Big Ten Bound: The Linebackers

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 linebackers. From multi-year returning starters to interested true freshmen committed to the program, the Rutgers linebacker group enters spring with depth and momentum from younger players.

In 2013

What Went Right -- Steve Longa was as good as a freshman can be at middle linebacker, especially considering his move inside did not happen until camp. Longa was far from perfect, but fully deserved his freshman All-America mentions. Longa is the first hundred-plus tackler at middle linebacker since Gary Brackett in a Rutgers uniform. Rutgers was a top-ten team against the run. How much of that was because of pass-heavy attacks? Probably a significant amount, but the linebackers deserve credit for stuffing strong running teams like Arkansas (3.0 yards per carry).

What Went Wrong -- Senior captain Jamal Merrell did not bring the same production level that he had as a junior while teammates with Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais. Merrell played in 10 games (missing three with a kidney injury) and only 3.8 tackles per game. That's down from 6.4 per game as a junior. Junior Kevin Snyder was productive, but not as consistent as he needed to be in his first year as a full-time starter. Snyder moved to weakside linebacker to get into the starting rotation, and the result was a decrease in production and some coverage struggles.

Heading to the Big Ten

Reason for Excitement -- Quentin Gause showed what he can do against the run last season, and continues to make improvements in pass coverage. Gause, right now, should be an upgrade over Merrell at strong-side linebacker. He says the right things, works hard and has eight more months to prepare for his first year as a starter. Snyder now has experience at all three linebacker spots, and brings major leadership as a likely captain. Davon Jacobs saw limited action in his first year as a linebacker, but give him a full spring, and he has the chence to take a step forward. Getting Brandon Russell in for the spring is important. He could contribute early at middle linebacker, especially if Longa or L.J. Liston end up moving to the outside. Myles Nash and 2014 commit Sidney Gopre have high ceilings, but are far from reaching their potential. Youth is a significant cause for excitement, especially if a defensive coordinator with linebacker experience is brought in.

Cause for Concern -- Depth is still a concern, and Rutgers is not quite where it used to be athletically. Snyder understands the weak-side position, but does not bring the same closing speed or explosion that Greene did in two breakout seasons at the position. With so many converted defensive backs – Jacobs and potentially Tejay Johnson and T.J. Taylor – size becomes an issue when looking at depth and the week-to-week grind against Big Ten sized athletes. Rutgers has always valued speed over size and needs a defensive coordinator to exploit those beliefs.

New Year's Resolution -- Linebackers should be used in coverage, and Big Ten offensive schemes match up better with linebackers like Snyder and Gause in coverage. Still, it does not hurt to take one or two linebackers off the field when necessary, especially with a defensive line that is traditionally strong against the run. Rutgers used defensive sub packages last season, but improved experience for the secondary should allow for more creativity.

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