SPRING PREVIEW – DEFENSIVE LINE
With only a week remaining in spring camp, I continue with my spring preview. I‘ve finished previewing the offense. After a halftime intermission for tax season, defense is now front and center. 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.
Last season, Head Coach Greg Schiano returned a veteran DLine, nearly three deep and stocked with four seniors and four juniors with a combined six years of starting experience. The DLine was the best unit on a disappointing defense but nonetheless played poorly despite the experience. Although Rutgers led the Big East in sacks (31 vs 27 in 2003), the pass defense was still porous. Meanwhile, the rushing defense was weak, ranking #80 nationally at 178 yards per game (vs #68 at 163 yards per game in 2003). The rushing defense further worsened its yield per carry from a soft 4.2 yards per carry to a softer 4.3 yards per carry. Only one of the top ten tacklers were DL (and none in the top six), as opposed to two of the top ten the previous year (including the second leading tackler). The gaudy sack and TFLs total camouflaged a sobering fact – the aggressiveness that produced these big plays often left the Scarlet Knights vulnerable to misdirection and big plays in the wrong direction. The unit tended to be all balls, no brains. New DLine Coach Cary Godette, who replaced the departed Randy Melvin (first to Illinois and subsequently to the Cleveland Browns), must instill more discipline in the unit. Meanwhile, Schiano must replace four seniors with a combined 67 starts among them.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- DT Gary Gibson (8 GS, 25 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, one FF, and one FR)
- DT David Harley (8 GS, 10 GP, 16 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, one FF, and one FR)
- DT J'Vonne Parker (5 GS, 10 GP, 19 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and one FR)
- DE Alfred Peterson (1 GS, 10 GP, 26 tackles, 10 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 FF, and 1 FR)
Gary Gibson, a member of Terry Shea's final recruiting class, redshirted as a freshman in 2000 and never played for Shea. Gibson surprisingly earned a spot on the two-deep in 2001. An injury to the incumbent put the starting DT job up for grabs in spring camp 2002 and Gibson emerged as a surprise starter. His play was solid but not spectacular; he finished fourth among DL – and first among DTs – in tackles (32) and TFLs (4). Gibson retained his starting job in 2003, fending off competition from younger Schiano recruits. Gary became a playmaker in the middle, finishing sixth overall in tackles (44) and second in TFLs (7.5) but his overall production dropped. He nonetheless had the second best tally among DL and the best among DTs. Gibson started again last year in a 3-deep DT rotation and led all DTs in tackles, TFLs, and sacks. Gary's leadership, durability, work ethic, and playmaking will be sorely missed. Who would have thought that four years ago?
David Harley transferred to Rutgers in 2003 from Pasadena (CA) Community College but arrived at summer camp overweight. In limited playing time, he demonstrated the playmaking potential. David started three of the final six games and finished fourth among DL in tackles (29) and third overall TFLs (6.5). Expected to compete for All Big East honors last year, Harley had an inconspicuous season, finishing fourth among Scarlet Knight DTs in tackles. Harley's departure won't leave half the hole that was expected.
J'Vonne Parker transferred to Rutgers from Howard in 2002 but was suspended from the program in spring 2003. He rejoined the team for 2003 summer camp but was not allowed to play. Injuries to both starters created playing opportunity in spring camp last year that J'Vonne capitalized upon. Not expected to contribute last season, Parker instead earned the third DT slot in the rotation. Parker's sudden emergence and equally sudden departure leaves Schiano in the position of replacing his top three DTs.
Alfred Peterson was the most impressive freshman in the 2001 recruiting class, leading the DLine in tackles (56 for eighth overall) and sacks (3 for second overall) and finishing second in TFLs (7 for third overall). However, Peterson experienced a sophomore slump in 2002 as he was demoted to the second team. Although Peterson's play largely went unnoticed, he nonetheless finished third among DL in tackles (36 for tenth overall) and second in TFLs (8 for third overall). Alfred had another quiet season in 2003 as a co-starter, again finishing third among DL in tackles (34), fourth in sacks (1.5), and fifth in TFLs (6). By the end of the season, Peterson was playing as a backup. Alfred missed spring camp last year while on suspension. He again played as a backup and finished third (tied) among DL in tackles, second in TFLs, and third in sacks. Peterson was a valuable playmaking reserve who never quite realized the potential – or achievements – of his promising freshman year.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Sr DE Ryan Neill (11 GS, 43 tackles, 19 TFLs, 8 sacks, one INT, one FR, and one TD)
- Sr DE Val Barnaby (10 GS, 11 GP, 26 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, one sack, one FF, and one FR)
- Sr DT Luis Rivas (1 GS, 11 GP, 19 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 1. 5 sacks)
- RS Sr DE Piana Lukabu (8 GP, 33 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, and 2 FF)
Ryan Neill played in 10 games at backup DE as true freshman in 2001 and contributed 19 tackles. He earned the starting DE job in 2002 but a devastating knee injury ended a steady if unspectacular sophomore season in which he still finished second among DL in tackles (43 for eighth overall). Recovering from two torn knee ligaments, including the ACL, Neill redshirted in 2003 and missed 2004 spring camp while fully rehabilitating. After missing a year-and-a-half, Neill was expected to backup younger, less rusty players. However, Ryan immediately regained his starting job in summer camp and returned in grand style with an INT return for a TD in the season opener. Neill led all DL in tackles, TFLs (second in the Big East), and sacks (first in the Big East) while earning First Team All-Big East honors. He will anchor the rebuilt the DLine next season as its leading playmaker.
Val Barnaby cracked the two-deep in summer camp as a true freshman in 2002 and contributed 30 tackles. However, Barnaby suffered a sophomore slump in 2003 and lost his slot as the third DE, which he inherited from the injured Neill, while recording only 12 tackles. Barnaby re-emerged as a surprise starter opposite Neill last season but only tied for third in tackles among DEs. With the heavy losses at DT, the veteran DEs must step forward and lead the DLine. Val has played but hasn't produced. That must change this year. Barnaby, a big DE who has not been a playmaker on the edge, also could be moved inside to shore up the DT position.
Luis Rivas cracked the two-deep as a true freshman in 2002 and contributed marginally (14 tackles). Rivas seized the open starting job at DT in 2003 spring camp but his play was not noteworthy as he finished third among DTs with 21 tackles. Luis missed spring camp last season with a groin injury. Once a starter, Rivas was relegated to the fourth DT in the rotation last season but nonetheless tied for second among DTs in tackles. With the departure of the top three DTs, Rivas is a lock to regain his old starting job. He must have a big senior season.
Piana Lukabu was primarily a special teams player as a true freshman in 2001. Switched to DE late in the season, Piana redshirted in 2002 to grow into his new position. Lukabu raised eyebrows with his performance in 2003 spring camp and emerged as one of the big surprises in 2003, starting six of the final eight games. He was a playmaker, finishing second overall in sacks (4.5) and third overall in TFLs (6.5). Lukabu was expected to anchor one end of the DLine last season but instead drew a three-game suspension that dropped him down the pecking order of a deep unit. Piana still managed to finish second among DL in tackles and sacks as well as third (tied) in TFLs. More than any other DL, Lukabu must temper his aggression with discipline; no other DE failed as frequently in maintaining backside contain while wildly pursuing the flow of misdirection.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS So DE Eric Foster (11 GP, 22 tackles, 2 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks)
- Jr DT Nate Robinson (8 GP, 15 tackles, 3 TFLs, and one FF)
- Jr DT Rameel Meekins (9 GP and 4 tackles)
- RS Jr RT Cameron Stephenson (1 GS and 8 GP)
- RS Fr DE Jamaal Westerman (redshirted)
- RS So DE Rocky Ricks (injured)
- RS Fr DT Joe Salinardi (redshirted)
- RS Fr DT Carl Howard (redshirted)
- RS Fr DE Mike Ziarnowski (redshirted)
- RS Fr DE Chenry Lewis (redshirted)
Eric Foster was recruited originally as an OLB but was moved to DE, where he redshirted as a true freshman in 2003 while practicing with the scout team. Suspensions and injuries created playing time in spring camp last year and Foster emerged as the third DE. More suspensions enabled Foster to stay on the two deep early in the season but he eventually but he eventually yielded to the veterans. Foster will likely replace Peterson on the two-deep.
Nate Robinson was a surprising last second addition to the 2003 recruiting class but reported to summer camp not fully recovered from a high school knee injury. Nonetheless, he foolishly played late in the season rather than redshirting. Injuries provided Nate with an opportunity in spring camp last year and he flashed glimpses of his potential. However, medical and conditioning issues conspired to keep him off the field in summer camp. Nate contributed only marginally as the fifth DT in the rotation. Robinson is the favorite to fill the second open starting job at DT. With the departure of the top three DTs, Nate must start realizing his potential. Now.
Rameel Meekins was one of the big surprises of 2003 summer camp. Though a walk-on, Meekins cracked the two-deep in summer camp as suspensions and injuries created openings. Meekins eventually yielded to Robinson later in the year. Although injuries created further opportunities in spring camp last year, Meekins actually dropped down the depth chart. He slipped to sixth in the DT pecking order during the season. Rameel is expected to push Robinson for a starting job in spring camp. Just because he was once a walk-on, don't automatically assume Meekins will be the backup.
Cameron Stephenson joined the Scarlet Knights last summer after two years at Harbor Junior College (CA). Stephenson already used his redshirt season in JUCO but had three years of eligibility remaining (one of which he used last year). Recruited as a DT to a team with a glut of DTs, Schiano switched Stephenson to OT in summer camp. Stephenson earned a backup OT job in summer camp but played behind two other backups in the pecking order. Stephenson started one game at RT after injuries thinned the starting lineup. Stephenson played well but injured his ankle just as he was realizing significant playing time. With three senior DTs departing, Schiano switched Stephenson back to DT for spring camp. Stephenson will compete for one of two open starting jobs but likely will settle in as a backup on the two-deep.
Jamaal Westerman enrolled at Rutgers in spring 2004. In the absence of two veterans, Westerman earned repetitions with the second team ahead of more experienced players in spring camp. Although he played well, he had four experienced DEs ahead of him in the pecking order and, thus, redshirted last season while practicing with the scout team. Westerman will likely not break the two-deep unless Barnaby is switched to DT. Otherwise, Jamaal will try to work his way into the playing rotation and fend off challenges from fellow redshirt freshmen.
Rocky Ricks, recruited as a LB, was switched to DE in 2003 summer camp because of a glut of young talent at LB. He redshirted and practiced with the scout team. Suspensions and injuries created two openings on the depth chart last spring but Ricks was unable to break the two-deep. Rocky was involved in a fatal car accident during the summer and the resulting injuries sidelined him. Though still listed on the roster, his return is still uncertain. He won't participate in spring camp. It is unlikely that he will be able to play again.
Joe Salinardi redshirted last season behind six experienced DTs. The departure of three seniors has created an opening on the two-deep. Joe will get an opportunity to compete for the job in spring camp.
Carl Howard originally signed with Virginia Tech last 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.
Mike Ziarnowski redshirted last season and practiced on the scout team. 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.
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.
Jonathan Pierre-Etienne is a member of Schiano's 2005 recruiting class. Having already completed four years of high school in Canada, Jonathan was a spring enrollee at Rutgers. While the early enrollment should help his development, Pierre-Etienne is not expected to make an impact this spring. That is just not a realistic expectation.
Just one year ago, I observed that the days where the performance of the DLine cannot be judged against that of the OLine, because each is so terrible, was history. Well, history is repeating itself. The DLine lost four players off the two deep. The losses were heaviest at DT, including both starters and a backup. Will a rebuilt DLine that couldn't stop the opposing rushing attack last year show improvement? That question can't be answered in spring camp. Not against a rebuilt OLine that couldn't open holes for its running backs last year. No, the level of improvement by DLine the won't be measurable until September. While the performance of the DLine as a unit can't be gauged in spring camp, the performance of individual DL, relative to their peers, can be evaluated. For example, do the DEs keep backside containment? The evolution of the depth chart will be the most interesting aspect of spring camp for the DLine. Of particular interest in spring camp will be the following:
- Who will start alongside Luis Rivas at DT?
- Will Val Barnaby remain at DE or be moved to DT? If Barnaby is moved inside, who will replace him in the starting lineup – Piana Lukabu or Eric Foster?
- Will any second year players break into the two-deep?
Coming Next: Part 6 of my Spring Preview. I'll take a look at the underachieving linebacking corps.
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