RUTGERS RECRUITING NEEDS
Part 6: Linebackers
When Head Coach Greg Schiano arrived on the Banks in December 2000, he inherited a LB corps that was stocked three-and-a-half deep with returning players from a defense that employed a 3-4 scheme. That's fourteen returning LBs. Since Schiano was predisposed to a 4-3 defensive scheme, he essentially was stocked nearly five deep at LB. Not counting incoming players from the 2001 recruiting class. The depth didn't last long as attrition and position changes whittled the group down to seven players without a single loss due to lapsed eligibility. Yes, Schiano inherited a young unit, too. The depth and youth allowed Schiano to de-emphasize LB recruiting in his first class. Schiano recruited speed and strength at LB in each of the next two classes (2002 and 2003). As a result, many Scarlet Knight fans prematurely labeled Rutgers as the "next Linebacker U". But the performance of these young LBs has been less than satisfactory the past two years. This article, the sixth in a series of eight evaluating the needs of the 2005 recruiting class, looks at the once-heralded LB unit.
So MLB DeVraun Thompson was lightly recruited out of nearby Piscataway High School. The knock was "too small, too slow." Yet seemingly every time Thompson stepped onto the field as a true freshman, one was immediately aware of his presence. It was typically announced with a jarring collision with the ball carrier, whether initially on special teams or later in the LB unit. Thompson was quickly promoted from scout team to special teams to second team to starter. After an impressive debut season, Thompson experienced sophomore slump as opponents were more aware of #55 in the middle of the field. Thompson is the anchor of the LB corps. He is the only LB likely guaranteed a starting job.
Jr WLB William Beckford flashed great promise as a first-year player last year (2003) after being academically ineligible as a freshman. However, a knee injury cut short his rookie campaign and slowed him last season. Beckford was an unremarkable performer last season, too, often gaining notice because he was badly out of position, not blunting the point of attack. Beckford should be fully recovered from his knee injury next season. But he will likely have to compete for the starting job.
Jr SLB Terry Bynes is a case study of Schiano's player management style. Bynes wasted his freshman season on special teams. Though praised for an outstanding summer camp, Bynes was buried on the depth chart behind All-Airport SLB Berkeley Hutchinson, who received far more playing time than his performance warranted. Bynes was the only healthy, experienced LB in spring camp last year. The extra practice repetitions allowed him to maintain the starting SLB job in summer camp as Bynes held off Hutchinson. Terry had a solid, if not spectacular, season. Unfortunately, he enters his final season of eligibility just as he should start blooming.
Jr MLB Will Gilkison also wasted a potential freshman redshirt season on special teams. Though designated as the backup SLB to starter Brian Bender, Gilkison didn't actually play LB until very late in the season. Will earned the starting MLB job last year. However, his performance was not satisfactory and Thompson eventually displaced Gilkison as the starter. Schiano started Gilkison at WLB in place of the injured Beckford but Will again struggled, especially against counters run at him. Gilkison backed Thompson this past year and played considerably. He likely will return to that role next year.
Jr SLB Berkeley Hutchinson was the most highly rated player that Schiano has recruited. How did he end up on the Banks? Well, he did not qualify academically and was not eligible for a scholarship. State U was the least expensive Division IA school. Then, there were the character issues, exemplified when Berkeley twice left the team in mid-season. Hutchinson received plenty of opportunities to contribute. In 2003, he played backup SLB and started at WLB and SLB when the designated starters were injured. But Berkeley did not produce at a level commensurate with his playing time. The knock was that he lacked the instincts to play in space at LB and belonged at DE where his responsibilities would be narrower. Hutchinson left the team late in the season and did not return. There were rumors that he had ongoing eligibility issues. He was allegedly headed to Division I-AA Delaware as a transfer but current reports have him headed for the Army. Not to be confused with Army (USMA). Hutchinson was perhaps the best example of Schiano's apparent infatuation with athletes who aren't necessarily football players while football players languish on the sideline.
So WLB Quintero Frierson is another LB who may leave just as he is starting to contribute meaningfully. He also wasted his freshman redshirt on special teams. The rash of injuries at LB in spring camp this past year provided Frierson with a great opportunity to develop and lay claim to a playing time. And he capitalized on that opportunity, keeping the starting WLB job through summer camp. However, a high ankle sprain in the season opener hobbled him for the remainder of the season. Frierson will push Beckford for the starting job at WLB next year.
RS Jr SLB Brad Cunningham was a member of Schiano's first recruiting class. He started as a true freshman and was the most productive member of the freshman class. Cunningham quit school before the 2002 season but re-enrolled in Spring 2003. In his absence, the next generation of LBs passed him on the depth chart. Cunningham has played sparingly for two years despite showing a nose for the football not unlike Thompson. Brad likely will finish has career as a backup.
RS Fr SLB Kenny Gillespie redshirted as a true freshman in 2003. He similarly received extended practice repetitions in spring camp this past year with five LBs missing camp due to injuries. However, unlike Bynes and Frierson, Gillespie did not distinguish himself. Kenny only saw action on special teams last year. With the unit still two-deep with experienced LBs, he is expected to remain limited to special teams unless injuries create an opening(s).
As a result of the questionable burning of redshirts, a once young unit is suddenly running short on eligibility but nonetheless lacks veterans. And attrition has thinned its depth. The LB unit contains four rising seniors, one of whom (Beckford) may regain a year of eligibility. Schiano did not recruit any LBs last year. He needs a full class of three LBs to restock his talent. None of whom can be switched to DE, either, unless Schiano converts a safety to LB (i.e., Ron Girault or Jason Nugent). At least one LB recruit may need to contribute on the two-deep. Hopefully none will be wasted solely on special teams.
Coming Next: Rutgers Recruiting Needs, Part 7. Greg Schiano was a secondary coach with Penn State and the Chicago Bears. Yet poor play in the Rutgers secondary has been a ongoing problem under Schiano as he has developed few defensive backfield recruits into reliable performers. In what kind of shape is a green secondary that lost its most experienced player?
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