole to fill.
Rutgers’s lack of pressure did no favors for the pass defenders either as the Knights tallied just six interceptions on the season. At nose guard, Julius Turner is an above average run defender, but his backup Jaohne Duggan was average at best (surprising many that he was even that good) a year ago and neither can push linemen into the quarterback’s lap like their predecessor Sebastian Joseph-Day. At defensive tackle (3-technique), Bordner will likely battle with some of the newcomers, but none project as major pass rushers from the interior.
So that leaves the defensive ends to generate some pressure or at least force offenses to react and open lanes for blitzing linebackers. Mike Tverdov (43 tackles, 2.5 for loss, just 0.5 sacks) did not take the step many hoped in 2019, but is still a solid starter. CJ Onyechi proved once again he is just a solid all around player with 25 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and two sacks as a backup end. Both are nice players, but the X-factor of the returnees is Mason who at times is unblockable in practice and previous spring games. Panagos will not be able to turn him into a Kemoko Turay, but with his size, perhaps something between a Jamal Westerman - George Johnson type would be amazing. Other than Mason, everybody else is going to need to reply on perfect technique, quick feet, and being well rested. The staff looks to add more high upside defensive ends, but won’t have any at their disposal in 2020. Regardless, Rutgers simply needs to get a few sacks to impact opponents’ game planning and boost Scarlet morale.
Changes expected in 2020
Leading this group will be fan and former player favorite Jim Panagos who surprised many by leaving Minnesota after their best season in two generations. For many fans, one of Chris Ash’s biggest blunders was not retaining Panagos in 2016, but hopefully this rehire makes up for it. Prior to joining Minnesota, he was nominated for the Broyles Award in 2017 while at Temple when his group led their conference in several statistical categories. Panagos is not a miracle worker, but understands what is required to get more out of guys with limitations (size, speed, experience) hence his previous success and why he is the type of guy Rutgers needs with their current group.
In the future Panagos should be able to recruit better personnel and also take advantage of the transfer portal which he and Greg Schiano did already in limited time. Rutgers lost a ton of production heading into the 2019 and I’m still personally amazed how well they held up with limited depth. The reinforcements (pending eligibility status) for 2020 are substantial, primarily in the middle. Ireland Burke played significantly as a freshman at Boston College and has the size (305 lbs.) that Rutgers sorely lacks. Michael Dwumfour is a graduate transfer who is undersized himself, but always hovered on the cusp of the two deep on a good unit at Michigan. Malik Barrow left Ohio State after several injuries, resurfaced briefly at UCF, and has the type of former four-star upside that Rutgers hopes to catch lightning in a bottle with.
On the defensive end spots, expect some action from 2019 linebackers like Nihym Anderson, Rashawn Battle, and possibly even Drew Singleton who are faster than the current DEs.
Way too early predictions
Defensive line can be tough to project and they did surpass expectations against the run in 2019, but the quarterback pressure needs a major improvement. I think Rutgers can manage more than the 18 sacks from a year ago, but not by that wide of a margin and the additional pressure will backfire at times. What could end up happening if the staff thinks Burke can be a true nose guard clogging the middle (and Turner spelling him), is that they could switch to more 30 fronts and have guys like Bordner, Thomas, and Jutwreten lined up as 3-4 defensive tackles which would be better for them. Dwumfour is a rotational five technique also so he will probably be equally adept in a 4-3 or a 3-4. That would put a lot of pressure on the outside linebackers to secure tackles in the run game, but they have proven it in the past.
As mentioned in the linebacker article comments, Rutgers failed in the Ash era to put its personnel in the best position to succeed other than a few times in that 2017 season (like Purdue) when they basically did play a 3-4 the entire game. I don’t put a lot of stock in what you call your base defense as long as your team has flexibility to run multiple fronts, which this coaching staff should. Look for an article about this in the next few weeks.
Overall, I do think this will be a no-name defense up front without any major star power in 2020. They are at least a year away (probably two) from having a vaunted pass rush by any measure. The Schiano defense at its best relies on having a game changing linebacker running wild coupled with strong interior linemen OR two absolute beasts as edge rushers. Rutgers has neither option at this point even in a best case scenario for 2020.
Below Average. The core of this group is now redshirt juniors and seniors who are mostly average at best. The staff probably needs another year of short term fixes in 2021 before they can start developing the raw athletes in the younger classes. And they need more talent, so as optimistic as I am that this coaching staff can recruit and develop defensive linemen, I can’t even call this future viewpoint “average” yet.
That said, I like what this staff will do with pieces like redshirt freshman Devin Baldwin. They also did forward thinking by blueshirting Tahjay Moore. The early enrollee Wesley Bailey is the George Johnson type athlete that Rutgers needs to figure out a way to get the most out of. Troy Rainey has upside as a defensive tackle that we have not seen on the banks in a long time, so Panagos will need to harness that as well until they get more lottery tickets. Losing Malachi Burby is unfortunate especially after his fellow project DT Rayyan Buell left before the 2019 season began, hence the need for so many transfer DTs. For now, they are going to have to hit on these few guys because the offense won’t be outscoring anybody anytime soon.