SPRING PREVIEW – SECONDARY
This article is the seventh of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The first four segments previewed the offense. The next two looked at the defensive line and linebackers. The last unit to address is the secondary. This preview is based upon information released only 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.
When Head Coach Greg Schiano arrived at Rutgers three years ago, the secondary was the strength of his defense. In fact, it was the only unit on the entire team that possessed decent depth. As such, recruiting of DBs has not been a priority for Schiano because he had more pressing needs elsewhere. Schiano signed only two DBs in each of this first two recruiting classes. That de-emphasis bit Schiano last year as he lacked both experience and depth at safety. This deficiency was compounded by poor play from his veteran CBs. Schiano, who has historically put as many as four safeties on the field (as the two deep safeties and the two OLBs in the 4-1 dime defense) instead played four CBs in the dime. Schiano moved a big CB to one OLB slot and another CB back to WS. The secondary was scorched all year long, yielding 39 receptions of at least 30 yards. Schiano replaced former Defensive Backs Coach Scott Lakatos with former North Carolina State DB Coach Chris Demarest. Fixing the coverage problems in the secondary – both zone and man-to-man – is one of Schiano's top priorities this spring while sorting out his two-deep.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- CB Nate Jones (12 GS, 73 tackles, one TFL, 2 INTs, and one FF)
- CB Brandon Haw (12 GS, 37 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and one INT)
Nate Jones was one of the few players from the 2000 recruiting class to make an impact on the field. Only five of twenty 2000 freshmen recruits have seen substantial playing time. Jones was clearly the most productive of the lot. He was primarily a special teams player as a freshman in 2000 although technically he was on the two-deep at CB. In 2001, Jones saw extensive action as a backup CB. The highlight of his season was a 71-yard INT return for a TD against Boston College. Jones earned a starting CB job in 2002 and proved to be the best CB on the team. He finished second in INTs (2) and third in tackles (81). Though the third leading tackler last season, Nate's pass coverage was unremarkable. Often playing in soft 2-deep (Cover 2) zone, Jones frequently was not a position to make a lot of coverage plays. When occasionally playing man-to-man, he was often beaten deep or flagged for pass interference because he didn't look back for the football. Jones also played WS in the Cover 2 dime scheme. Nate's loss will be felt most acutely on special teams, where he was one of the nation's best KORs. However, as a cover CB, Nate was only serviceable and lacked the man-to-man coverage skills that would allow Schiano to play his defense more aggressively.
Brandon Haw saw special teams duty as a true freshman in 1999. He earned a starting CB job in summer camp in 2000 and started every game, finishing eighth in tackles (48). In 2001, Haw suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 2 but received a medical redshirt. He reclaimed his starting job in 2002 but had a rough campaign, struggling early and becoming the designated target for opposing QBs. While Haw led the team in pass breakups (18) and INTs (4), these statistics provide some indication of the frequency with which he was targeted as the weak link. Like Nate Jones, Haw also struggled through a mediocre senior season. Once again, he was the preferred target of opposing QBs in the base defense. Though he was targeted more frequently than was Jones, Haw recorded only half as many tackles. Haw's departure, with that of Jones, leaves a void of experienced CBs on the roster. His successor must compensate with better athleticism for the shortfall in experience.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- Sr FS Jarvis Johnson (12 GS, 97 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 2 INTs)
- RS So WS Bryan Durango (3 GS, 24 tackles, and 1.5 TFLs)
- RS Sr WS Jason Grant (4 GS, 8 GP, 14 tackles, 2 TFLs, and one INT)
- Sr CB Eddie Grimes (1 GS, 9 GP, 41 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one INT, and one FR)
- Jr FS Dondre Asberry (12 GP and 24 tackles)
- So CB Derrick Roberson (12 GP, 14 tackles, and one FR)
Jarvis Johnson saw some game action at safety and on special teams as a true freshman in 2001. While a hamstring injury sidelined the incumbent during summer camp in 2002, Johnson seized the starting FS job and didn't relinquish it. Lacking experience, Johnson was burned early in the year but later played solidly. Johnson finished fifth in tackles (59). Jarvis anchored the secondary last season. He led the team in tackles and pass breakups (9) while also serving as the last line of defense. However, as one of the deep safeties, the startling number of big pass plays that the defense yielded nonetheless reflects on Johnson's performance. Jarvis is a lock to start at FS. As the leader of a very green secondary, Johnson must be both a leader and a playmaker this season. As a three-year starter, he should contend for All-Big East honors.
Bryan Durango was one of only eight freshmen (including two kickers) to redshirt in 2002. The undersized Durango was one of four players competing last season for the vacant starting job at WS – the run support safety. Though not distinguishing himself in spring camp, Durango emerged from summer camp as the starting WS. He had a rocky start with a bad game at Michigan State, in which he yielded a long TD pass. A knee injury suffered prior to Game 4 ended Durango's season prematurely. Durango is healthy and will participate in spring camp. The WS position is still muddled. Can he reclaim his starting job?
Jason Grant redshirted in 2000 and saw action on special teams in 2001. Expected to be a special teams player in 2002, Jason earned the backup WS job as attrition created opportunities on the depth chart. With the unexpected loss of incumbent starting FS, Grant was the only backup safety on the roster (excluding walkons). He was one of the biggest surprises, finishing ninth in tackles (45). Grant entered spring camp last year as the incumbent at WS. However, Schiano moved Bryan Durango from CB and Terry Bynes from LB to compete for the WS job. Grant did not distinguish himself in either spring or summer camp and was buried on the third team behind Durango and converted TB Jason Nugent. An injury to Durango and poor play by Nugent afforded Grant an opportunity for increased playing time as the season progressed. Jason started five games before missing the season finale with a knee injury. However, his play was unremarkable as he finished with nearly half as many tackles as did Durango in over twice the playing time as Bryan. Grant surprisingly is returning for a fifth season. He is again expected to serve as a backup WS.
Eddie Grimes was primarily a special teams player as a true freshman in 2001 but he saw some action at CB. Grimes was suspended for summer camp and the first three games of the 2002 season. Grimes returned to earn a backup CB job but played sparingly as the fourth CB. Grimes pushed Brandon Haw for a starting CB job last season but ultimately played as the nickel CB and an OLB in the dime defense. Grimes started the season poorly as opposing QBs frequently targeted him at CB. However, Grimes' play improved noticeably later in the final month of the season. Eddie is the most experienced CB on the roster and is a lock for one of two available starting jobs. He will be relied upon to anchor one side of the secondary. A big CB, Grimes must be a playmaker this season both defending passes and making hard tackles.
Dondre Asberry saw action early in 2002 as a backup CB while Eddie Grimes served his suspension. However, Asberry's playing time dropped once Grimes returned. Asberry later saw limited action as the backup FS. Schiano made the switch to FS permanent in spring camp last year. With a shortage of DBs on the roster and more needs at WS, Asberry won the FS job without any competition. Dondre played sparingly behind Jarvis Johnson last season as two CBs played ahead of him in the dime defense, including one true freshman who struggled badly. Asberry is again expected to backup Johnson at FS. Will he see a role in the dime defense, perhaps at WS opposite Johnson?
True freshman Derrick Roberson saw quite a bit of action as the fourth CB last season. With Schiano using four CBs in the dime coverage package, Roberson was often on the field in obvious passing situations. Unfortunately, Roberson was not really ready for such a significant role. Playing one of the CB roles the dime defense, Roberson was repeatedly victimized on both underneath and deep routes. However, that trial by fire prepared Roberson for the burden he likely will bear this season as a starting CB. Roberson is expected to beat fellow second-year players Joe Porter and Tre Timbers for the second open starting CB job. How will Roberson look in spring camp? Does he look ready for prime time?
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS Jr CB Bryan Wilson (10 GP, 6 tackles, and one FR)
- Jr WS Jason Nugent (5 GS, 12 GP, 42 tackles, one TFL, and one FR)
- So CB Joe Porter (9 GP and 3 tackles)
- RS Fr CB Tre Timbers (redshirted)
Recruited as a WR, Bryan Wilson was redshirted in 2001 while two fellow true freshmen played ahead of him. Wilson was unable to crack the two-deep at WR in 2002 and played primarily on special teams. The switch away from a multiple receiver offense under new Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg created a glut of WRs in spring camp last year. As a result, Schiano switched Wilson to DB prior to spring camp. However, Wilson was again limited to special teams duty as two true freshman played ahead of him at CB. Wilson suffered a devastating knee injury at Miami in late November and will miss spring camp while rehabilitating the injury.
Jason Nugent spent most of his freshman season on special teams in 2001. He was the gunner on the punt team and blocked a punt that was returned for a TD against Miami. Nugent eventually displaced Marcus Jones as the third team TB late in the season and saw the bulk of his action at TB in the season finale. Nugent competed for the starting TB job in spring camp last year but nagging injuries hampered his performance. Schiano switched Nugent to WS in summer camp, a move that many expected to happen before spring camp based upon the need at WS and Nugent's performance on special teams. Nugent struggled with the late switch to WS and was not impressive during summer camp as the much smaller Bryan Durango beat Nugent for the run support WS starting job. Nugent saw plenty of action early in the season and eventually replaced the injured Durango as the starter in Game 4. However, Nugent continued to struggle and Schiano eventually replaced him with Jason Grant. Nugent has had nearly an entire year to adapt to the WS safety position. The battle between Nugent and Durango for the starting job should be among the very best in spring camp.
Joe Porter played primarily on special teams last year as a true freshman. However, Porter beat Bryan Wilson for the fifth CB slot and saw a little action at CB. The departure of Nate Jones and Brandon has left a huge void at CB. Porter will compete with Derrick Roberson and Tre Timbers for one of the vacant starting CB jobs. With Wilson out with a knee injury, Porter will make the two-deep by default.
Tre Timbers redshirted last year as a freshman while two other true freshman CBs played ahead of him. The redshirt should not automatically be viewed as an indication that Timbers is third in the pecking order among the former freshman CBs. Timbers suffered a hamstring injury early in summer camp, which put him behind his peers. The redshirt may merely have been a prudent move to salvage a season partially lost. Regardless, Timbers will compete with Derrick Roberson and Joe Porter for a starting CB job. He is guaranteed a spot on the two-deep as a result of depth problems at CB. Spring camp will help sort out the pecking order at CB.
The secondary will be the most critical emphasis of spring camp. Schiano and Demarest must improve the weak link of a defense that lost its two most experienced CBs. Whereas, in years past, comparisons of the defense against the offense were meaningless since each unit was terrible, the secondary will be tested by a deeper, more talented, and more experienced receiving corps. How will the secondary compare? And fare? Of particular interest in the defensive backfield will be the following:
- Who emerges as the starting WS opposite FS Jarvis Johnson? And who is the backup WS?
- Who among Derrick Roberson, Joe Porter, and Tre Timbers emerges as the starting CB opposite Eddie Grimes?
- How do the CBs look against the WRs? Are they giving up generous cushions and conceding the underneath routes? If they tighten their coverage, are they getting beat over the top?
- Schiano employed a Cover 2 zone underneath coverage scheme as his base package last year. The dime defense employed a similar look with DBs playing the OLB roles. What kind of the coverage schemes is the defense using?
- How do the CBs and safeties look in man-to-man coverage?
- Are the DBs looking back for the football to break-up or intercept passes?
Coming Next: Final Part of my Spring Preview. The first seven parts of this series reviewed each of the four offensive and three defensive units on the team. The last part will tie it all together and take a big picture look at key issues that are my focus during spring camp.
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