SPRING PREVIEW – DEFENSIVE LINE
Spring practice will give Rutgers fans their first glimpse of the team since a decisive 44-14 loss to Motor City Bowl-bound Boston College ended a disastrous 1-11 sophomore campaign for Head Coach Greg Schiano. This article is the first of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters spring camp. The article reviews roster changes and injuries prior to spring camp. The article also identifies issues that need to be addressed in spring practice and can be observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages. I'll preview the defense first, since it started to show some progress last season, unlike the offense. And I'll start with the defensive line since the old axiom says, "football games are won or lost in the trenches."
Schiano returned six of his eight DL off the two-deep last season. Although the young DLine was the most improved unit on the team, the DLine in particular and the defense as a whole were still substandard. Rutgers again ranked last in the Big East in rushing defense (ranked #106 nationally at 207 yards per game in 2002 vs #109-ranked at 231 yards per game in 2001) and sacks (15 in 2002 vs 18 in 2001). While the rushing defense did improve its yield per carry from a magnanimous 5.4 yards per carry to merely a generous 4.7 yards per carry, it will take another 20% improvement just to reach the Big East average of 3.7 yards per carry. The development of the DLine attributed to some of these baby steps. Three of the top 10 tacklers on the team were DL compared with only one the previous year. Furthermore, the DLine did a better job of keeping the OL off of the LBs as only three of the top six tacklers were DBs, as opposed to five of the top six the previous year. Schiano again returns six of his eight DL off the two-deep entering spring camp. Upgrading the DLine is still the biggest priority on defense.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- DT Will Burnett (11 GS, 31 tackles, 0.5 TFL, and 1 blocked kick)
- DT Greg Pyszczymuka (1 GS, 5 GP, 17 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 fumble recovery)
Will Burnett played in 8 games as an undersized freshman DT before a shoulder injury ended his season. Academic ineligibility sidelined Burnett in 1999. An ACL injury cut short a solid 2000 season in which Burnett finished third in TFLs and sacks despite playing in only six games. Burnett missed another whole season in 2001, allegedly due to academic ineligibility. Entering his final season eligibility, Burnett had played in 14 games in four years. Burnett was expected to take half a season to work off the rust before he started contributing significantly. But unexpected holes in the depth chart accelerated Burnett's schedule and placed him in the starting lineup on opening day. Burnett was a mainstay on a young interior line that lacked quality depth. While never realizing his potential, he had a solid senior season. His replacement will be one of the important developments of spring camp.
Greg P'zmuka was like the fifth starter in a baseball pitching rotation. The primary expectation for a #5 starter is not to win games but to pitch innings, thus keeping strain off of the bullpen. P'zmuka's primary contributions during the 2000 and 2001 seasons were games started and snaps taken. P'zmuka started 21 of 22 games. On a team notorious for its injury and depth problems, P'zmuka was reliable. Not very productive. But reliable. Until his senior season, when a lingering shoulder injury reduced him to the role of middle reliever. After missing much of last season, P'zmuka's slot on the two-deep is up for grabs.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Sr DE Raheem Orr (11 GS, 12 GP, 62 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, and 5 FF)
- Jr DE Ryan Neill (9 GS, 43 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and 1 sack)
- RS Jr DT Gary Gibson (11 GS, 12 GP, 31 tackles, and 4 TFL)
- Jr DE Alfred Peterson (2 GS, 11 GP, 36 tackles, 8 TFL, 1.5 sacks, and 1 FR)
- So DE Val Barnaby (2 GS, 12 GP, 28 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 1 FF)
- So DT Luis Rivas (10 GP, 14 tackles, 2 TFL, and 2 FR)
Raheem Orr missed the 1999 season as a non-qualifier. He narrowly missed qualifying for the 2000 season but was eligible to practice, where he was the best player on the practice field. Orr qualified for the 2001 season. Although Schiano hyped Orr as a potential NFL draft choice at MLB, Schiano switched Orr to DE when summer camp opened. An ankle injury hobbled Orr and limited him to only 7 games. Orr's actual production fell far short of the hype. Orr emerged last season as an anchor on the DLine and occasionally showed glimpses of the marquee player he was portrayed to be. Orr led the DLine in tackles (5th overall), TFLs (2nd overall), and sacks (1st overall). But Orr was too often invisible on the field. Goals for Orr are (1) to exhibit a consistent level of excellence throughout spring camp and (2) to demonstrate the leadership skills to inspire his teammates to match that standard of excellence.
Ryan Neill arrived as a classic tweener – too slow for LB but too small for DE. Injuries opened a slot on the two-deep at DE for Neill, who played in 10 games as true freshman. Neill beat his more highly touted running mate, Alfred Peterson, for the starting DE job in summer camp last season. A devastated knee injury ended a steady if unspectacular sophomore season in which Neill still finished 2nd in tackles among on the DLine (8th overall). Recovering from two torn knee ligaments, including the ACL, Neill is expected to miss spring camp and may redshirt next season while fully rehabilitating.
Gary Gibson redshirted as a freshman in 2000. Gibson earned a spot on the two-deep entering the 2001 season, beating highly touted recruit Davon Clark for a slot. As the season evolved, Gibson demonstrated that he deserved his job. The shoulder injury to Greg P'zmuka last spring threw a starting DT job up for grabs. As happened the year before, Gibson again beat Clark for the desired slot. Gibson's play was solid but not spectacular. Can Gibson hold off the challenge of younger and newer recruits to maintain his starting job?
Alfred Peterson was the most impressive player in freshman camp. Injuries and defections opened the door early to a starting job. He was the best playmaker on the DLine last year in 2001, leading the group in tackles (8th overall) and sacks (2nd overall) and finishing second in TFLs (3rd overall). However, Peterson experienced a sophomore slump last season as he was demoted to the second team behind Ryan Neill. Although Peterson's play largely went unnoticed, he finished 3rd on the DLine in tackles (10th overall) and second in TFLs (3rd overall). Furthermore, 25% of his tackles were TFLs. As the season ended, Peterson was battling Val Barnaby to replace the injured Neill as the starting DE. Peterson will resume his battle with Barnaby in spring camp.
Val Barnaby was one freshman expected to contribute right away. With an extra year to mature in prep school, he was physically more ready to play as a freshman. Barnaby immediately pushed Piana Lukabu off the two-deep in summer camp last season. After Ryan Neill suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the year, Barnaby battled Alfred Peterson for the starting DE