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 secondary.
Position coach: Fran Brown
Key players returning: Christian Izien, Tre Avery, Avery Young, Max Melton, Naijee Jones
Key players lost: Brendon White (NFL)
Key newcomers: Patrice Rene (North Carolina transfer)
What they did well in 2020: Produce turnovers
This has been a priority of the defense under Greg Schiano and they have bought in right away. This was made clear in last year’s season-opener when Rutgers forced seven turnovers on its way to a win against Michigan State in East Lansing. The linebackers are a clear strength defensively but the secondary can sneak up on some teams.
Christian Izien earned an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection after a season where he finished with four interceptions. This had him tied for third in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation. He also finished with three fumble recoveries, which was fourth in the conference. He was even top 10 in tackles with 66. Izien was joined by Tre Avery, who also made some noise in the Big Ten. Avery was a Third Team All-Big Ten selection by both coaches and media. He led the conference with three forced fumbles.
Izien and Avery will lead a secondary that will likely feature Avery Young and transfer Patrice Rene. Creating turnovers is a way for a team to stay in the game and for Rutgers, this is essential when looking at the schedule they will have to play.
Needs Improvement: Depth
The Scarlet Knights certainly feature some playmakers in the secondary but how many? Depth can be a concern at a few positions and the secondary is one of them. Rutgers likes to play more than four defensive backs in certain situations, so they need more players to step up this season.
We know what Avery, Izien and Young are capable of and now enter Rene.
The North Carolina transfer played six games in 2020 and finished with 28 tackles, four passes defended, and a forced fumble. In his Tar Heel career, Rene totaled 103 tackles, 12 passes defended, and two interceptions. Rene is the biggest corner for the Scarlet Knights and will likely move into a starting role.
Max Melton started six games last year and will look to be more consistent after holding up fairly well after being thrown to the fire as a true freshman. Naijee Jones also started three games and has now played 20 games over the past two seasons. His development would be a big boost for this group.
This allows Young to potentially move from corner into an open safety spot that was left when White went to the NFL. Beyond their starting group, who can step up for Rutgers? Alijah Clark is a four-star recruit that will be available for the Scarlet Knights in the fall. The coaches are high on the freshman but it is unknown if he will be a contributor this season. Shaquan Loyal and Desmond Igbinosun are other freshmen that were highly-touted coming out of high school.
Temple transfer Christian Braswell will miss the 2021 season after undergoing knee surgery. This was a huge blow to the Scarlet Knights’ depth and they will have to make it up somewhere else.
What to Expect in 2021
When a team returns a large majority of a unit from the previous season, it is fair to expect improvement. The Scarlet Knights are hoping that is the case for their secondary. This is a group that forced some turnovers and caused havoc but it was far from perfect. In the Big Ten, which is seeing more and more teams pass the ball at a high rate, Rutgers needs to be able to keep up.
Ohio State might have the best wide receiving group in the nation led by Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Penn State returns both Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington this season. The playmaking ability on the outside in the conference is as strong as ever. It will be interesting to see how the Scarlet Knights can hold up against some of the best receivers in the country.
The secondary is the last line of defense for a football team. Luckily for Rutgers, they have a strong linebacking group and a defensive line that should also be much improved this season. Is depth a concern? Sure but there is some All-Conference talent returning in the secondary and some that can make plays of their own. Robb Smith has plenty of returning players to work with and should be able to find creative ways to stay ahead of competition.
Other Position Groups