Big Ten Bound: Defensive Line

Rutgers football ended 2013 with the disappointment of a bowl loss at Yankee Stadium and a losing record, but has every reason to be excited for 2014. Arguably the national champion of conference realignment, the Scarlet Knights are set to join the Big Ten, and is here to look ahead position by position.

Today looks in-depth at the defensive line. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood will continue to value speed over size in moving to the Big Ten, and he made that clear on Monday's conference call when he said, "we have recruited a certain style of defensive player where we've always valued speed, change of direction and explosion over size."

In 2013

What Went Right -- Younger linemen in the program took clear steps forward as the season progressed from spring camp to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Highlighted by a big-time season from sophomore Darius Hamilton, young linemen played at high levels. Sophomore Daryl Stephenson gave key versatility at the nose and 3-technique position that filled key snaps with injuries to other players. The same can be said for red-shirt freshman Quanzell Lambert at the R position and defensive tackle Kenneth Kirksey before his triceps injury. Defensive end Djwany Mera played at a high level in his first year as a starter. Junior defensive end David Milewski came back from three knee surgeries as one of the best stories in college football. He played three different positions this season, and all 13 games.

What Went Wrong -- The most seasoned linemen on the roster did not live up to their responsibilities as starters. Team captain Jamil Merrell began the season injured, and served as the backup to Mera despite high expectations entering the year. Fifth-year senior Ike Holmes also battled health issues. Stephenson and Kirksey ate up many of his snaps at nose tackle. Senior defensive end Marcus Thompson was the most productive of the older defensive linemen and became a game captain for his passion and efforts. He led Rutgers with 5.5 sacks, which was far short of his astronomical goal of 26. The three seniors combined for 99 tackles, 12 TFLs and 7.5 sacks – most of which coming from Thompson. The best teams include seniors playing their best football, and the young defensive linemen shined brightest for a struggling 2013 team defense.

Heading to the Big Ten

Reason for Excitement -- Depth. Rutgers has more proven depth and exciting young players on its defensive line than any other position except perhaps wide receiver. All four starting roles have someone with legitimate game experience against Big Ten caliber offensive lines. All four roles have a young player coming up that could be dynamic at the position. For the immediate future in spring and the 2014 season, names like Sebastian Joseph, Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Kemoko Turay are going to come up frequently behind established starters like Mera, Hamilton, Milewski and Stephenson.

Cause for Concern -- Rutgers still has not shown it can consistently generate a pass rush with its front four, and that needs to happen to take pressure off a young and struggling secondary. Hamilton will be able to create pressure inside, but the edge pressure falls primarily on the shoulders of three unproven names –Lambert, Pinnix-Odrick and Turay. Lambert is a converted middle linebacker with one career sack, Pinnix-Odrick returns after a season-ending knee surgery and Turay is as raw as they come.

New Year's Resolution -- Speed philosophy is great for Rutgers, and is the primary reason that its defense took a step forward following the infamous 2010 Cincinnati game. But in the Big Ten, linemen are bigger, stronger and faster. Stay fast as a defensive line, but find a way to get bigger while you do it. With bodies like 310-pound Peter Mokwuah coming in, Rutgers could be on its way.

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