SPRING PREVIEW – LINEBACKING CORPS
This article is the sixth of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The first four segments previewed the offense. The last article looked at the defensive line. Backstopping the DLine is the linebacking corps. This preview is based upon information released prior to the opening of spring camp. My thoughts likewise share the same perspective. 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 third time in four years, the LB corps resembled a M*A*S*H unit. Two different players started at MLB, three at SLB, and four at WLB. All but two replacements were prompted by injuries to the starters. However, for the first time in this four-year stretch, Rutgers possessed the depth to overcome the injuries as the LB corps was nearly three deep with eight contributing players. Though young and inexperienced, Head Coach Greg Schiano's LBs possessed athleticism never before seen on the Banks. As Schiano continues to add talent at LB, the biggest concern is still inexperience. A rash of injuries has knocked most of the LB two-deep out of spring camp. Schiano will use spring camp to build depth at LB as his young third team – no longer comprised of write-offs – gets lots of practice repetitions.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off of the two-deep include:
- SLB Brian Bender (9 GS, 35 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 FF, and 1 FR)
- MLB Brian Hohmann (12 GP, 32 tackles, and 2 FF)
As a freshman, Brian Bender played in 10 games as the backup SLB in 1999 before suffering an ACL injury at SS in the season finale. After missing spring camp in 2000 while rehabilitating after reconstructive knee surgery, he regained his backup SOLB job in summer camp but a shoulder injury in Game 4 cut short his comeback. Bender returned for spring camp in 2001 and earned the starting SLB job but a neck injury ended his season after Game 3. He received a medical redshirt. Bender switched to WLB after Brad Cunningham unexpectedly quit the team before summer camp in 2002. After three injury riddled seasons, Bender finally shed the injury bug. Though durability was a major concern, he started every game at WLB, finishing fourth in tackles (77) and third in TFLs (8). Schiano moved Bender back to SLB in spring camp last year. As the only experienced starter last season, Brian was the leader of the LB corps. However, the increased depth meant that Bender actually was spelled by his backup. Bender missed one game with a hamstring injury and the final two games with a knee injury. Bender's production dropped 50% in his final season. Though his experience will be missed, the athleticism of his replacements should compensate.
Brian Hohmann was recruited primarily as a long snapper. He lost his long snapper job after a miserable debut as a true freshman in the 2000 season opener. Limited only to special teams action during a season in which the LB corps bled itself white, Hohmann appeared to be a write-off destined to never see legitimate playing time, especially with the arrival of a new head coach. However, something funny happened on the way to the scrap heap. Injuries again decimated the starting lineup in 2001 and created playing time opportunities for the backups. When Brian Bender suffered a season-ending neck injury in Game 4, Hohmann was the surprise replacement as the starting SLB. Attrition at WLB opened the starting SLB job in 2002 when Schiano switched Bender to WLB in summer camp. Hohmann again beat the competition and started at SLB, finishing seventh in tackles (46) and fifth in TFLs (5). Schiano moved Hohmann to MLB last spring to replace Gary Brackett. However, Will Gilkison beat Hohmann for the starting job. With the influx of young talent at LB, Hohmann's limitations became more apparent. Hohmann played as the backup MLB last season. He also played on special teams. Hohmann's production will be easily replaced but his heart, intensity, unselfishness, and leadership will be missed.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- Jr WLB William Beckford (6 GS, 37 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, one sack, and one INT)
- So MLB DeVraun Thompson (4 GS, 12 GP, 57 tackles, 6 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and one INT)
- Jr SLB Berkeley Hutchinson (3 GS, 8 GP, 18 tackles, and 6 TFLs)
- Jr WLB Will Gilkison (11 GS, 72 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 2 FF, and 1 FR)
Although William Beckford was academically ineligible in 2002, he was allowed to practice with the team. Glowing reports emerged of Beckford's play in practice. Beckford burst into the spotlight in spring camp. As the most physically imposing of Schiano's young LB recruits, Will was a man among boys. Even as a freshman. Schiano immediately gave the athletic Beckford the starting WLB job – the designated blitzer role. Beckford raised the expectation level for the LB corps. No longer a unit of slow, plodding pluggers, playmaking was now the standard. Beckford started quickly last season but his season ended in Game 6 with an ACL injury suffered in the final minutes.
DeVraun Thompson was not a heralded recruit. Many of the knocks on
former Scarlet Knight MLB Gary Brackett were also attributed to Thompson – too
small, too slow. Thompson could not break the depth chart in summer camp
last season but earned a role on special teams. Thompson was one of the
most easily identifiable players on the field – he was often the source of
jarring tackles on the kickoff coverage team. Thompson's play on special
teams quickly earned him promotion to backup MLB. He made his first
appearance at MLB in Game 4; he was immediately noticeable at the point of
attack. Thompson drew another comparison to Brackett – a nose for the
ball. Though Thompson outplayed starter Will Gilkison right away, Schiano
did not elevate Thompson to the starting job until the final four games of the
season. Thompson likely will be a four-year starter and could be the best
MLB to roam the Banks since Tyrone Stowe. Thompson will miss spring camp
with a groin injury but should be fully recovered by summer camp.
Berkeley Hutchinson was arguably the most highly touted recruit in Rutgers history when he joined Schiano's 2002 recruiting class. However, Hutchinson was academically ineligible as a freshmen and was not allowed to practice or work out with the team. Berk was a major trial the for the Schiano regime. Under Terry Shea, non-qualifiers rarely achieved eligibility. Not so with Schiano. Hutchinson fulfilled his academic responsibilities as a freshman and joined the program last year in summer camp. Though rusty from a year off, Hutchinson showed glimpses of potential to mirror that of William Beckford. Though expected by many to play DE, Schiano slotted Berk at backup SLB behind starter Brian Bender. Hutchinson saw plenty of playing time but struggled to adjust to Division IA football after a year away from the game. Berk frequently looked lost on the field. But, when he did find the football, it was often behind the line of scrimmage as one-third of his tackles were for losses. Berk missed the season finale for personal reasons and rumors of a possible transfer to Ohio State persisted into the winter. However, Hutchinson participated in the winter conditioning program and enrolled for the spring semester. Berk will miss spring camp while recovering from shoulder and ankle surgery. The injuries are unfortunate because Hutchinson badly needed spring camp to continue his development. Will the lost time cost him come summer camp? The LB corps is very deep and competition for playing time will be very stiff.
Will Gilkison is yet another Schiano recruit who lost a redshirt season while playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman. Attrition at LB enabled Gilkison to earn the backup SLB job in 2002 behind Brian Hohmann yet Gilkison didn't start seeing action at SLB until midseason even though he had been playing all along on special teams. Gilkison started the season finale at SLB. Schiano moved both Hohmann and Gilkison to MLB last spring. Gilkison quickly displaced Hohmann as the starter and opened the season as the starter. However, Gilkison struggled. Like Hutchinson, the athletic Gilkison often looked lost. Though first among LBs (and fourth overall) in tackles, Gilkison was frequently out of position. DeVraun Thompson eventually displaced Gilkison as the starting MLB. Gilkison in turn displaced Hutchinson as the starting WLB in place of the injured William Beckford. But Gilkison struggled at WLB, too. Brad Cunningham eventually displaced Gilkison at WLB. Gilkison will miss spring camp with a shoulder injury but should return for summer camp. Schiano's apparent fascination with Gilkison has been curious because Will's performance hasn't justified his playing time. Gilkison is expected to be a backup next season.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS Jr WLB Brad Cunningham (1 GS, 11 GP, 21 tackles, and one TFL)
- Jr SLB Terry Bynes (1 GS, 12 GP, 15 tackles, and one INT)
- So WLB Quintero Frierson (8 GP and 7 tackles)
- RS Fr MLB Kenny Gillespie (redshirted)
- RS Fr LB Eric Foster (redshirted)
Brad Cunningham was the surprise of the 2001 recruiting class. Though not highly touted, Cunningham made the biggest impact. When a knee injury sidelined the incumbent, Cunningham seized the starting WLB job and only nagging groin and neck injuries limited his playing time. He started six games (and played in three others) and finished eighth in tackles (63) and third in TFLs (7). He brought playmaking ability noticeably lacking at LB. Expected to start at WLB in 2002, Cunningham quit school in summer for personal reasons, which included a lost passion for football. He rejoined the program – and re-enrolled in Rutgers – in January 2003. Schiano switched Cunningham to FB in a desire to upgrade the athleticism at the position – a questionable move given the lack of athleticism and experienced playmakers at LB. After Brian Leonard earned the starting nod at FB, Schiano moved Cunningham back to LB in summer camp. Cunningham earned the backup job behind William Beckford but backup SLB Berkeley Hutchinson and starting MLB Will Gilkison played ahead of Brad at WLB in place of the injured Beckford. Though Gilkison played poorly at WLB, Cunningham did not play significantly until the final two games of the season. While lacking the athleticism of Gilkison or Hutchinson, Cunningham has consistently shown a nose for the ball similar to DeVraun Thompson. Brad is recovering from groin surgery – his second such injury in three years – and will not participate in spring camp. With the next class of younger, more talented LBs getting the bulk of practice repetitions this spring, will Cunningham even be able to maintain his slot on the depth chart in summer camp?
Terry Bynes also lost his redshirt season while playing mostly on special teams. On a depth chart that lacked speed and athleticism, the speedy Bynes easily earned the backup WLB job in 2002 behind Brian Bender. However, Bynes rarely played at WLB. Schiano switched Bynes to SS in spring camp last year to replace losses on the depth chart in the defensive backfield. However, Bynes really struggled with the transition and returned to LB in summer camp. Nagging injuries hobbled Bynes during an otherwise outstanding summer camp. Bynes never recovered from the lost time and opened the season as the #7 LB. Bynes assumed the backup SLB position first when William Beckford suffered a season-ending knee injury (and Berkeley Hutchinson started one game at WLB) and later when Brian Bender suffered a knee injury. Bynes enters spring camp as the only healthy player on the returning two-deep. The other five LBs are injured. As the most experienced LB in spring camp, Bynes' play should stand out. If he has an unremarkable spring camp, he may not contribute next season.
Quintero Frierson was the most highly touted LB recruit in Schiano's 2003 recruiting class. With the return of Brad Cunningham and Terry Bynes to LB in summer camp – and the qualification of Berkeley Hutchinson – a LB corps that was thin last spring suddenly was bloated. Frierson never got a whiff of the two-deep but played on special teams over the final two months. With the rash of injuries on the two-deep, the athletic Frierson is expected to be the starting WLB by default in spring camp. If he makes the most of this opportunity, he could be the backup next season. However, Frierson may be better served redshirting next season.
Kenny Gillespie redshirted as a freshman last year. He is a tweener – a little small for a LB and probably a little slow for a safety. Given the injury situation at LB, he will probably spend spring camp at LB, backing up either Terry Bynes or Quintero Frierson.
Eric Foster also redshirted as a freshman last year. With five players off the LB two-deep missing spring camp with injures, Foster is expected to see plenty of action at MLB.
There really isn't much to say about the LB corps. An injury epidemic has rendered the depth chart meaningless this spring. Schiano will have a chance to test drive his 2003 recruiting class. Of particular interest in the LB corps will be the following:
- Will Terry Bynes assert himself as the dominant LB?
- How do the inexperienced LBs acquit themselves?
- Who among the 2003 recruiting class stands out?
Coming Next: Part 7 of my Spring Preview. I'll finish the defense with a look at the defensive backfield heading into spring camp.
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