SPRING PREVIEW – DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD
This article is the third of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. I have been touring the defensive units. I've finished with the DLine and the LB corps. What's left? The defensive backfield. 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.
One year ago, the defensive backfield was the most experienced unit on the team and again appeared to be the strength of the defense. Depth became a surprise concern as one starter was lost to injury/personal issues and a prospective backup was thrown off the team. Head Coach Greg Schiano entered summer camp with four safeties and was quickly reduced to three. Nagging injuries thinned the ranks further and, rather than switching players to safety, Schiano played two walk-ons at safety. Schiano continued to employ his safeties very aggressively in run support – two of the six top tacklers were safeties. However, this run support role placed a huge pass coverage burden upon the CBs, who were often left alone in loose man-to-man coverage. They were not up to the task, especially early in the season against lesser opponents (Villanova and Buffalo). Open-field tackling from soft man coverage again was a problem. With the departure of 2nd Team All-Big East SS Shawn Seabrooks, leadership has joined talent and depth as issues to be resolved.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- SS Shawn Seabrooks (12 GS, 104 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, and 1 FR)
- CB DeWayne Thompson (2 GS, 11 GP, 28 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FF, and 1 FR)
- FS Nate Colon (3 GP, 10 tackles, and 2 TFL)
Shawn Seabrooks arrived on the Banks as a highly anticipated transfer from Tennessee. After recovering from nagging hip injuries, Seabrooks played at SS in 9 games (starting 4) in 2000. Despite the backup role, he finished fifth on the team in tackles (57). Even though a nagging injury that sidelined him for much of summer camp, Seabrooks opened the 2001 season as the starting SS and started 10 games. Schiano used Seabrooks very aggressively – primarily employing him in run support – and Seabrooks led the team in tackles (99) and forced fumbles (4). Seabrooks also returned an INT for a TD against buffalo. Last season, he earned 2nd Team All-Big East honors last season. Seabrooks finished second in tackles and returned an INT for a TD against Army. Seabrooks toughness, playmaking, and leadership will be sorely missed.
DeWayne Thompson was a survivor. He deferred his enrollment at Rutgers to qualify academically. As a freshman, he played in only 4 games. He earned a starting CB job in 1999 summer camp but suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the season-opener. He missed the season but was given a medical redshirt. He returned to start every game as a RS sophomore before a nasty eye injury ended his season in Game 8. Slow and undersized, Thompson wasn't expected to play much for Schiano. But he started 9 games in 2001 and finished sixth in tackles. Thompson was the nickel back last season, starting two games where Rutgers primarily employed a nickel defense. The inability of younger CBs – recruited by Schiano – to displace Thompson is cause for ongoing concern about the talent level at CB.
Nate Colon arrived on the Banks as a RB but was immediately drafted into the M*A*S*H unit that was the defensive backfield during 1999 summer camp. Colon displaced the ineffective starter at FS in the season opener and held the job for three years, starting 28 of 33 games. As a freshman, he finished third in tackles (77). As a sophomore, he finished seventh (48). As with Seabrooks, Colon was often used aggressively in run support in 2001, finishing third in tackles (91). Colon injured his hamstring in summer camp and played sparingly in three games upon his return before quitting the team for personal reasons. Since he didn't contribute last season, he won't be missed.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- Sr CB Nate Jones (12 GS, 81 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 INT, 2 FR, and 1 FF)
- RS Sr CB Brandon Haw (12 GS, 35 tackles, 4 INT, and 2 TFLs)
- Jr FS Jarvis Johnson (10 GS, 12 GP, 59 tackles, 1 INT, and 1 FF)
- RS Jr SS Jason Grant (1 GS, 7 GP, 42 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, and 1 FR)
- Jr CB Eddie Grimes (9 GP, 13 tackles, 2 TFLs, and 1 sack)
Nate Jones has been one of the few players from the 2000 recruiting class to make an impact on the field. Only 5 of 20 2000 freshmen recruits have seen substantial playing time. Jones has clearly been the most productive of the lot. He was primarily a special teams player as a freshman in 2000 although technically he was on the two-deep at CB. In 2001, Jones saw extensive action as a backup CB. The highlight of his season was a 71-yard INT return for a TD against Boston College. Jones earned a starting CB job last spring and proved to be the best CB on the team. He finished second in INTs and third in tackles. He also had a 100-yard INT return for a TD against Miami negated by a terrible officiating call. Jones is a lock for a starting CB job.
Brandon Haw saw special teams duty as a true freshman in 1999. He earned a starting CB job in summer camp in 2000 and started every game, finishing eight in tackles. In 2001, Haw suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 2 but received a medical redshirt. He reclaimed his starting job last season but had a rough campaign. He struggled early against Villanova and Buffalo and became the designated target for opposing QBs. While Haw led the team in pass breakups and INTs, these statistics provide some indication of the frequency with which he was targeted as the weak link. Haw's tackling was often sloppy last season, which is unaffordable in the loose man-to-man coverage that Schiano employs. Keep an eye on his open-field tackling during spring camp.
Jarvis Johnson saw some game action at safety and on special teams as a true freshman in 2001. While a hamstring injury sidelined Nate Colon during summer camp last season, Johnson seized the starting FS job and didn't relinquish it when Colon returned. Lacking experience, Johnson was burned early n the year but played solidly alongside SS Shawn Seabrooks. Johnson finished fifth in tackles. With safety depth a huge concern, Johnson is a lock to start at safety. The only question is whether he starts at FS or SS.
Jason Grant redshirted in 2000 and saw action on special teams in 2001. Expected to be a special teams player last year, he seized the backup SS job as attrition created opportunities on the depth chart last season. With the unexpected loss of Nate Colon, Grant became the only backup safety (excluding walkons). Grant was one of the biggest surprises, finishing ninth in tackles. With the departure of Shawn Seabrooks, Grant is the incumbent at SS. Schiano is expected to move one or more players to safety. Will Grant be able to fend off the challenges for a starting SS job?
Eddie Grimes was primarily a special teams player as a true freshman in 2001 but he saw some action at CB. Schiano suspended Grimes during summer camp, causing Grimes to miss three games. Grimes returned to earn a backup CB job but played sparingly behind nickel back and primary backup CB DeWayne Thompson. Grimes must start producing in his third year. Will he push incumbent Brandon Haw for a starting CB job?
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- So SS Terry Bynes (10 GP, 11 tackles, and 1 FF)
- So CB Dondre Asberry (5 GP and 7 tackles)
- Sr DB Anthony Frazier (2 GP and 1 tackle)
- RS Fr Bryan Durango (redshirted)
Terry Bynes lost his redshirt season while playing mostly on special teams in 2001. On a depth chart that lacked speed and athleticism, the speedy Bynes easily earned the backup WLB job behind Brian Bender. However, Bynes rarely played at WLB. Bynes was expected to challenge Bender for the starting WLB job. However, Schiano has switched Bynes to SS to replace losses on the depth chart in the defensive backfield. With the departure of Seabrooks and Colon, Bynes will vie with Jason Grant for the starting SS job.
Dondre Asberry was action early last season as a backup CB while Eddie Grimes served his suspension. Asberry's playing time dropped once Grimes returned. Why was Asberry's redshirt burned for appearances in only five games? Asberry enters spring camp battling for a slot on the two-deep.
Anthony Frazier was primarily a special teams player as a freshman in 2000. He barely played in 2001 or 2002. Walkons played ahead of Frazier at safety last year when attrition and injuries provided opportunities for playing time. Frazier is not expected to contribute next season.
Bryan Durango was one of only eight freshmen (including two kickers) to redshirt last season. The depth chart is crowded at CB but open at safety. Will Schiano place Durango at FS or CB?
As with the DLine and LB corps, the performance of the defensive backfield in spring camp against a suspect offense can hardly be used as a barometer of quality. View the good with some skepticism. Worry about the bad. As also with the DLine and LB corps, the evolution of the depth chart will be the most telling development of spring camp. The starting lineup is nearly a lock. Jones (CB) and Johnson (safety) are locks to start. Haw is most likely the other starting CB. Of particular interest in the defensive backfield will be the following:
- Will Jarvis Johnson start at SS or FS? And who starts alongside him?
- Jason Grant hold off a challenge from Terry Bynes for the starting SS job?
- Will Brandon Haw parry the expected push from Eddie Grimes for a starting CB job?
- Who will be the fourth safety on the two-deep?
- How does the open-field tackling look? Especially the CBs? Is the first defender making the tackle?
Coming Next: Part 4 of my Spring Preview. I've finished with the defense. Now, it's time to punt and look at the offense. As with the defense, I'll up start up front with the foot soldiers – the offensive line.
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