SPRING PREVIEW – SECONDARY
Rutgers closes spring camp today with the annual spring game. Meanwhile, I'm still muddling through my spring preview series. One of these years, I'll finish it before camp actually starts. Or ends. 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 at the Spring Game.
When Head Coach Greg Schiano arrived at Rutgers four plus years ago, he inherited a team with tremendous needs at most positions. The secondary was the unit least in need. As a result, Schiano's recruiting de-emphasized the secondary during his first three years and signed only six DBs (a half-deep per year). That sustained neglect resulted in Schiano fielding an extremely young and inexperienced defensive backfield last year. Schiano paid the price. The pass defense was porous, ranking #97 nationally at 251 yards per game, a 16 percent increase over 2004 (#52 at 216 yards per game). The statistics would have been worse had Rutgers not faced three one-dimensional running teams. The good news this year is that a young unit is a year older, a year stronger, and a year more experienced. Especially the CBs, whose play improved as the season progressed. DB Coach Chris Demarest must continue developing this unit. He also must replace a three-year starter at safety, which has been a problem position for two years.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- FS Jarvis Johnson (11 GS, 75 tackles, one INT, one FF, and one FR)
- CB Eddie Grimes (2 GS, 6 GP, and 16 tackles)
- WS Jason Grant (11 GP, 22 tackles, 2 FF, and one FR)
- FS Dondre Asberry (6 GP and 5 tackles)
Jarvis Johnson played primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2001(9 tackles), wasting a redshirt opportunity. While an injury sidelined the incumbent starter 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, finishing sixth overall in tackles (61). Jarvis anchored the secondary in 2003. He led the team in tackles (97) and pass breakups (9) but had an alarming tendency to yield big pass plays as the last line of defense. Expected to contend for All-Big East honors as a three-year starter last year, Johnson's performance actually regressed. Rather than holding a young secondary together, his poor play contributed to its repeated victimization. Johnson is another in a long line of Schiano recruits whose careers never lived up to the expectations of their early years. Nonetheless, Johnson will be missed – not as much for his performance but because of the lack of depth behind him.
Eddie Grimes also wasted his freshman redshirt primarily as a special teams player in 2001 (3 tackles). Grimes was suspended for 2002 summer camp and the first three games of the season. He returned to earn a backup CB job but played sparingly as the fourth CB (14 tackles). Eddie played as the nickel CB and an OLB in the dime defense in 2003. Although opposing QBs frequently targeted him at CB, his play improved as the season progressed and he was arguably the best CB on the team in November. He finished eighth overall in tackles (41 for second among CBs). Grimes was expected to soften the blow of two departed starting CBs last year. However, he played poorly in the first two games and was quickly demoted. His season ended prematurely in mid-October when he was injured in an automobile accident after Game 6. His loss is negligible since younger players had already passed him on the depth chart.
Jason Grant was one of only three Terry Shea recruits remaining on the roster last year. Redshirted in 2000, Jason practiced with the scout team. He saw action on special teams in 2001 (5 tackles). Expected to be a career special teams player, Jason earned the backup WS job in 2002 as attrition created opportunities on the depth chart. When the incumbent FS unexpectedly quit the team in 2002, Grant was the only backup safety on the roster (excluding walk-ons). He surprisingly finished ninth overall in tackles (45 for fourth among DBs). Grant entered 2003 spring camp as the most experienced WS but was eventually knocked off the two-deep during summer camp. Injuries and poor play afforded Grant another opportunity for increased playing time as the 2003 season progressed and Jason started five games. However, his play was unremarkable as he finished with nearly half as many tackles (14) as did the original starter in over twice the playing time. Grant surprisingly returned for a fifth season though not expected to break the two-deep. Buried as the sixth safety, injuries and poor performance yet again opened playing time for Grant and he finished fifth among DBs in tackles. A steady but not spectacular performance, Grant's persistent playing time was indication of the ongoing recruiting and development problems that have plagued the secondary.
Dondre Asberry saw limited action in 2002 (7 tackles) as first a backup CB while Grimes served his suspension and later as the backup FS. Asberry won the backup FS job in 2003 and contributed 24 tackles (seventh among DBs). However, two backup CBs – including a true freshman who was repeatedly torched – played ahead of Dondre in the dime defense that has historically deployed four safeties (two as OLBs). Asberry again backed up Johnson at FS last year and played OLB in the dime package. He was involved the same car accident as Grimes and suffered career-ending injuries.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- Jr CB Joe Porter (11 GS, 55 tackles. 2.5 TFLs, and 5 INTs)
- Jr CB Derrick Roberson (9 GS, 11 GP, 38 tackles, 3 TFLs, one INT, and one FR)
- So WS Ron Girault (6 GS, 11 GP, 61 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 3 INTs, and one FF)
- Sr WS Jason Nugent (5 GS, 11 GP, 38 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, one INT, and one FF)
- Sr CB Manny Collins (1 GS, 3 GP, 10 T, one sack, and one FF)
Joe Porter wasted his redshirt primarily on special teams in 2003 as a true freshman (3 tackles). Porter earned the fifth CB slot and saw a little action at CB. The departure of two starting CBs last year left a huge void. Porter earned one of the starting jobs in summer camp and started the entire season. He struggled early in the year but improved substantially as the season progressed, finishing fourth overall in tackles, first in INTs, and tied for second in pass break-ups (6). He is a lock for a starting job. With the loss of three-year starter Johnson at FS, Porter will have to continue his development because he will no longer have an experienced veteran to cover his mistakes.
Derrick Roberson saw quite a bit of action as the fourth in 2003 as a true freshman. 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. Although he contributed 14 tackles, Roberson was repeatedly victimized on both underneath and deep routes. Roberson was beaten for one of two starting CB jobs by Porter in summer camp last year and opened the season as the third CB. However, Derrick was promoted to a starting CB after Grimes struggled early in the season. Derrick also struggled early but steadily improved as the season evolved. He finished eighth overall in tackles and first in pass breakups (9). He is likely to start again but he must continue to improve his coverage in both man-to-man and zone schemes.
Ron Girault was lightly recruited because he was a tweener – too slow for safety and too small for LB. He received a scholarship offer from Rutgers on the eve of 2004 national Letter of Intent day, when another recruit committed elsewhere. It was Girault's only Division IA offer. He started the 2004 season on special teams but was very quickly promoted to the starting WS job ahead of two experienced veterans. Though starting only half the season, Girault finished second overall in tackles and INTs. His freshman campaign closely mirrored that of So MLB DeVraun Thompson. Like Thompson, Girault isn't an athlete; he's a football player. Schiano needs more players like Girault who can (1) find the football and (2) tackle the ballcarrier. Girault is a lock for a starting job. The only question is whether it will be at FS or WS. Though lacking speed, Girault has the best instincts on the team for the FS job.
Jason Nugent was recruited as a RB but spent most of his freshman season in 2001 on special teams, where he blocked a punt that was returned for a TD against Miami. Jason eventually earned the third TB job late in the season and saw the bulk of his action at TB in the season finale. He finished the year with 29 carries for 125 yards and 7 tackles on special teams. Nugent competed for the starting TB job in 2003 spring camp but nagging injuries hampered his performance. Schiano switched Nugent to WS in 2003 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 adjustment to WS and was not impressive during summer camp as the smaller Bryan Durango earned the starting WS job. Jason 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 Grant. Although Jason finished eighth overall in tackles (42 for third among DBs), he was often out of position and allowed big plays. Nugent earned the starting WS job in spring camp last year but again struggled during the regular season. He was demoted in Game 6 but still finished the season ninth overall in tackles (fifth among DBs). With the departure of the top two FSs (Johnson and Asberry), Nugent is expected to compete for the starting job opposite Girault at either WS or FS. Given his apparent lack of instincts, Nugent would cause less harm at WS than at FS, the last line of defense.
Manny Collins is a walk-on who beat several scholarship players for a spot on the two-deep last year. Collins eventually replaced Grimes as the nickel CB in midseason. He played a terrific game against Temple but was also suffered season-ending injuries in the car accident after the game. Collins will miss spring camp while still recovering from his injuries. He may yet return to the team next season but his effectiveness after the injuries is uncertain.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS Jr WS Bryan Durango (7 GP and 5 tackles)
- So CB Anthony Miller (3 GP and 6 tackles)
- Sr CB Corey Barnes (9 GP, 3 tackles, one FR, one TD)
- RS Fr S Robert Baham (redshirted)
- RS Fr CB Chazz Lynn (redshirted)
Bryan Durango was one of only eight freshmen (including two kickers) to redshirt in 2002. The undersized Durango was one of four players competing for the vacant starting job at WS in 2003. 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 missed time in spring camp last year with another knee injury that dropped him down the depth chart. He only saw action last year on special teams and the dime defense as an OLB. However, he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Game 7. He will miss spring camp while rehabilitating the injury, further jeopardizing his palce on the depth chart.
Anthony Miller was a highly touted WR recruit. An arrest on disorderly conduct charges that occurred prior to his enrollment at Rutgers sidelined him early last season. However, the tragic car accident created a crisis in the secondary as Schiano had only two experienced CBs – his starters – and few viable options as backup CBs. Schiano switched Miller to CB and immediately plugged him into the playing rotation. Miller performed satisfactorily given the circumstances. With a deep receiving corps and ongoing depth issues at CB, Miller likely will continue to practice at CB in spring camp. Don't be surprised if Miller pushes Roberson for a starting job.
Corey Barnes saw spot duty as a backup WR as a true freshman in 2001. Barnes was the seventh WR on a depth chart that frequently employed a 3WR. The hiring of new Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg in spring 2003 fundamentally altered the offensive philosophy. With an emphasis on power running, fewer WR slots were available. A lack of depth at WR in 2003 spring camp gave Barnes a backup WR job by default. However, incoming freshman pushed Barnes down the depth chart to the sixth WR in 2003 summer camp. He did not catch a pass in 2003 and only saw limited duty on special teams. Barnes was pushed further down the depth chart in summer camp last year and played primarily on special teams, recovering a blocked punt for a TD against Kent State. Schiano switched Barnes to CB after the car accident wiped three DBs off the two-deep but Miller, another converted WR, beat Barnes for the nickel CB job. With plenty of depth at WR and little depth at CB, Barnes is expected to remain at CB in spring camp. However, he is not expected to contribute except on special teams.
Robert Baham was one of the top high school safeties in Florida in 2003. He signed with Rutgers three days after national Letter of Intent day, which raised some questions about his eligibility. Surprisingly, Baham was not the first true freshman to see playing time this year; the lightly recruited Girault was. The program has not always been forthcoming with news about the eligibility of its players (e.g., CB Keon Braswell). Perhaps Baham was another such player whose mysterious disappearance was due to eligibility issues. Injuries have made Baham a lock for the two-deep in spring camp. He will get a chance to cement his position in the playing rotation next season.
Chazz Lynn was lightly recruited and redshirted last season while practicing on the scout team. Although the depth chart was decimated last year after the car accident, Lynn was not seriously considered to fill the ranks. Schiano instead converted two WRs to CBs, including another true freshman. Lynn will miss spring camp with a shoulder injury. This is an unfortunate injury for Lynn given the availability of playing time with the lack of depth at CB.
The secondary will be not be the most critical emphasis of spring camp this year, as it was last year. But the defensive backfield is still a huge concern because it lacks depth and experience. The CBs are growing up but the safety position is now suspect. Demarest must improve the fundamentals of his unit. The secondary will be matched against a talented and experienced passing attack. How will the secondary fare in pass defense? Of particular interest in the defensive backfield will be the following:
- Who replaces Jarvis Johnson as the starting FS? If it's Ron Girault, who replaces him as the starting WS?
- Can Derrick Roberson maintain his starting CB job or will Anthony Miller displace him?
- 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? Or are they jamming WRs at the line of scrimmage and disrupting their routes?
- In a Cover 2 zone underneath coverage scheme, are the CBs physically funneling the WRs inside towards the safeties? The dime defense employed a similar look with DBs playing the OLB roles. Are the dime OLBs also funneling WRs inside?
- Are the DBs looking back for the football to break-up or intercept passes?
- Are the safeties keeping opposing receivers in front of them?
- Who will be the backup safeties and CBs during camp with only an experienced one-deep available?
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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