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Julius Turner’s legacy at Rutgers built to last

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The nose tackle will play the last home game of his career on Saturday, but hopefully it’s not his final performance for the Scarlet Knights.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Rutgers football will take on Maryland at home for Senior day with the winner headed to a bowl game. 14 players have exhausted their eligibility with another almost two dozen seniors who could chose to be honored without making a decision yet on whether they will return next season. It’s a unique situation made possible by the extra year of eligibility players received from the NCAA due to COVID-19 last season. One player that already took advantage of that benefit who is definitely playing in his last home game on Saturday is starting nose tackle Julius Turner. And he will be setting a record in doing so.

After redshirting his first season on the banks in 2016, Turner has played in every game for Rutgers over the past five seasons. It’s a program record that he shares with long snapper Billy Taylor, as the pair will play in their 57th consecutive game on Saturday.

After earning a starting role at nose tackle under former head coach Chris Ash, Turner made a change that has helped his career at RU. Over the last two seasons, Turner was switched to playing the tilted nose position for Schiano and defensive line coach Jim Panagos. The difference is instead of lining up straight ahead at nose tackle with the center, the tilted nose lines up at a 45 degree angle to the center. It puts the player between the center and the guard in the A-gap. It was first used by the Steel Curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers back in the 1970’s.

The move has benefitted Turner, who has emerged as the best defensive lineman on the team since Schiano’s arrival. His ability to be disruptive and generate a push for the line are factors that don’t always show up in the box score, but has led to him making a significant impact over the past two seasons. He was named an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by the coaches and media last season and this season he has a career high of 2.5 sacks.

In speaking with Turner this week about the switch, he explained, “It is a better defense for me. It shows my quickness and agility more and they use me to make plays in that position. It’s been good.”

After practice on Wednesday, Schiano discussed Turner’s transition to the position. “When I looked at Julius, you could tell he had the two or three things you need to be a good tilt nose,” said Schiano. “You need to have quick hands, you need to have heavy hands. He has both of those things and then you need to be able to move laterally and he can do that. It doesn’t matter if you are 6-foot-6, you don’t need those traits. So he had exactly what he needed to do it and I think it’s a position that he is very naturally inclined to play.”

What’s most impressive about the 6-foot Turner’s iron man streak is his ability to remain healthy enough to achieve it playing one of the most physically demanding positions on the field. It would be impressive for any player to be able to play over 50 games in a row, like Taylor has, but to do it playing in the trenches in the Big Ten is another level altogether.

Turner discussed how he has been able to stay healthy over the past five seasons, explaining, “I take care of my body. Everyday in the training room. Do a lot of rehab, things like that. I stay ahead of it all the time.”

It’s been a long journey for Turner. The Meridian, Mississippi native left home in 2016 to play 1,084 miles away in the Big Ten. In making his decision, Turner stated that, “It was a pretty hard decision for my family to be so far from home. I had two or three power five offers, but Rutgers was the best choice for me.”

Six seasons later, Turner is in line for his master’s degree in labor studies and employment relations. He was honored this week by his former high school in Meridian, Mississippi, as Rutgers sent a poster for senior day and his alma mater gave him recognition at halftime of a basketball game.

For senior day on Saturday, Turner expects “10 to 15 people in my family are coming from Mississippi and that area. It’s going to be a good experience for them. It’s going to be a good atmosphere. Hopefully, we get a lot of people in the stands for this last game. It will be big.”

As for what he has learned under Schiano and Panagos, he explained it’s been a lot more than just football. “They’ve meant a lot,” said Turner. “They’ve groomed me as a person. That’s the most that they’ve helped me with. They’ve developed me into being a great leader to these guys being a captain of the team. They really trust me. I’m really happy they came here. They’ve put me in a position to do good things in this program and help Schiano get things back on a roll like the first time he was here.”

Turner has embraced his role as a leader ever since Schiano tapped him for it when he took over the program two years ago. “It’s been a switch up for me when Schiano came in and put that role on me. A lot of young players, not just Kyonte, they are all going to be special. I love coaching and leading them every day.”

He continued, “Having that experience helps me see stuff quicker now. I know stuff that’s going to happen. The game is a lot faster from high school, so I like to help the younger players and be a leader.”

One added benefit of Schiano’s return for a player like Turner has been having so many former players on the staff for the defensive side of the ball. They include Jamaal Westerman, Charlie Noonan, Damaso Munoz, and Scott Vallone. All of them played along the defensive line like Turner with the exception of Munoz. It was actually Vallone’s program record of 53 games played that Turner broke this season. He explained why having them back with the program has helped this team.

“It’s been real good,” Turner said. “Vallone was here my first year under coach Ash. So I’ve known him a long time. It’s been real good having those guys back to tell us how Schiano wants things from when they played for him. It’s made it more clear on how he wants things to be. They’ve helped us out so much. It’s been real good to have those guys on the staff.”

Turner survived some tough times with the program over the years and chose to stay to help turn it around when Schiano arrived. He is glad he did.

“I’m so proud. It all started with Schiano and bringing in a good staff and building a culture,” exclaimed Turner. “I’m very happy. The sky is the limit for the program. I’m definitely coming back to watch games after my season here. I can’t wait to see how far it goes.”

As for the emotions of what could be his last week as a Rutgers football player, Turner is keeping it simple to avoid getting caught up in the gravity of the moment.

“Of course it’s in my mind and my thoughts now but I’m really trying my best just to focus on the game, day by day,” said Turner.” Just taking it all in. After it’s over, it’s going to be real personal looking back on how it’s all been worth it. Just trying to take it day by day and find the best way to beat Maryland.”

Turner’s impact on the Rutgers revival under Schiano has been significant. And achieving what he has with his play on the field has allowed him to line up in more games for the Rutgers defense than any player in history. However, his longevity isn’t just about being durable, as it’s about being good enough to actually have played that much. Saturday will mark the 43rd start of his 57 game career. The reality is he has become one of the best players on the best team the program has had since he made the trek from Mississippi all those years ago.

Whether the Scarlet Knights can beat Maryland or not this weekend, Turner’s legacy will always shine in a positive light no matter what. He will go down as a key player in helping Schiano turn things around at the beginning of his second tenure on the banks. If Rutgers can actually make a bowl game for the first time in seven years when few thought they could, it would be the perfect reward for a player who has meant so much and will leave a lasting legacy with the program.