Sam Hellman / Scarlet Report

Linebackers Take Spotlight in Early Spring for Rutgers Football

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- After coach Chris Ash called the linebacker situation “a mess” less than a year ago, he explained the improvement and competition at the position in spring camp No. 2.

The Rutgers linebackers sorely lacked experience after the departures of all three starters from its 2015 team. Injuries and other factors forced the position into a next-man-up approach, but first-time starters stepped up.

Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris solidified their roles as sophomore starters in the Scarlet Knights' defense but not without mistakes.

With both back for spring camp, coach Chris Ash singled out their progress among a linebacker group that expects to bring competition throughout the year.

“Roberts and Morris have played a lot of football,” Ash said. “Their practice today, to be honest with you, was better than any practice they had all last year. Those guys both have physically and mentally improved a lot. They understand the defense, they communicated better than they ever had, they were in great football stances, the footwork was good.

“They played and reacted, reacted and played a lot faster than what they did a year ago. Those two guys are clearly our two best linebackers right now.”

Tyreek Williams started six as a true freshman out of Erial (N.J.) Timber Creek. While the sophomore sits out for the spring, Ash said junior Brandon Russell fills in for now.

“Tyreek Williams is out for the spring, Brandon Russell is getting reps at the field backer, the SAM backer. Tyreek, when he comes back and is healthy, will have an opportunity to gain that spot back.”

With Roberts, Morris and Williams as the only linebackers with true starting experience, that leaves the door open for newcomers in the fall.

Ash noted how Rutgers signed four linebackers for the 2017 recruiting class — Olakunle Fatukasi, Tyshon Fogg, Syhiem Simmons and C.J. Onyechi — with the expectation to add onto the competition.

“We have four linebackers that we signed. Every one of those guys will have an opportunity to come in and push for a spot in the two deep and/or playing time if they can earn it. And hopefully, they can. That’s why we recruited them.”

A chance to play right away was one of the reasons Fatukasi, the No. 1 linebacker in New York, stuck with Rutgers. Bruce Eugene, his former coach at Brooklyn Grand Street, told Scarlet Report before signing day that is was Fatukasi’s main goal.

“I know he wants to play as a freshman and that’s his main goal,” Eugene said.

When Fogg spoke with Scarlet Report in the fall after his commitment, the four-star linebacker mentioned early playing time as a point Rutgers discussed with him.

“Hopefully I'll play early if I go out and compete like they’ve said,” Fogg said. “Play with my man Deonte (Roberts), next to him or whatever. We can just go out there and play, so hopefully I can play early. … I’ll come for anything. You just have to go out and compete, whatever fits me best.”

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