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Does Rutgers Football have the players they need on defense?

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New defense will be more aggressive, but will it work?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Rutgers at Iowa
Finding snaps for Deion Jennings has been difficult despite his coverage skills.
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Despite the uncertainty of when and if the next football season will take place, we continue our offseason analysis of the team.

In a recent three part series, I broke down the offensive side of the ball for new Rutgers offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson to speculate on formations, influence, and ultimately if the personnel available can execute it. (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3). The defensive side is much simpler because A. we have seen Head Coach Greg Schiano and Defensive Coordinator here before and B. College Football is about offense these days and any defense will wear out eventually if they are on the field too much.

So if defense doesn’t matter as much and scheme on that side of the ball is even less important, what does matter and does Rutgers have it?

Ultimately it comes down to talent but not necessarily just based on their size and speed. Let’s evaluate each position group and how much improvement can be expected.

Playing with fire

The 2019 Rutgers Football defense was way better than the 2018 installment even though the eye test would clearly tell you that the 2018 team had more talent. The 2018 squad had so many more future professionals with their names all over the top 10 of the school record books while the 2019 group had Tyshon Fogg, Damon Hayes, and basically no one else with name recognition outside the state of New Jersey.

The best statistical comparison to illustrate is in 2019 Michigan ran for a paltry 3.4 yards per carry in the 52-0 victory that ultimately got Chris Ash fired. In 2018, Michigan ran for 4.8 yards per carry in their 42-7 triumph. Rutgers held Michigan to less yards per rush and the same was true for many other games year over year like Illinois who gauged RU for 7.7 yards per carry (not a misprint) in 2018 and dropped to 4.9 in 2019 (both Rutgers losses). Illinois!

Why?

Let me be the first to say that I gave Andy Buh a hard time in 2019, but his players never quit and when they made mistakes at every position other than safety (more on that later) and least it was while playing fast. Buh was mocked in the media for being too optimistic and in a good mood at press conferences despite the losing, but looking back, his attitude and outlook did work for a team that was getting their butts kicked every week.

On the field the leaders who brought this attitude looked like Fogg and Drew Singleton particularly against the run. They didn’t overly celebrate tackles, but they looked like they had fun playing football despite the down, distance, and scoreboard. In 2018 we didn’t see fun or swagger enough from the Scarlet Knights in a sport that is strongly predicated on emotion.

Aggressiveness

One thing many coaches will tell you is that if you do make a mistake, sometimes it won’t matter if you do it at full speed. Captain Tyreek Maddox-Williams looked like a different human being in 2019. The linebacker who has started for three years doesn’t have elite athleticism, but really forced the action purely on hustle and desire that if someone was trying to block him, especially a back, he would make that opponent think a lot harder the next time. Again, the Michigan game is a great example despite the end result.

Wolverine Quarterback Shea Patterson was flushed from the pocket several times and forced to make difficult throws on the run, which he did to his credit, but at least Rutgers wasn’t just sitting back waiting to get shredded. You can see this illustrated in the condensed game footage. Michigan’s coaching staff to their credit also adjusted and called more bootleg runs and passes as the game went along, but at least Rutgers pushed the envelope rather than just sit back and give the quarterback all day to throw as we saw so many times before in the Ash era.

We should see more of this enthusiasm again as Greg Schiano and linebackers coach Bob Fraser (former Rutgers Defensive Coordinator) know that a defense has to bring pressure. Schiano was handcuffed at Ohio State by Urban Meyer telling him to play things conservative. The Buckeyes have the personnel to get by with that approach, but Rutgers doesn’t. They need hungry players who want to play fast which a linebacking group featuring Fogg, Singleton, Maddox-Williams and fellow returning starter Olakunle Fatukasi, who loves to be physical can do.

The group also returns the rest of the two-deep in Rashawn Battle and Deion Jennings who also received the contagion known as enthusiasm and seem to always be around the ball when they are in the game. Rutgers has several other freshmen ready to contribute, but expect Schiano to only put those linebackers on the field in 2020 who have the fire burning inside.

Linebacker is also a spot where walk-ons and unheralded recruits can really improve with proper coaching. The first time Schiano and defensive coordinator Robb Smith were here, every year they seemingly had guys coming out of nowhere to be starters and even end up in the NFL like Brandon Renkert and Kevin Malast, both two-star recruits. So at this position I trust the name on the front of the jersey even more than the back.

LINEBACKER VERDICT: Absolutely.

On the other hand, the safety play was a mess the last two years other than a short period of 2018 when Saquan Hampton just went balls to the wall. Yes it’s hard to break in three new safeties all at once with minimal game experience and it showed in 2019. They didn’t play with enough confidence which is understood when there were communication breakdowns, mental errors, and yes at times talent deficiency.

If there was only one bone to pick with Chris Ash and his staffs, it’s that they never seemed to be able to develop defensive backs, especially safeties. With so many former guys on the staff who played and coached defensive backs, it was truly a poor effort on their part.

Enter Schiano, Smith, Fran Brown, and co. who all have proven track records of developing safeties. As in the players leave by every conceivable eye test as a transformation of what arrived initially. Give them a position group full of three-star talent and they will find somebody to reliably play the position, and Rutgers does have that already.

I will acknowledge that of every position group on the roster, I have been the most inconsistent with my projections of defensive backs. I will eat crow on the thought that T.J. Taylor would be a superstar, Abdul Smith and Rashad Knight would be a dynamic duo at safety, while also being blindsided by how early guys like Damon Hayes and David Rowe contributed. Safety is the toughest mental jump from high school to college of any position other than quarterback so it may take some time, but count on it from this group after some early hiccups.

I don’t know who will emerge as the top safeties the next time Rutgers plays a football game, but we will see much better performances than 2019 from some combination of Tim Barrow, Jarrett Paul, Christian Izien, and whoever else joins Ohio State transfer Brendon White. White was brought in to run around like a wildman as he did for Schiano in the Rose Bowl following the 2018 season and that alone will be an improvement.

SAFETY VERDICT: Yes, by end of Year 1.

Press coverage

Of course I wasn’t always wrong with my DB projections, for instance expecting Dre Boggs and Blessuan Austin to start as true freshmen turned out to be right on the money. The biggest reason they could play right away is that we saw more pressure from Rutgers under Kyle Flood than Chris Ash.

There’s two ways to reduce the load on your cornerbacks, A. Play a lot of zone coverage like Gregg Williams did with the Jets last year or B. Get pressure on the QB by blitzing if necessary to reduce the amount of time the cornerbacks needs to cover their men. If you blitz, your corners need to be able to jam at the line and guard tightly with minimal help with a higher likelihood of getting beat deep and the longer the play lasts. If you play a lot of zone you either have to have a heavy pass rush with four guys (RU does not) or be willing to give up bushels and bushels of yards underneath on short throws.

This increased pressure made it at times easier for Rutgers defensive backs to succeed and grow while other times, it hid them until all of a sudden they were exposed by a smart opposing coordinator.

Greg Schiano in his first go around was up and down when it came to his cornerbacks, but to his credit always found a way to bounce back in less than a year. The 2005 Insight Bowl against Arizona State saw the DBs get absolutely torched, but by late 2006 Rutgers was locking people down with a pair of two-star recruits. In the beginning of 2008 Mike Teel shouldered a lot of the blame, but the bigger issue was that opposing receivers were running around wide open like crazy (I still have nightmares watching that UNC game). By the end of 2008, the group was solid and carried it all the way through 2009.

In each example, not only did Rutgers go from awful to serviceable, but moved the needle to above average, sometimes truly elite play where they could be left on an island for long stretches. Many of those players ended up in the NFL (four of which were two-star recruits and a fifth who was an unranked walk-on, Brandon Bing).

So does Schiano have cornerbacks to do the job? IF Avery Young and Tre Avery can stay on the field, then all the coaching staff needs to do is find one other guy to play either the slot or outside (since Tre Avery can play either spot) which should be doable even if it is a freshman like Malachi Melton or Chris Long. Avery Young was often overly blamed alongside Hayes last year, but a lot of that had to do with poor communication by the safeties and being forced to cover receivers for 5-8 seconds which is basically impossible.

The coaching staff will need to see a lot of the players on the field to determine who can play, perhaps a Donald Williams or Kessawn Abraham, but if they can’t get the job done, expect a next season overhaul where Schiano and Brown ensure they have the talent needed at one of the sport’s modern day premium positions. The abbreviated training camp and season will make this tough, so be ready for some lumps potentially if we do see games in fall 2020.

CORNERBACK VERDICT: Yes by start of year 2 without a need to be “hidden.”

The trenches

So what about that pass rush to reduce the stress on the secondary? We had plenty of banter several months ago about what position groups were the biggest need for Rutgers Football. Everyone agreed defensive tackle and defensive end were important, the question was just how much. The second question is, how far is Rutgers away from being able to pressure a quarterback with their front four?

What made the Rutgers defenses of 2006-2012 so dangerous was that offenses had to contain Eric Foster, Jamaal Westerman, George Johnson, Jonathan Freeny, and Scott Vallone. Each of them was a threat on every single play to win their one-on-one battle and get into the quarterback’s face to disrupt the play even if everything else went right for the offense. So as a result, it wasn’t always that Rutgers had to blitz. The threat of bringing extra people forced protection breakdowns that allowed other players to produce and end up in the NFL like Alex Silvestro, Justin Francis, Ka’lial Glaud on the defensive line alone. Note though that it took six years to get these superstar talents firing on all cylinders.

Before you start to panic, remember though that Schiano and his staff got tremendous seasons from guys without NFL talent before that. In 2005 the secondary got a bad reputation, but the Scarlet Knights got 10 sacks EACH from Ryan Neill and Val Barnaby plus 9.5 from Ramel Meekins while Westerman (four sacks) was just getting his feet wet. For context Rutgers got 18 sacks TOTAL in 2019. The best chance as an upperclassmen to be a threat to be his man one on one is Tijaun Mason who looked good coming off injury in the 2019 spring game, but tallied just three tackles in the fall and is still waiting for his first career sack. There’s also hope that freshman Wesley Bailey, a Canadian like Westerman, could turn out to be a gem.

In the meantime, Mike Tverdov (three sacks in 2018) and CJ Onyechi (two sacks), players with big hearts will hopefully be aided by transfer Malik Barrow (former 4-star recruit) and a host of other “tweeners” who are could see time at tackle or end plus maybe linebackers like Nihym Anderson and Rashawn Battle (three sacks) that are stuck in logjams at the spots. So the long-term outlook is good, but the immediate term will be a by hook or by crook operation aided by blitzing schemes to try and speed up opponent QB decision making.

DEFENSIVE END VERDICT: By start of year 3 maybe we see four man pressure.

On the interior line Rutgers has a lot of guys who played their hearts out in 2019 and are talented enough to be members of a Big Ten two-deep like Julius Turner, Jaohne Duggan, Robin Jutwreten, Brendan Bordner, and Jamree Kromah. The competition will be fierce for reps because Schiano wasted no time in adding Michigan graduate transfer Michael Dwumfour, Boston College’s Ireland Burke, Minnesota’s Mayan Ahanotu, and the aforementioned Barrow. Nothing has been announced yet regarding immediate eligibility for next season for these transfer players, but hopefully some if not all will be able to suit up right away.

The hope is that two guys can raise their level of play to be middle of the pack Big Ten starters. The best hope for getting sacks is Turner, a two-year starter who is an undersized nose guard but plays with excellent quickness when fresh. The problem is without departed team MVP Willington Previlon, no one has proven capable of shoving back interior centers and guards to collapse the pocket from the inside and generate push that way. We may be years away from that happening again.

Against the run though, Rutgers will be vastly improved for a number of reasons. Dwumfour, like Turner, is extremely quick to read plays, get low, and stop ball carriers near the line of scrimmage. Jutwreten, Bordner, and Duggan all at times punched above their weight to halt plays that a year earlier would have gone for huge yards.

The sheer number of guys who can get reps is high enough that even if the injury bug bites, Rutgers has enough guys to rotate and keep players fresh to be effective. In an absolute best case scenario, Burke is granted immediate eligibility and is the hulking, massive nose tackle that clogs up the A gaps while enough agility is shown for three of the defensive tackles to get on the field at the same time to occupy double teams and keep the linebackers “clean.” Teams are going to be running the ball a lot with 4th quarter leads once again, but Rutgers should be even better at making them regret it than a year ago.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE VERDICT: Yes, by committee.

Bottom line

Chris Ash is a good X’s and O’s coach if he has the personnel to play his style of defense, including two lockdown corners, an amazing strong-side linebacker, and a star defensive end. Ash did a great job stockpiling linebacker talent, perhaps at the expense of cover corners and edge rushers though.

Greg Schiano inherits a situation where his defensive coaches need to make do with what Ash left them until they can get the cupboard full with the type of players best for their defensive style of play.

Rutgers will not be an elite defense in 2020, or 2021, and in fact may never be at the top of the Big Ten overall. However, the mentality of playing hard, playing fast, dictating the action, and making football fun will get them immediately better to watch and improved results. Expect NFL talent to be produced in the next few years even though every year Rutgers will need to play a slightly different variant of the Schiano defense to protect its weaker position groups.