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 hopes to offset their graduation loss with an addition from the transfer portal: the defensive backs.
Position coach(es): Fran Brown
Key players lost: Damon Hayes (graduation), Malik Dixon (graduation), Kobe Marfo (graduation)
Key players returning: Avery Young (Jr.), Christian Izien (RSo.), Jarrett Paul (Jr.), Tim Barrow (RJr.), Tre Avery (RSr.), Kessawn Abraham (Jr.), Donald Williams (RFr.), Naijee Jones (RJr.), TJ Robinson (RFr.), Darius Gooden (RFr.), Larry Stevens (RSr.), Rani Abdulaziz (RJr.)
Newcomers: Brendon White (Transfer - Ohio State), Chris Long (signed LOI), Malachi “Max” Melton (early enrollee), Elijuwan Mack (signed LOI)
What they did well in 2019: Jam receivers ...
... until quarterbacks rolled out or crossing routes eventually broke open. In the Chris Ash era, we constantly asked time and time again for Rutgers to do more jamming of receivers at the line of scrimmage. What’s the point of playing with these tall cornerbacks if you won’t use their length to disrupt plays at the line? It finally manifested itself in 2019, although at times, defensive backs played too physical beyond the five yards and were penalized for it. Outside of a little laundry on the field at times, it was a welcome sight and as the season went on it also helped the personnel improve. They had to because the team had zero pass rush and I can remember maybe one coverage sack the entire year.
The safeties when in proper alignment did ok in this regard as well, but the main problem was that they weren’t particularly comfortable this close to the line of scrimmage.
Needs Improvement: Communication
The last two times RU had a mass exodus at defensive back, the coverage was absolutely porous for much of the following season, 2013 and 2015 for those who have erased it from their memory banks. The 2019 performance was not as bad as those, though the Knights didn’t exactly light the world on fire or even show improvement in any area. Instead it was a baptism by fire for a lot of players like Tim Barrow, Christian Izien, Jarrett Paul, Malik Dixon, and Tre Avery who finally saw the field healthy. All of them other than Dixon are back, along with Avery Young who had a little bit of a sophomore slump after a promising freshman year. Avery Young in his defense was victimized a few times when the safeties did not properly hand off receivers pre-snap and he was just left holding the bag. Perhaps a single position coach in the secondary can help reduce these breakdowns (more on that later).
For this group, I also could have put discipline as the biggest area for improvement in 2020. Discipline as in, avoiding silly penalties and grabbing receivers when the ball was just thrown up for a 50-50 ball. Several times Rutgers shot themselves in the foot by being too physical downfield or not recognizing proper down and distance. These mental errors need to be corrected and so far Schiano has said the right things to the press about how he does not plan to give the players too much to think about. If you give them too much and it’s not instinctual, that does not work.
Changes expected in 2020
Fran Brown has excelled on the recruiting trail, can he do the same in practice and on game day? What I like most about Brown as a position coach is that he has seen the game in a variety of different leagues and talent levels. What I mean by that is two stints at Temple his job was to figure out how to deploy personnel who may have been undersized, or a step slow, or for some other reason not recruited by Power Five schools. Not necessarily mutually exclusive, but at Baylor the job was simply to try not to give up 60 points in the track meet Big 12. His single voice should ensure corners and safeties are on the same page after a poor job in that area last year. Of course some combination of defensive coordinator Robb Smith, defensive assistant Ross Douglas, or even Head Coach Schiano himself who loves working with defensive backs will contribute to the teaching of the group.
The biggest complaint I had defensively under the previous regime was their inability to develop defensive backs despite all the men on staff who had coached DBs in their careers. It always seemed that if a guy didn’t play as a freshman, he pretty much never developed. Of course many of Schiano’s stars played as freshman in the secondary like Courtney Greene, Ron Girault, and the McCourty twins, but there were plenty of guys who became serviceable nickel and dime backs at minimum later on like Patrick Kivlehan, Wayne Warren, Mason Robinson, and even Billy Anderson. Rutgers needs to develop these depth players or else you end up in a situation like a few years ago where Jawuan Harris and Rashad Blunt switch sides of the ball and are playing safety against Ohio State the next week.
In terms of personnel, there is only one new face expected to play immediately, Brendon White formerly of Ohio State. However, White is the biggest player addition of them all and should start immediately at either safety position. His father played in the NFL and Brendon himself became a solid starter during the second half of the 2018, even being named Rose Bowl MVP before the team effectively removed the strong safety position from their defensive formation. His transition to a strong-side linebacker type role never flourished, but hopefully Ohio State’s loss is Rutgers’s gain. White was a borderline five star recruit for a reason because he has incredible speed and quickness to deliver blows and when necessary cover man to man.
Rutgers really only had three players who could cover wide receivers or tight ends man to man (Damon Hayes, Avery Young, and Tre Avery), so they will need more there, too.
Way too early predictions
Hayes will be missed, but the rest of the contingent returns with a year of experience under their belts. Development and recruiting are the name of the game right now for Rutgers Football. They have done well with the latter in just five months, but we need to learn more about the former, which will be extra tough during a year with virtually zero off-season program. This means it will be an uphill climb, especially for the corners who need man to man drills which is not possible with social distancing and safeties who need practice reps to improve their spacing and awareness.
From a personnel standpoint, a bounceback year from Avery Young should be in order opposite at least similar results from Tre Avery, so Rutgers has two proven options at outside corner. The slot is another story though and in an ideal world, Tre Avery can move inside and someone else like a Donald Williams or Darius Gooden would be able to play meaningful snaps. The talented freshmen will also get a crack even with limited training camp. An X-factor is Kessawn Abraham who the previous staff never really trusted at corner despite his effectiveness on special teams.
At safety, White should slot in right away and my hunch is that Schiano tries to push the envelope with him at strong safety rather than free. That would allow Christian Izien (78 tackles) to try and defend his spot against most likely Jarrett Paul (44 tackles) with Tim Barrow (43 tackles) focusing at strong behind White. Then if Naijee Jones or one of the freshmen can leapfrog them, even better.
Average. The defensive back spot changes more frequently than any other position in college football so the long-term outlook for any team should not vary much from the median. Talented freshmen can play right away, injuries that rob a player of his speed or quickness are career altering, and quite often you are only as good as your team’s pass rush as well as the referees. So the trick is adding as many guys who can cover another human being man to man as possible with a mentality to be resilient.
Rutgers has two corners to build around (Avery Young is just a junior) and both the redshirt freshmen (Gooden, Robinson, Williams) and true freshmen (Long, Melton, Mack) have good scholarship numbers and either size or speed. So the staff SHOULD be able to develop some players out of this group that can play on Sundays. For as ineffective as the previous staff seemed to be despite all their DB experience, they did succeed in maximizing their top players’ impact. This staff needs to do that as well as do a better job filling out the two-deep.
The biggest reason for optimism may be how well the staff is doing with the 2021 recruiting class and could have some gems that may immediately join the lineup a year from now.