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 linebackers.
Position coach: Bob Fraser
Key players returning: Olakunle Fatukasi, Tyshon Fogg, Mohamed Toure, Tyreek Maddox-Williams, Deion Jennings, Drew Singleton
What they did well in 2020: Tackling/rushing the passer
This is not a surprise when one of the best linebackers in the conference is on the team. Olakunle Fatukasi made some noise in 2020 and is now a legitimate force in the Big Ten. Fatukasi led the Big Ten with 11.2 tackles per game last season. This was also good for ninth in the country. He totaled 101 tackles and logged double-digit stops in six of nine games last season.
Heading into 2021, Fatukasi has plenty of preseason accolades. He was named to the Watch List for the Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, and Nagurski Trophy. Fatukasi is the leader of the defense but is not on his own. Tyshon Fogg is also returning for Rutgers and was second on the team with 65 tackles and is three-year starter. He is joined by Mohamed Toure and Tyreek Maddox-Williams, who has a lot of experience as well.
Toure showed an ability to wreck games a bit. He led the Scarlet Knights with 4.5 sacks last season and also added an interception and two forced fumbles. His versatility is something that Robb Smith can use to get creative on this side of the ball.
The linebackers in Piscataway are experienced and strong. This is important in a conference where offenses like to run the football. Rutgers has to be able to plug those holes in the trenches and that will be the responsibility of the middle of the defense.
Needs Improvement: Coverage
This is an area where the entire defense can afford to improve and it will help take them to the next level. There is no doubt that when the Scarlet Knight linebackers get their hands on you, it is not easy to get away but there is room for improvement in the stages before this happens.
Linebackers are tasked at times in coverage on running backs or tight ends. In the Big Ten, there are teams, such as Iowa and recently Penn State, that feature elite tight ends that need to be controlled within the offense. Fatukasi and Fogg have been clear ball hawks and this has helped the defense force turnovers. Now, they could take that next step in pass coverage.
The Scarlet Knights have question marks all over the field but you know what you are going to get from the linebackers. It will be interesting to see how Smith mixes it up and it begins on Thursday night.
What to Expect in 2021
Tackles, All-Big Ten selections, turnovers. There is a lot to look forward to with the linebackers in place for Rutgers. Fatukasi was a first team selection by the media in 2020 and a second team selection by the coaches. He has high expectations heading into the season and beyond.
Fogg was an honorable mention by the media and can put up even bigger numbers this season. It has been said throughout the offseason but the importance of non-conference games cannot be overlooked. The Scarlet Knights will have a chance to get their feet wet prior to entering the Big Ten gauntlet. This includes an inexperienced linebacker group that should be as ready to go as any other position on the team. Former 4-star recruit Khayri Banton is an intriguing addition to this position group and could potentially make an impact this season.
It is likely that Fatukasi, Fogg, and Toure will be on the field quite a bit together. If this is the case, there will be plenty of big plays and explosiveness in the middle of the defense. Jennings and Singleton have experience and made plays at times last season, so their potential to be factors exists as well.
Fatukasi has been focused on leading the team and his role for the Scarlet Knights over any NFL talk to this point. There is no doubt that he is a prospect at the next level but he is also leading Rutgers to what they hope will be a bowl game this season. If the Scarlet Knights want to get to six wins, the defense will have to improve and this is where the linebackers can take it to the next level. On paper, the Scarlet Knights have a group that is flying a bit under-the-radar and can sneak up on the rest of the Big Ten.
Other Position Groups