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2021 Rutgers Football Position Preview: Defensive Line

The Scarlet Knights need to improve up front this season.

Rutgers v Purdue Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Rutgers’ Football is winding down training camp and it is beginning to feel like a normal year. The Scarlet Knights were able to get through Spring ball and into late summer practices for the first time since 2019. This is a good sign for a team looking to continue to improve upon a 2020 season that saw them finish with three victories in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights will open the season against Temple on Sept. 2.

This preview series will take you through each position group and examine strengths and weaknesses of the team heading into the season.

We continue here with the defensive line.

Position coach: Jim Panagos

Key players returning: Mike Tverdov, Julius Turner, CJ Onyechi, Mayan Ahanotu, Aaron Lewis; CJ Oneychi

Key players lost: Michael Dwumfour (NFL), Elorm Lumor (Towson transfer)

Key newcomers: Ifeanyi Maijeh (Temple transfer)

What they did well in 2020: Get to the quarterback

It is fair to say that the defensive line for Rutgers was good but not great last season. What they did do well was get to the quarterback and cause a bit of havoc in the backfield. This will continue to be an important aspect if the Scarlet Knights want to win some more games in the Big Ten this season.

This is a group that needs to continue to improve but they did finish with 21 sacks in nine games last season, this was tied with Ohio State and Penn State for third in the Big Ten. Mike Tverdov is the ultimate leader on the defensive line. He led the defensive line with 40 tackles last season along with 10.5 tackles-for-loss, which was fourth in the Big Ten, and four sacks. Tverdov and Julius Turner were named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten in 2020. Turner logged eight tackles-for-loss and will look to build on a strong campaign.

The Scarlet Knights lost some key pieces but picked up Temple transfer Ifeanyi Maijeh. He was a First Team All-AAC selection in 2019 but struggled in 2020.

With Jim Panagos back on the sidelines, this unit can continue to be aggressive. Panagos was not part of gameday activities because of knee surgery last season and his return is important to the line.

Rutgers has some speed and explosiveness on the defensive line. This will help the unit get to the quarterback once again this season but there are some areas where they need to improve.

Needs Improvement: Stop the run/win one-on-one battles

The Big Ten has a reputation of games being won in the trenches. When you think of the conference, the views might have changed recently, but ugly games dominated by rushing attacks and good defense comes to mind immediately. The Scarlet Knights have not caught on just yet and this will need to improve in 2021.

Rutgers allowed 203.7 yards on the ground last season, which was fourth most in the Big Ten. To make it worse, they were shredded by opposing quarterbacks. Isaiah Williams of Illinois put up 192 yards and a score on the ground in a disappointing loss. Also, who can forget Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez totaling 157 yards and two touchdowns on the ground on a freezing-cold December night in Piscataway?

This has to change this season and it begins with winning one-on-one battles. The Scarlet Knights had some success getting into the backfield last season but were dominated in the run game. They struggled to get off blocks and get in position to make a play. Taking a step forward in stuffing the rushing attack of opposing offenses will help the team as a whole win some more games.

What to Expect in 2021

Tverdov and Turner are going to perform each week. As an entire unit, it is impossible to predict the success that they will have but we can assume one thing. That is with Panagos back running the show, along with defensive coordinator Robb Smith, this should be an energized group that plays hard week in and week out.

Depth will also be key for Rutgers. Tverdov and Turner will likely be joined by Maijeh and CJ Onyechi along the defensive line. Mayan Ahanotu will continue to fight for a starting spot but even if he does not get there, he will be a key piece off the bench. Perhaps the most intriguing player along the line is Aaron Lewis. The Michigan transfer played sparingly last season, finishing with 12 tackles. He will provide a huge boost if he can perform on a consistent basis. Establishing depth with ideally an 8-10 man rotation would help prevent this unit from wearing down in November.

Final Thoughts

Tverdov put on 21 pounds in the offseason and still has the same speed and burst. Lewis was a bit undersized last season but added 12 pounds to his frame. The defensive line is bigger and stronger this season. All signs point to Rutgers competing in the trenches and now they just have to get it done on the field. Perhaps the defensive line more than any other group will benefit from some out-of-conference competition before the gauntlet of the Big Ten begins.

Other Position Groups

Special Teams

Tight Ends

Offensive Line