THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Great timing, huh? A preview that is obsolete the instant it is published. I began recording my thoughts and researching player statistics shortly before spring practice opened on April 1st. I wanted to preview spring camp in a series of articles that focused on each unit of the team. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen delays and circumstances beyond my control, I wasn't able to publish the series as a true preview. As spring camp progressed, I purposely did not incorporate new developments (e.g., injuries, position changes, etc.) into the articles because I wanted to maintain a pre-camp frame of reference. Therefore, the preview is based upon information released only prior to the opening of camp. My thoughts likewise share the same perspective. Nonetheless, I still think that this preview offers some useful insights into spring camp because it allows the reader, with a post-camp perspective, to answer questions developed before camp opened.
Spring practice gave Rutgers fans their first glimpse of the team since a 20-10 loss to previously winless Cal ended a disappointing 2-9 inaugural campaign for the Schiano regime. This article is the first of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The article reviews roster changes and injuries at the outset of spring camp. The article also identifies issues that needed to be addressed in spring practice and were observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages. I'll preview the defense first, since it was the less dismal of the two units last season. And I'll start with the defensive line since the old axiom says, "football games are won or lost in the trenches."
Continuing the legacy of Terry Shea, the defensive line was the weakest link of a weak defense last season. Rutgers ranked last in the Big East in rushing defense (231 yards per game, or #109 nationally) and sacks (18). The DLine had a big role in that futility. They weren't making plays as only one of the top 10 tacklers on the team was a DL and DL recorded only 9 of the 18 sacks. Furthermore, they weren't keeping the OL off of the LBs, either, as 5 of the top 6 tacklers were DBs. The switch from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme created a demand for DL that the roster could not readily satisfy. Coach Greg Schiano was forced to play two converted LBs and three true freshmen on the DL two-deep. Upgrading the DLine is the priority on defense.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- DE Torrance Heggie (7 GS, 10 GP, 22 tackles, 4 TFL, and 1 sack)
- DT Billy Tulloch (11 GS, 48 tackles, 8 TFL, and 2 sacks)
During a solid though injury-plagued junior season after transferring from junior college, Torrance Heggie played SOLB in the 3-4 scheme and finished third on the team in tackles (64). With a shortage of legitimate DL in the program, Schiano moved Heggie to DE in the 4-3 scheme. Nagging injuries again limited Heggie's playing time. But Heggie's play was also less effective, regardless of his health. Instead of playing outside the opposing TE, where he could play off the TE with his rangy arms, Heggie was tangling more inside with the OT, where his lack of size (220 lb) worked against him. Heggie ranked only 18th in tackles. His performance barely surpassed that of true freshman Ryan Neill. Heggie's absence won't be noticeable.
Billy Tulloch recorded 25 tackles at DE as a true freshman. He was academically ineligible for the following two seasons but rejoined the team for 2000 spring camp. Tulloch earned a spot on the two-deep in 2000 at NG in the 3-4 defense and was the most productive DL by the end of the season. Tulloch earned a starting job at DT last fall and again was the second most productive DL behind true freshman DE Alfred Peterson. The emergence of true freshman DT Davon Clark during the second half of 2001 mitigates Tulloch's loss.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Jr DE Raheem Orr (7 GS, 25 tackles, 5 TFL, and 1 sack)
- RS Sr DT Greg Pyszczymuka (11 GS, 25 tackles, and 1 TFL)
- So DT Davon Clark (10 GP, 26 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 sack)
- So DE Alfred Peterson (5 GS, 11 GP, 56 tackles, 7 TFL, and 3 sacks)
- So DE Ryan Neill (3 GS, 10 GP, 19 tackles, and 3 TFL)
- RS So DT Gary Gibson (10 GP, 13 tackles, 2 TFL, and 1 sack)
Raheem Orr was the jewel of Terry Shea's 1999 recruiting class. Orr missed his freshman season as a non-qualifier. He narrowly missed qualifying for the 2000 season but was eligible to practice, where he was the best player on the practice field. Contrary to a long list of Shea washouts, Orr persevered and fully qualified for the 2001 season. Hyped by Schiano as a potential NFL draft choice at MLB, Orr was switched to DE when summer camp opened. A bad high ankle sprain suffered in summer camp, which he repeatedly aggravated, continually hobbled Orr all season before finally ending it after Game 8. Orr's actual production fell far short of the hype. Goals for Orr are (1) to stay healthy throughout spring camp and (2) to reclaim his status as the best player on the defense.
Greg P'zmuka has been like the fifth pitcher in a baseball starting rotation. The primary expectation for a #5 starter is not to win games but to pitch innings, thus keeping strain off of the bullpen. Pzmuka's primary contributions the past two seasons have been games started and snaps taken. P'zmuka started 21 of 22 games. On a team notorious for its injury and depth problems, P'zmuka has been reliable. Not very productive. But reliable. Let's see if P'zmuka can hold on to his starting job or if he gets pushed aside by younger players.
Davon Clark reported to summer camp badly out of shape. He wilted in the summer heat and was pushed around despite his tremendous size. Against the opinions of many, Schiano played Clark but only sparingly at first. Clark saw more action as he worked himself into shape, eventually cracking the two-deep. By season's end, Clark was arguably the best DT on the team. I'm curious to hear about Clark's performance after a year of strength and conditioning. Plus, I'm eager to see Clark entrench himself as our top DT.
Alfred Peterson was a late addition to the 2001 recruiting class, surfacing right before national letter of intent day. Peterson was the most impressive player in freshman camp. Given the lack of depth and playmakers on the DLine, he was a lock for the two-deep. Orr's ankle injury opened the door to early playing time for Peterson as a starter. Though manhandled against Buffalo and overwhelmed by Miami's Bryant McKinnie, Peterson showed promise and continued to improve. He was the best playmaker on the DLine last year, leading the group in tackles and finishing 8th on the team. How effective will Peterson and Orr be as bookends? Given our weakness at OT, Peterson and Orr should dominate spring ball.
Ryan Neill arrived as a classic tweener – too slow for LB but too small for DE. However, Neill's ability to long snap earned him a job on special teams. Without the need to preserve his redshirt year, Neill was available for action at DE. Orr's ankle injury opened a slot on the two-deep for Neill. When backup DE Marcus Perry quit the team after the Miami game over a lack of playing time behind two true freshmen, Neill's place on the two-deep was cemented. Neill showed the ability to learn from his mistakes (i.e., honoring his containment assignment) and was a solid contributor though undersized and inexperienced. Neill played at 230 lb last season. I'm most curious to see if he has added some meat to his frame.
Gary Gibson was an unknown commodity last season. A rare Shea freshman redshirt, he was one of the few players from Shea's abysmal final recruiting class not to see playing time in 2000. That alone was cause for concern because Shea was throwing warm bodies into the breach to plug gaping holes on the depth chart resulting from horrific roster attrition and a laughable strength and conditioning program. The relative talent of any player not seeing action was very questionable. When Gibson earned a spot on the two-deep coming out of summer camp, it was only a mild surprise simply because Shea had left few upperclass DL for his successor. Furthermore, two of Gibson's fellow second-year players had quit the team before summer camp. Gibson only had to beat Davon Clark and converted LB Cedric Brown for a place on the two-deep. That Gibson earned the backup job ahead of Clark and Brown was no small achievement. And, as the season evolved, Gibson demonstrated that he deserved his job, making plays when given the opportunity. Gibson has an outside shot at a starting job. Let's see if he makes a claim to it this spring.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS Sr DL Will Burnett (academically ineligible)
- Jr DT Ron Jenerette (9 GP and 10 tackles)
- So DT Cedric Brown (7 GP and 2 tackles)
- So DE Piana Lukabu (10 GP and 2 tackles)
Will Burnett's tenure at Rutgers has been typical of a Terry Shea recruit. Shea rushed Burnett into action as an undersized DT his freshman year. Burnett showed promise before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury that cost him spring camp. Academic ineligibility then sidelined Burnett as a sophomore. Burnett arrived at 2000 summer camp in impressive shape but an ACL injury cut short a solid season after only six games. Burnett again missed spring camp and then another whole season allegedly due to academic ineligibility. So, Burnett has played 6 games in three years. And his participation in spring camp in uncertain because he supposedly is recovering from a second operation on his injured knee. Burnett's progress will be the most interesting item to observe this spring. His size and experience should enable him to regain a position on the two-deep, but how far back will he come?
Ron Jenerette suffers from the curse of Terry Shea. Jenerette is yet another of a long list of DL who Shea recklessly threw into action as undersized freshmen, costing them a vital year of development. Jenerette needed a redshirt year to put some muscle on his frame. He didn't get it. He hit the field in Game 4. The unexpected loss of four DL and a switch from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme provided Jenerette with an opportunity to crack the two-deep. Jenerette started the season as a 2nd team DT but was eventually displaced by Davon Clark. It has been said that if a player can't crack the two-deep by his third year, he likely can be written off. This is a make or break year for Jenerette. Starting this spring.
The unplanned departure of four DL prompted the switch of Cedric Brown from LB to DT in summer camp. Though short at only 6'2", Brown supposedly has the stout frame to carry more weight. Though Brown could have been better served with a redshirt season, he saw limited action as a 3rd team DT. Brown will be competing with Burnett and Jenerette for a place on the 2nd team.
Piana Lukabu was primarily a special teams player last year. But, attrition at DE caused Schiano to press the undersized (215 lb) Lukabu into service at DE. Lukabu saw action as a 2nd team DE against Cal in the season finale. With the switch of Ron Simone from DE to FB, Lukabu's only potential competitor for a slot on the two-deep this spring is Will Burnett.
As I stated at the top of the article, relatively speaking, the defense was better than the offense last season. But one can't truthfully use degrees of "good" to describe either unit. The offense was among the worst in Division IA, setting a Big East record for fewest points scored. While the DLine appears improved, performance in spring camp against a suspect OLine can hardly be used as a barometer of quality.
The evolution of the depth chart will be the most telling development of spring camp. Most opponents moved the ball on and scored at will against our defense. Maturation of young starters will contribute towards improvement. So, will the displacement of non-performing veterans with younger players who are better. Defenders can better be judged against peers at the same positions rather than their counterparts on offense. Of particular on the DLine will be the following:
- Can Greg P'zmuka hold off Gary Gibson and maintain his starting DT job?
- Where will Rob Burnett play and where will he fit on the depth chart?
- Will Ron Jenerette break the two-deep?
As I stated above, the DLine last season was notorious for its lack of playmaking ability. While strong performances against a suspect OLine will not necessarily be an indicator of improvement, weak performances will be a bad sign. A very bad sign. With so many young player gaining strength and experience, the DLine should outplay the OLine this spring. Anything less will be very disappointing.
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