RUTGERS RECRUITING NEEDS
Part 5: Defensive Line
When Head Coach Greg Schiano arrived on the Banks four years ago, he inherited a program in shambles. On the field, Rutgers could not control the line of scrimmage and was pushed around on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Rutgers was perennially lodged at the bottom of the Big East in rushing defense. The DLine was undersized, slow, and weak. The program was so lacking in suitable DL that former Head Coach Terry Shea switched to a 3-4 scheme in his final season (2000). Schiano set to work immediately building a DLine upon which he could anchor his defense. He made the recruitment of DL an early priority. He also used his much-improved strength and conditioning program to grow LBs into legitimate DEs. A unit that once struggled to fill a three-man line was two-and-a-half deep this past year. Rutgers led the Big East in sacks and the DL were primarily responsible for these sacks. While the DLine still needs much improvement – most specifically in the area of backside containment – Schiano also must replace heavy losses on his best defensive unit. This article, the fifth in a series of eight evaluating the needs of the 2005 recruiting class, looks at the foundation of the Schiano's defense – the DLine.
RS Jr DE Ryan Neill was a starter as a true sophomore before a severe knee injury ended his season. He missed the 2003 season, too, while rehabilitating his knee. Ryan returned from the potentially career-ending injury to earn First Team All-Big East honors this past season. Neill finished second in sacks among Big East DEs. Neill, who can play either RDE or LDE, will anchor one end of the DLine.
Sr DT David Harley arrived with the 2003 recruiting class as a JUCO transfer. He was the best playmaker at DT as a reserve last season (2003). He again was a playmaker as a starter this past year. His tremendous presence in the middle and his knack for making plays in the backfield will be sorely missed.
RS Sr DT Gary Gibson defied the odds. A rare non-medical redshirt under Shea, Gibson was written off with the detritus of Shea's final recruiting class. But Gary never got the memo. He worked his way from scout team to second team to starter to playmaker, beating more highly touted recruits in the process. A very impressive evolution for a guy not expected to see the field. Gibson's durability, work ethic, and leadership will be missed on the DLine.
Jr DE Val Barnaby has never been a highly acclaimed member of the DE rotation. He is workmanlike, not spectacular. More known for stopping the run than for sacking the QB. Yet Barnaby has been a two-year starter at DE. With Neill, Barnaby will give DLine Coach Randy Melvin an experienced set of bookends.
Sr DE Alfred Peterson earned Freshman All-American honors in 2001. Much was expected of the young QB killer from Florida. Peterson never realized the expectations set that first year. He spent the following three seasons primarily as a backup on the two deep DE rotation. Peterson was a playmaker but was also very inconsistent. He is the only DE not returning.
RS Sr DT J'Vonne Parker only played one year at Rutgers. He transferred to Rutgers after two years at Howard. He was ineligible to play in 2002 under NCAA transfer rules. Schiano then suspended Parker from the program last year. Parker was not expected to contribute this past season after missing an entire year on top of conditioning concerns. However, injuries at DT provided an opportunity during 2004 spring camp and Parker earned a spot in the DT playing rotation that went three deep.
Jr DT Luis Rivas played on the two-deep as a true freshman and started as a sophomore. He missed spring camp in 2004 while recovering from groin surgery. Luis lost his starting job to Harley this past year but played regularly as a backup. Rivas is the most experienced returning DT.
RS Jr DE Piana Lukabu was switched to DE late in his freshman season. A redshirt season as a sophomore allowed him to grow into his new position. He emerged as a playmaker last year. He was suspended for the first several games this past season and struggled to regain his spot in the playing rotation. Lukabu will likely be a pass rush specialist next year.
RS Fr DE Eric Foster was recruited originally as a OLB but was moved to DE. He redshirted as a true freshman, giving him time to acclimate to his new role. He earned his way into the playing rotation with a strong performance in spring camp this past year. Foster will likely replace Peterson in the DE rotation.
So DT Rameel Meekins played on the second team last year as a true freshman walk-on. Meekins performed well in spring camp as a swell of injuries created opportunities. He played this past year on the three-deep rotation at DT. With three senior DTs departing, Meekins will compete for a starting job. Don't automatically relegate him to the second team just because he was once a walk-on.
So DT Nate Robinson was an extremely late addition to the 2003 recruiting class. Robinson signed a letter of intent with Miami but the university denied him admission in August. Nate promptly enrolled at Rutgers right before summer camp opened. Still rehabilitating a knee injury suffered as a high school senior, Nate did not play until late in the season. And then only sparingly. He undoubtedly would have been better served with a redshirt season that would have given him time to fully heal and get in shape. He didn't get it. Robinson flashed glimpses of his potential in spring camp as injuries at DT provided an opportunity to practice with the first and second teams. Yet, when the season arrived, Robinson was buried on the depth chart and again played only sparingly given the high expectations. With two starters and a backup departing, Nate should seize one of the vacant starting jobs.
Fr DE Jamaal Westerman enrolled at Rutgers in spring 2004. Although he played well in spring camp, he redshirted this past season. He has four experienced DEs ahead of him in the pecking order.
RS Fr DE Rashawn Ricks was moved from LB to DE as a true freshman but did not play while redshirting. His performance in spring camp was unremarkable in the logjam at DE. He was involved in a fatal car accident during the summer and the resulting injuries kept him off the team. It is unlikely that he will be able to play again. He is dealing with issues bigger than football. Good luck.
Fr DT Joe Salinardi redshirted this past season. The departure of three seniors has created an opening on the two-deep. He will get an opportunity to compete for the job in spring camp.
Fr DT Carl Howard originally signed with Virginia Tech this past year but requested his release during summer camp. He transferred back home to Rutgers in time to enroll for the fall semester. As such, his freshman redshirt also satisfied NCAA transfer requirements. Howard will jockey with Salinardi for a spot on the two deep.
Fr DE Mike Ziarnowski redshirted this past season. He will compete for a place in the playing rotation. He may not crack the two deep with four veterans ahead of him but he still could see action in a three-deep rotation . Or on special teams.
Fr DE Chenry Lewis rounds out a deep crop of freshman DL. Lewis also redshirted and similarly will wait his turn next year. For the rising freshman class, next year is about getting ready for 2006.
RS So DT Joe Henley was one of the first verbal commitments to the 2002 recruiting class. However, Henley was lightly recruited and, from the moment he arrived at Rutgers, was not expected to contribute. Through three seasons, he has met expectations. He was switched to center in spring camp last year to fill in for injuries but couldn't earn a place on the depth chart. He was moved back to DT, where he has yet to play. Next year will probably be his last; Schiano likely will not invite Henley back for a fifth year.
The DLine is the second deepest unit on the team behind the receivers. Schiano nearly played a three-deep on the DLine this past season. Despite losing four seniors off the two-deep, including two starters, Schiano still returns nearly a two-deep of experienced players. He has also redshirted the next wave. Schiano doesn't need to fill any immediate needs. However, his roster contains four rising seniors. He will need at least one DE and one DT to keep reinforcements in the pipeline. They won't be needed in 2005 but will be needed in 2006, preferably after a redshirt season.
Coming Next: Rutgers Recruiting Needs, Part 6. A year ago, Scarlet Knight fans were hailing Rutgers as the next Linebacker U. But the performance of these young LBs has been less than satisfactory the past two years. What is the status of this once-heralded unit?
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