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Defensive line key to Rutgers taking another step forward

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The position group is crucial towards the development of the defense next season and beyond.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers football is one week into spring practice and head coach Greg Schiano met with the media on Monday to discuss how things have progressed so far.

“I loved it. It was great. There was so much energy,” Schiano said. “It’s early. We had three practices and only one in pads, but every one of those practices was outstanding. The competition is outstanding and that’s my big thing. The competition raises everyone’s level, and then your team gets better. They’re really competing and they’re having fun competing. They’re practicing smart. I think it’s been a great start.”

While Rutgers wisely eased into spring practice, things will pickup now as every remaining practice is scheduled to be in pads. That can only help the progress and development of this team.

“Now it’s into week two, and there’s going to be contact every day now in pads,” said Schiano. “I think we’re going to learn a lot about what kind of strides guys have made in the offseason and it’s great to get our newcomers and the young guys integrated into what we’re doing.”

The defense showed improvement last season with the return of Schiano and defensive coordinator Robb Smith. However, with a shortened and disjointed offseason, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to work on things on the practice field and it showed at times. Rutgers allowed 32.1 points per game, which was fourth most in the Big Ten, as well as 449.1 yards per game, which was second most in league play.

One position group that Rutgers needs to continue to improve with is the defensive line. The defense overall did produce 21 sacks last season, which tied Ohio State and Penn State for third most in Big Ten play.

The defensive line continues to be led by Mike Tverdov, who led the unit with 40 tackles last season and was fourth in the Big Ten with 10.5 tackles for loss, as well as tied for eighth in the Big Ten with four sacks. Julius Turner was 11th in the Big Ten with 8.0 tackles for loss last season. Both players were Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selections by both the coaches and media last season. While both will be counted on to lead the unit this fall once again, key contributors lost include Michael Dwumfour and Elorm Lumor.

Schiano spoke about replacing Dwumfour on Monday in stating, “I think it would be Mayan Ahanotu and Ifeanyi (Meijah) from Temple. Those two would be at the top of the list. We had one padded practice so far and I wasn’t surprised. I was pleased with the way they played.”

Ahanotu, who transferred from Minnesota last year, played in all nine games, registering 12 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. Meijah transferred from Temple last December and had 6.5 sacks, which led to First Team All-AAC honors in 2019. However, he did struggle to make the same impact last season. Both players have a lot of potential to be big factors along the defensive line this season and beyond. A key to their development is defensive line coach Jim Panagos, who recruited both players out of high school to Minnesota and Temple, respectively.

Panagos underwent knee surgery last season and was not part of the gameday staff because of it. He is fully active again and Tverdov spoke about his impact last week.

“He’s a phenomenal coach,” Tverdov said. “I’ve known him for several years now and just having him back in the room is really exciting for me because he brings so much juice to the football field. He’s honest from the biggest thing to the little thing. Coach P treats everybody the same. He doesn’t care if you’re walk-on or you’re a fifth year senior wherever the case is, if you bust your butt for him, then you’re gonna play. That’s what it comes down to. High motor guys, guys that know their job and know what they’re doing. If you do that, you’re gonna be fine with coach P. I’m just grateful for how he treats us as players in general because he truly cares about us and what’s going on in our daily lives. There’s daily conversations with him throughout the d-line, and having a coach like that just makes you want to play that much harder.”

As for Tverdov, the veteran leader gained 21 pounds in the offseason and he said last week it will only help with his development.

“I don’t think there’s been any decrease in my speed, agility, or explosion. I feel great,” Tverdov said. “The coaching staff told me that I look really good, so that’s all that matters. I’m just gonna keep getting better every day and keep getting stronger and faster.”

There were many other defensive lineman who made significant gains in the weight room this winter. In regard to a younger player to keep an eye on, Aaron Lewis had 12 tackles including one for a loss last season as a freshman after transferring from Michigan. He showed real potential and gained 12 pounds in the offseason, but still needs to get bigger at just 255 pounds. Schiano spoke of his development in stating, “Aaron’s getting better and better. He plays with great effort, great intensity. He’s a little undersized, so he’s got to continue to train and eat right and continue to put weight on. But I love the way he plays the game. And when he gets bigger, he’s going to be a force.”

One area of debate among Rutgers fans has been the apparent change in Schiano’s approach to having bigger players in the unit compared to his first tenure by moving away from smaller, faster defensive lineman. In asking Schiano about the shift, he explained it was much more to do with better recruiting than any philosophical change.

“It’s kind of probably been mischaracterized a little bit. People thought during my first go-round here I wanted smaller, faster defensive lines. Not the case,” said Schiano. “We just couldn’t get the bigger, faster players. So what do you end up doing? You get the smaller, faster players. You do the best with what you can get. Take a guy like Eric Foster who was a middle linebacker in high school and in our weight program, he would grow and get bigger and be an undersized defensive tackle, who was incredibly quick and incredibly instinctual. And he became an All-American.”

As for his plan moving forward, he explained, “What I would like to do, and I wanted to do then as well, is go recruit big, fast, athletic defensive linemen. So they are really quick and they are 300 pounds and that is what we are trying to do. We are having a little more success with that in our recruiting because we are a better program. We’ve been able to have some past success and we are in the Big Ten conference. So there’s more to it. There’s more that I think will bring a player here, and that also counts for the defensive line, so that’s really the evolution. We want really tough football players who love the game of football, and if they can be big and fast rather than small and fast, I’m all for it.”

The continued development of the defensive line is vital for Rutgers to take another step forward up the Big Ten ladder in the fall. Schiano spoke last December about how important the position group is to the overall development of the football team. “I think the defensive line is the most important position, other than quarterback, in your program,” Schiano said during the early signing day press conference. “If you have a tough defensive line, it makes your entire program tough. It makes your offensive line tougher, which in turn, when you have o-line vs. d-line battles, it makes your running backs and linebackers tougher. Everything stems off that defensive line, so I consider it a must to go recruit defensive linemen every year. Big people who can move are really hard to find. When you get one that you think is a cultural fit, you have to go as hard as you can.”

How much Rutgers improves this fall will certainly depend on their success in the trenches. With the shift towards playing a third cornerback and one less linebacker in most formations due to so many RPO heavy offenses in college football nowadays, it makes the the defensive line’s ability to generate pressure on the quarterback and win individual battles more crucial now than ever. There is a solid blend of proven veterans mixed with intriguing newcomers and freshmen, but finding enough depth and consistency is the ultimate key for the defensive line to become a strength next season.