Ash Era Countdown: Linebackers Breakdown

The Ash Era countdown to Rutgers football training camp enters its final week with a look at linebacker. With complete turnover at the position, playing time is up for grabs and then some. We break it down, including potential starters and key additions.

The Competition – Five players pushed seriously for three vacant jobs in spring practice. That battle continues at all three spots in training camp. Najee Clayton and Deonte Roberts, both true sophomores, made the most headway for starting jobs. Clayton converted from safety to linebacker in the offseason with an ideal fit as the SAM.

Roberts, who started against Army last season for an injured Steve Longa, played both middle and weak-side linebacker in spring practice. He could start at either spot depending on the third linebacker.


2015 12 6 5 11 -- -- -- -- -- --
TOTAL 12 6 5 11 -- -- -- -- -- --

This is where the competition spikes. T.J. Taylor is the most logical choice. He can play inside or outside as a converted safety but the production was not there in spring. Taylor was clearly not 100 percent following his 2015 knee surgery. If he gets to 100 percent by August, however, he is the favorite.

Sophomore Brandon Russell began camp as the third starting linebacker. Red-shirt freshman Trevor Morris finished it. Both are legitimate contenders that can also help on special teams.

Walk-on Greg Jones saw time at outside linebacker and could compete for a spot on the two-deep.

Storyline Central – Roberts is the veteran of the group with all of one career start to his name as a true sophomore. Linebacker is a reboot position under Chris Ash. The entire starting unit turns over from 2015, but with the struggles of last year's defense, change is a good thing. Linebackers will not have the same identity in Ash's ideal defense. It starts with speed with the strong side as a hybrid coverage position. Take a look at Darron Lee's role with Ohio State, and that is what Rutgers wants from players like Clayton. Middle and weak-side linebackers also require different skillsets than last season, which is why so many players tried multiple positions in spring practice.

Prospect Development – Rutgers loaded up on linebacker for a reason in recruiting. Thin at the position, young players could get in early – especially after Elorm Lumor found a home at defensive end Jonathan Pollock transferred after summer school.

Rutgers went all out to retain Pennsylvania's top outside linebacker in Rashawn Battle. The Scarlet Knights also flipped speedy Timber Creek sleeper Tyreek Williams from Buffalo. With no returning starters, playing time is certainly available.

Colonia's (N.J.) Solomon Manning enrolled early to learn, and that should be his primary goal this season.

Preseason Grade – C+ – Rutgers has some exciting, young linebackers but until they prove it on the field, they represent the defense's most significant concern in 2016.


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