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 Spring Game.
Last season was suppose to see the emergence of a dominant, young, athletic linebacking unit on the Banks. The group consisted entirely of players that Head Coach Greg Schiano recruited and included some of his most highly touted recruits. Though still young, the unit was deep and experienced. However, after a strong showing in the season opener, the unit fell apart. Pass coverage – either zone or man-to-man – was woeful. Tackling was sloppy. And discipline was poor as misdirection often left LBs repeatedly missing in action at the point of attack. Expected to be the strength of the defense, the LBs instead were the weak link on a porous defense. While four of the top ten tacklers were LBs, three of the top four were DBs. Meaning, the opponents were getting past the LBs. The total defense was atrocious, ranking #104 nationally at 429 yards per game, a 13 percent increase over 2004 (#61 at 380 yards per game). While not as pathetic, the scoring defense nonetheless was ranked in the bottom quartile at #88 nationally with 31 points per game (vs #80 at 30 points per game in 2003). Schiano replaced ineffective rookie LB Coach Phil Galiano with former RB Coach Darren Rizzi, who has spent most of his career on the defensive side of the ball. Rizzi returns his top six LBs. The unit is deep and experienced with 53 combined starts among six veterans. The LB corps must anchor the defense this season as the team lacks experience at DT and safety.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
No players were lost from the two-deep.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- Jr MLB DeVraun Thompson (9 GS, 11 GP, 60 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and one FR)
- Sr SLB Terry Bynes (8 GS, 11 GP, 50 tackles, and 4 FR)
- Sr WLB William Beckford (8 GS, 11 GP, 44 tackles, 5 TFLs, one FF, and one FR)
- Sr WLB Will Gilkison (2 GS, 11 GP, 33 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and 2 FF)
- Jr WLB Quintero Frierson (1 GS, 7 GP, 20 tackles, and one FF)
- RS Sr WLB Brad Cunningham (2 GS, 9 GP, 13 tackles, and 4 TFLs)
DeVraun Thompson was not a heralded recruit – too small and too slow was the knock. Thompson started the 2003 season on special teams and was one of the most easily identifiable players on the field – he was often the source of jarring tackles on the kickoff coverage team. He was quickly promoted to backup MLB and was immediately noticeable at the point of attack, showing a nose for the ball. Though Thompson immediately outplayed starter Will Gilkison, Schiano did not elevate DeVraun to the starting job until the final four games of the season. Though starting only four games (and playing only eight games at LB), DeVraun finished second among LBs in tackles (57 for fifth overall). Thompson missed spring camp last year while rehabilitating a groin injury. Expected to compete for All-Big East honors last year, he experienced a sophomore slump. Although he led all Rutgers LBs in tackles, he finished only third on the team and last among Big East starting MLBs. With inexperienced players at DT and FS, Thompson must be a rock in the middle this year. Schiano needs an All-Big East season from DeVraun if Rutgers is to realize its bowl aspirations.
Terry Bynes wasted his redshirt season while playing mostly on special teams in 2002. On a depth chart that lacked depth and athleticism, the speedy Bynes easily earned the backup WLB job in 2002 but rarely played. Schiano switched Terry to SS in 2003 spring camp to replace losses on the depth chart in the defensive backfield. However, Bynes struggled with the transition and returned to LB in summer camp but nagging injuries hobbled Terry, dropping him to the #7 LB in the playing rotation. He assumed the backup SLB position first when William Beckford suffered a season-ending knee injury (and the backup SBL moved to WLB) and later when the starting SLB suffered a knee injury. Bynes was the only healthy LB on the returning two-deep in spring camp last year. As the most experienced LB in spring camp, Bynes' received a preponderance of practice repetitions. His performance in spring and summer camps earned him the starting SLB job, which he maintained throughout the season. Terry will miss spring camp while recovering from groin surgery. He likely will have to fend off Beckford or Quintero Frierson in summer camp.
Although William Beckford was academically ineligible in 2002, he was allowed to practice with the team. Beckford immediately earned the starting WLB job – the designated blitzer role – in 2003 spring camp. An ACL injury in Game 6 ended his season and he missed spring camp last year while rehabilitating his knee. Beckford entered last season as the backup WLB behind Frierson while still recovering from his injury. However, an injury to Frierson in Game 1 prematurely propelled William back into the starting lineup. Beckford struggled and was not the player he was in 2003. Now fully recovered, can Beckford maintain his starting job in the face of an expected challenge from Frierson and can he realize the potential he showed as a sophomore?
Will Gilkison also wasted a redshirt while playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2002. Attrition at LB enabled Gilkison to earn the backup SLB job in 2002 yet he didn't play substantially. Schiano moved Will to MLB in 2003 spring camp and Gilkison quickly claimed the starting job. However, he struggled, often showing an ability to find the football. Though first among LBs (72 for fourth overall) in tackles, Gilkison was frequently out of position. Gilkison lost his starting job to Thompson after eight games. Will in turn slid over to WLB in place of the injured Beckford but struggled there, too, and was eventually displaced by Brad Cunningham after three more starts, thus finishing the season as a reserve. Gilkison missed spring camp last year with a shoulder injury. He settled into the backup MLB job behind Thompson last season and saw plenty of action in a platoon. Gilkison was the top backup and finished fourth among LBs in tackles (tenth overall). He is again destined for backup duty but his experience at all three positions make him a valuable reserve on a LB unit that suddenly is barely two deep.
Quintero Frierson was the most highly touted LB recruit in Schiano's 2003 recruiting class. With a bloated depth chart, Frierson never got a whiff of the two-deep in 2003 but instead wasted his redshirt on special teams over the final two months of the season. With the rash of LB injuries on the two-deep in spring camp last year, Frierson capitalized upon the opportunity for extensive work and earned the starting WLB job. A high ankle sprain suffered in the season opener knocked him out for a month and limited his performance the rest of the season. Frierson should be fully recovered and is expected to battle Beckford for the starting WLB job.
Brad Cunningham was the surprise of the 2001 recruiting class; though not highly touted, Cunningham made the biggest immediate 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 fifhth in tackles (63) and tied for third in TFLs (7). Cunningham quit school before 2002 summer camp for personal reasons but re-enrolled at Rutgers in January 2003. Schiano switched Cunningham to FB in 2003 spring camp but Schiano moved Brad back to LB in summer camp. Cunningham earned the backup WLB job behind Beckford but the backup SLB and backup MLB played ahead of Brad at WLB after Beckford was injured. Cunningham did not play significantly until the final two games of the season, when Schiano demoted Gilkison. Brad missed spring camp last year while recovering from groin surgery. Cunningham again was bounced from the two-deep in summer camp in favor of younger players but the injury to Frierson and the sudden departure of the backup SLB created openings on the two-deep. Although he finished sixth among LBs in tackles, his TFLs were third highest among the group. While lacking athleticism, Cunningham has consistently shown a nose for the ball similar to Thompson. With no second year players to challenge him, Cunningham should maintain his backup job this year – at either SLB or WLB.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
RS Fr MLB Kenny Gillespie (5 GP) is the only other reserve scholarship LB on the roster. Kenny redshirted as a freshman in 2003 and practiced with the scout team. Injuries to five of the top six returning LBs in spring camp last year provided Gillespie with an opportunity for extended practice repetitions but his performance in camp was not noteworthy. He played sparingly on special teams last season. He is a tweener – a little small for a LB and probably a little slow for a safety. He is not expected to compete for a spot on the two-deep. He will likely will be limited to special teams duty again this season.
The LB corps was a tremendous disappointment last year. Soft against the run and confused in pass coverage, the unit has a lot of work to do in spring camp. However, with the OLine and TB position thinned by injuries, the improvement of the LB corps in defending the run won't be accurately measurable in spring camp. And the degree to which the LBs will be tested is limited. Nonetheless, the passing game is fully functional. Therefore, the effectiveness of the LB corps in pass coverage on the underneath routes – either zone or man-to-man – will be significant. The top six LBs are set in stone however the pecking order within the two deep is undecided. Of particular interest in the LB corps will be the following:
- Does William Beckford or Quintero Frierson earn the starting WLB job? Are they both practicing at WLB?
- Who fills in for Terry Bynes as the first team SLB? If its either Beckford or Frierson, they likely will battle Bynes for the staring job in summer camp.
- Where does Brad Cunningham play – SLB or WLB? If it's at WLB, then Bynes' job is definitely up for grabs.
- Does Kenny Gillespie show any signs of contributing this year?
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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