SPRING PREVIEW – DEFENSIVE LINE
So, I continue with my belated spring preview as the Spring Game nears. Two scrimmages are complete and practices are no longer open to the public. I‘ve finished previewing the offense. They punted and the defense is on the field. As with the offense, let's start up front with the defensive line. This preview is based upon information released prior to the opening of spring camp. My thoughts likewise share the same perspective. This article is the fifth of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. 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.
For the second consecutive year, Schiano returned six of his eight DL off the two-deep last season. Still young, the DLine was the best unit on a defense that took a step backward last year. Rutgers improved to #6 in the Big East in rushing defense (ranked #68 nationally at 163 yards per game in 2003 vs #106-ranked at 203 yards per game in 2002) and #4 in sacks (27 in 2003 vs 15 in 2002). The rushing defense further improved its yield per carry from a generous 4.7 yards per carry to a more respectable 4.2 yards per carry. The improved performance of the DLine meant that the secondary was less busy as the last line of defense. Only two of the top six tacklers were DBs, as opposed to three of the top six the previous year. The DL weren't merely occupying blockers, either; they were making plays as two DL were among the top six tacklers. Head Coach Greg Schiano's babies, who have played since their freshmen seasons, have finally grown up. The DLine is the deepest and most experienced unit on the defense. The DLine will anchor the defense this season.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
DE Raheem Orr (12 GS, 82 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 FF, and 1 FR) is the only loss from the two-deep. But he's a big loss. Orr missed the 1999 season as a non-qualifier. He narrowly missed qualifying for the 2000 season but was eligible to practice, where the MLB was the best player on the practice field . Orr qualified for the 2001 season but had to learn a new position as Schiano switched Orr to DE when summer camp opened. An ankle injury limited Orr to only 7 games and hampered his production. Orr anchored the DLine in 2002, leading the unit in tackles (5th overall), TFLs (2nd overall), and sacks (1st overall). Orr emerged as a playmaker last season and capped his career with a performance that earned 1st Team All-Big East accolades. Orr again led the DLine in tackles (second overall), TFLs (first), and sacks (first). Raheem will be sorely missed. The ability of his successor to make plays will be crucial to the performance of the defense.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Sr DT Gary Gibson (12 GS, 44 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, and 1 FR)
- RS Jr DE Piana Lukabu (6 GS, 12 GP, 20 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, and 1 FF)
- Jr DT Luis Rivas (9 GS, 11 GP, and 21 tackles)
- Sr DE Alfred Peterson (6 GS, 11 GP, 34 tackles, 6 TFL, and 1.5 sacks)
- Sr DT David Harley (3 GS, 12 GP, 29 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3 FRs, 1 sack, and 1 FF)
- Jr DE Val Barnaby (11 GP, 12 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 1 sack)
- So DT Nate Robinson (3 GP, 3 tackles, and 1 sack)
Gary Gibson, a member of Terry Shea's final recruiting class, actually redshirted as a freshman in 2000, which was both a minor miracle under Shea and troubling since it cast doubts about his ability. Gibson surprisingly earned a spot on the two-deep entering the 2001 season. An injury to the incumbent put the starting DT job up for grabs in spring camp 2002. Gibson emerged as a surprise starter. His play was solid but not spectacular. Gibson retained his starting job last year, fending off competition from younger Schiano recruits. Gary became a playmaker in the middle, finishing sixth in tackles and second in TFLs. Gibson is a virtual lock for a starting job but will miss spring camp with a groin injury. He is expected to be fully recovered by summer camp. Can he further improve his playmaking and assume Raheem Orr's leadership mantle?
Piana Lukabu was primarily a special teams player as a true freshman in 2001. He redshirted in 2002. The redshirt as a sophomore cast doubts about Lukabu's ability to contribute as a true freshman played ahead of him. Piana raised eyebrows with his performance in spring camp last year but that was accomplished against an offensive line that had been among the nation's worst the season before. Lukabu emerged as one of the big surprises last season, sharing starting DE duties with Alfred Peterson. Piana started six of the final eight games. He was a playmaker, finishing second in sacks and third in TFLs. With the departure of Raheem Orr and the suspension of Peterson, Lukabu should anchor one end of the DLine. He will have to be the primary playmaker off the edge this year.
Luis Rivas was the prize DL recruit of Schiano's 2002 class and cracked the two-deep early as a true freshman. Rivas seized the open starting job at DT last year in spring camp but his play last season was not noteworthy. Though starting most of the season, Rivas finished 17th in tackles and didn't make plays. David Harley increasingly encroached on Rivas' playing time. A groin injury may have affected Rivas' performance. He will miss spring camp while recovering from surgery on his injured groin. Can Rivas bounce back from his sophomore slump? Come summer camp, he will likely have to earn the starting job back from Harley.
Alfred Peterson was the most impressive player in the 2001 recruiting class. Though a true freshman, he was the best playmaker on the DLine, leading the group in tackles (eighth overall) and sacks (second overall) and finishing second in TFLs (third overall). However, Peterson experienced a sophomore slump in 2002 as he was demoted to the second team. A knee injury may have affected Peterson's performance. Although Peterson's play largely went unnoticed, he finished third on the DLine (10th overall) in tackles and second in TFLs (third overall). Furthermore, 25% of his tackles were TFLs. Alfred had another quiet season last year as a co-starter, again finishing third among DL (12th overall) in tackles, fourth (fifth overall) in sacks, and fifth in TFLs. By the end of the season, Peterson was playing behind Piana Lukabu. Peterson is currently suspended for a stupid incident that may – or may not – have been compounded by an assault charge. Peterson is another player who must fill Raheem Orr's void. However, instead of wondering whether Alfred can realize the promise of his freshman year, fans are left wondering if he will even rejoin the team.
David Harley transferred to Rutgers last year from Pasadena (CA) Community College. Harley arrived at summer camp overweight, which minimized his playing time through much of the first half of the season. However, in limited playing time, Harley demonstrated the ability to make plays not seen from Scarlet Knight DTs since Rashod Swinger anchored the interior in 1996. David's playing increased as the season wore on and his conditioning improved; he started three of the final six games. Harley's physical conditioning will be the best gauge of his progress. If Harley can get in better shape, he could be among the Big East's best DT's next season and, alongside Gary Gibson, give Rutgers the best interior line in the league.
Val Barnaby cracked the two-deep in summer camp as a true freshman in 2002. After Ryan Neill suffered a season-ending knee injury, Barnaby battled Alfred Peterson for the starting DE job late in the season. However, Barnaby slumped last season as a sophomore, losing his slot as the third DE to Piana Lukabu. Although still on the two-deep as the fourth DE, Barnaby played sparingly behind Raheem Orr. Orr's departure and Peterson's suspension have created an opportunity for Barnaby. Val will likely battle Ryan Neill for the open starting job. With Peterson's status uncertain, Barbaby must contribute this season.
Nate Robinson was a surprising late addition to the 2003 recruiting class. Considered among the nation's best high school DTs, Robinson signed with Miami, a program known for its history of dominating DTs. But Miami denied admission to Robinson and Nate was looking for a new school in July. Schiano, so relentless in his pursuit of New Jersey's blue chip recruits, capitalized upon the opportunity of a second chance with Robinson and convinced big Nate to stay home. Robinson reported to summer camp not fully recovered from a high school knee injury. Anxious to play right away, Robinson declined to redshirt but didn't play until the second half of the season. Though he showed some glimpses of his potential, his impact was negligible and a season better spent redshirting was wasted. Injuries to Gary Gibson and Luis Rivas will create opportunities in spring camp. Will Nate claim one of the temporarily available starting jobs? How will Robinson look alongside David Harley, arguably Rutgers best DT?
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS Sr DT J'Vonne Parker (suspended)
- RS Jr DE Ryan Neill (redshirted)
- RS So DT Joe Henley (DNP)
- So DT Rameel Meekins (5 GP and 7 tackles)
- RS Fr DE Rocky Ricks
- Fr DE Jamaal Westerman
J'Vonne Parker transferred to Rutgers from Howard in 2002 as a surprise addition to the roster. J'Vonne was suspended from the program last spring. He rejoined the team for summer camp but was not allowed to play. At a reported 6'6" and 345 pounds, Parker is intriguing but his physical conditioning has been suspect as he gained 20 pounds after arriving at Rutgers. Spring camp will provide the first real measurement of his ability. Injuries to Gary Gibson and Luis Rivas will provide the opportunity for plenty of extra repetitions. Parker will make the two-deep by default. Will he break the starting lineup during spring camp? If not, he likely won't contribute much this season.
Ryan Neill played in 10 games as true freshman and earned the starting DE job in summer camp in 2002. However, a devastated knee injury ended a steady if unspectacular sophomore season in which he still finished second among DL (eighth overall) in tackles. Recovering from two torn knee ligaments, including the ACL, Neill redshirted last season while fully rehabilitating. With the departure of Raheem Orr and the suspension of Alfred Peterson, Neill will compete for the open starting DE job opposite Piana Lukabu. How will Neill look after missing the better part of an entire year? His experience will be invaluable at the suddenly thin DE position.
Joe Henley was one of the first verbal commitments of Schiano's 2002 recruiting class. Henley redshirted in 2002 and did not break the two-deep last spring even though Schiano lacked depth at DT. A walk-on played ahead of Henley in spring camp and as did another walk-on last season. Joe was buried on the depth chart last season and did not play. He is not expected to contribute this season.
Rameel Meekins was one of the big surprises of summer camp last year. Though a walk-on, Meekins cracked the two-deep in summer camp as suspensions and injuries created openings. Meekins eventually gave way to Nate Robinson later in the year. Injuries have created further opportunities in spring camp. While Meekins is expected to make the two-deep by default, will he challenge Robinson and J'Vonne Parker for the open starting job?
Rocky Ricks was one of the more highly touted New Jersey recruits from Schiano's 2003 class. Expected to play LB, Schiano moved Ricks to DE in summer camp because of a glut of young talent at LB. The suspension of Alfred Peterson has created an opening on the two-deep. Will Ricks capitalize upon that opportunity? How will he look compared to Piana Lukabu, Rutgers best DE?
Jamaal Westerman is a member of Schiano's 2004 recruiting class. Having already completed four years of high school in Canada, Westerman was a spring enrollee at Rutgers. While the early enrollment should help Westerman's development, Jamaal is not expected to make an impact this spring. That is just not a realistic expectation.
The days where the performance of the DLine cannot be judged against that of the OLine, because each is so terrible, are history. The OLine improved dramatically last season, demonstrating the ability to control the line of scrimmage. Similarly, the DLine also improved last season and no longer offered opponents the past of least resistance. While the DLine proved better stopping the run, its pass rush was still lacking. The battles along the LOS should be the most heated, if not entertaining of spring camp. Of particular interest in spring camp will be the following:
- Who will replace Raheem Orr as the dominant playmaker? Who else is making plays behind the LOS?
- Can the DLine generate an effective pass rush without the help of blitzing LBs and DBs?
- How does Ryan Neill look 18 months removed from major reconstructive knee surgery?
- Who will replace Orr as a starting DE?
- Who will seize the temporarily open starting DT jobs in place of the injured Gary Gibson and Luis Rivas?
- How much has Nate Robinson improved over last season?
- Do J'Vonne Parker and Rashawn Ricks look like contributors?
Coming Next: Part 6 of my Spring Preview. I'll take a look at the talented yet injury riddled linebacking corps.
Please send any comments to email@example.com. I welcome and appreciate your feedback. And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam. In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.