THE DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD
Before I dive into this article, I'd first like to take this opportunity to say I am thrilled to be joining Mike and Big Dog's Rutgers Insiders team. I'm looking forward to working with Mike Fasano, Don Forbes, Jeff Zellerkraut, and Netwhispers towards the goal of making the Rutgers Insiders site one of the best college sites on the Internet. This is a really great opportunity. I'd also like to thank Mike Fasano for giving me the opportunity and encouragement to pursue this insane hobby. Four years ago, the twin wonders of the Internet and satellite TV allowed me to rekindle a passion for Rutgers sports that had lain dormant since I moved to California in 1990. I quickly started corresponding with Mike, as my frustration with the Shea regime began mounting. A few long message board posts turned into articles, which Mike graciously accepted and published. A moonlighting career was begun. I've also made a lot of new friends as a result of my writing. It's been a great ride. So here I am, four years later. Embarking upon a new and exciting adventure. And I'm looking forward to more writing. And making more friends.
Back to business. A really late preview of a spring camp already committed to posterity. The delayed launching of Rutgers Insiders is the reason that the publication of this preview was delayed. Then, I got sidetracked for about two weeks with another volunteer commitment that places a large claim of its own on my time. It's been a busy couple of weeks. So, bear with me. I'll finish the "spring preview." Eventually. Hopefully before summer camp opens.
Let's see. Where we were. Oh yeah. I was touring the defensive units entering spring camp. I've finished with the DLine and the LB corps. What's left? The defensive backfield. I received an email from Joe Haw, father of CB Brandon Haw. Inquiring minds wanted to know, "where is the DB preview?" Well, here it is, Joe. I hope that you enjoy it. This preview is based upon information released only prior to the opening of spring camp. My thoughts likewise share the same perspective. This belated preview still offers some useful insights into spring camp because it allows the reader, with a post-camp perspective, to answer questions developed before camp opened. This article is the third 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.
With the entire two-deep returning last season, the defensive backfield looked to be the strength of the defense. Schiano used his safeties very aggressively in run support – three of the four top tacklers were safeties. However, this run support role placed a huge pass coverage burden upon the CBs, who were often left alone in man-to-man coverage. They were not up to the task, especially after an early season injury scratched one starter. Against very soft man coverage, opponents threw underneath at will. Furthermore, the safeties often were burned in pass coverage by play action passes to TEs and RBs. Only a porous rushing defense and a schedule stacked heavily with run-oriented opponents precluded these opponents from throwing for more yardage against the secondary. The defensive backfield will be less experienced next season but still appears to be the strength of the defense.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- FS Ben Martin (1 GS, 11 GP, 76 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 INTs, and 1 sack)
- SS Tarell Freeney (2 GS, 10 GP, 26 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 INT)
As a sophomore, Ben Martin saw action at both safety and OLB. He finished fifth in tackles (73). Martin was academically ineligible the following year. Though he returned for the 2000 season, he never cracked the starting lineup. Martin played his final two years as a backup safety. He added quality depth, as production didn't drop off noticeably when he played. His experience will be missed.
Tarell Freeney was a versatile player. As a freshman, Freeney started 6 games at OLB. As a sophomore, Freeney moved to SS, started 9 games, and finished sixth in tackles (67). Freeney was slated to switch back to OLB in 1999, but stayed at SS when the designated starter was not medically cleared to play. Then Freeney tore his ACL on the first day of summer camp. He missed the season but received a medical redshirt. As a RS junior, Freeney was moved to ILB, where he started 10 games and finished second in tackles (82). The new coaching staff moved the undersized Freeney back to SS. Hampered by nagging injuries in summer camp, Freeney was unable to displace the incumbent starters. But, like Martin, he provided quality depth with no dropoff. His experience will also be missed in the defensive backfield.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Sr CB Tony Berry (7 GS, 11 GP, 57 tackles, 2 TFL, and 2 INTs)
- RS Sr SS Shawn Seabrooks (10 GS, 11 GP, 99 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, and 4 forced fumbles)
- Sr FS Nate Colon (10 GS, 10 GP, 91 tackles, 2 TFL, and 1 sack)
- RS Jr CB Brandon Haw (2 GS, 11 tackles, and 1 INT)
- RS Sr CB DeWayne Thompson (9 GS, 11 GP, 62 tackles, 3 TFL, and 2 sacks)
- Jr CB Nate Jones (3 GS, 11 GP, 55 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 INT)
Tony Berry has been a disappointment at CB. Long considered one of the most talented CBs in the program, Berry has struggled to maintain a starting job against less talented teammates. Berry was academically ineligible as a freshman but practiced with the team as a partial qualifier. He missed much of the following two summer camps with eligibility issues. The late starts cost him spots on the depth chart that he was able to reclaim only when injuries sidelined starters. Berry won a starting job last season, aided by Schiano's preference for big CBs. However, Berry acquired a bigger reputation for running his mouth than he did for performing on the field. Berry reportedly will be switched to safety this season, meaning a likely demotion to the 2nd team behind two solidly entrenched starters.
Shawn Seabrooks arrived on the Banks as a highly anticipated transfer from Tennessee. After recovering from nagging hip injuries, Seabrooks established himself as a playmaker at SS. He was easily identified on the field – he was always around the ball and in a hurry to get there. The rocket's red glare. Inexplicably, Shea never seemed to recognize Seabrooks' contributions as Seabrooks started only 4 games of the 2000 season at SS. Despite the backup role, he finished fifth on the team in tackles (57). Even though a nagging injury that sidelined him for much of summer camp, Seabrooks opened the 2001 season as the starting SS. He started 10 games and led the team in tackles (99) and forced fumbles (4). Schiano used Seabrooks very aggressively, primarily employing him in run support. While Seabrooks was the biggest hitter on the team last season, he nonetheless needs to improve his tackling by finishing his hits. Seabrooks is a lock for the starting SS job. And has been mentioned in some pre-season All-Big East rosters.
Nate Colon arrived on the Banks as a RB but was immediately drafted into the M*A*S*H unit that was the defensive backfield during 1999 summer camp. Colon displaced the ineffective starter at FS in the season opener and hasn't relinquished the job since. He has started 28 of 33 games. As a freshman, he finished third in tackles (77). As a sophomore, he finished seventh (48). As with Seabrooks, Colon was often used aggressively in run support last season, finishing third in tackles (91). With the departure of Martin and Freeney, Colon is a lock for the starting FS job.
Brandon Haw reportedly is one of the fastest players on the team. Lack of size limited him to special teams duty as a true freshman, but he grew up quickly. Haw clinched a starting CB job in summer camp as a sophomore. He started every game. He returned last year and, opposite Tony Berry, was expected to provide the tight man-to-man coverage to enable Schiano to use his safeties aggressively. That plan quickly evaporated when Haw suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 2. Haw reports to spring camp fully recovered and ready to win back his starting job.
DeWayne Thompson is a survivor. He deferred his enrollment at Rutgers to qualify academically. As a freshman, he played in only 4 games. He earned a starting CB job in 1999 summer camp but suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the season-opener. He missed the season but was given a medical redshirt. He returned to start every game as a RS sophomore before a nasty eye injury ended his season in Game 8. Slow and undersized, Thompson wasn't expected to play much for Schiano. But he started 9 games and finished sixth in tackles. With Berry apparently demoted to backup FS, Thompson will be competing again for a starting CB job. Don't count him out.
Nate Jones has been one of the few players from the 2000 recruiting class to make an impact on the field. Only 3 of 20 2000 freshmen recruits have seen substantial playing time. Jones was primarily a special teams player as a freshman although technically he was on the two-deep at CB. Last season, Jones saw extensive action as a backup CB. The highlight of his season was a 71-yard INT return for a TD against Boston College. Jones will be battling Thompson for Berry's former starting CB job.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- Sr DB Vaughn Calhoun (6 GP)
- Jr DB Anthony Frazier (1 GP)
- RS So DB Jason Grant (10 GP and 5 tackles)
- RS So DB Jereme Baker (DNP)
- So CB Eddie Grimes (11 GP and 3 tackles)
- So SS Jarvis Johnson (8 GP and 9 tackles)
Vaughn Calhoun transferred to Rutgers from junior college in 2000 as a sophomore RB. He played as a backup until a brutal ACL injury ended his season in Game 6. With the arrival of three freshman RBs last season, Calhoun was switched to DB. With the entire two-deep returning in the secondary, Calhoun was limited primarily to special teams. If Calhoun is to crack the two-deep, he'll have to beat two 3rd-teamers who did see action in the secondary last year – FS Jarvis Johnson and CB Eddie Grimes.
Anthony Frazier was primarily a special teams players as a freshman. He barely played last season. He is not expected to play much next year.
Jereme Baker was another special teams player as a freshman. He did not play at all last year. At most, he'll be a special teams player this season.
Jason Grant saw another rare freshman redshirt under Terry Shea. Grant saw action on special teams last season. He is also expected to be a special teams player, at most, next year.
Jarvis Johnson was one of the surprising freshman in summer camp last year. Nagging injuries sidelined SSs Shawn Seabrooks and Tarell Freeney and created a temporary opening on the 1st team. Johnson vaulted past other returning players to grab the open position. The eventual return of Seabrooks and Freeney relegated Johnson to the 3rd team. But Johnson saw some game action at safety. And he enters spring camp as the front-runner for one of two backup safety jobs.
Eddie Grimes was the second of only two freshman DBs recruited last year. Although primarily a special teams player, he saw some action at CB. With the reported switch of Tony Berry from CB to safety, Grimes is the front-runner for the one vacant CB slot on the 2nd team.
As with the DLine and LB corps, the performance of the defensive backfield in spring camp against a suspect offense can hardly be used as a barometer of quality. View the good with some skepticism. Worry about the bad.
As also with the DLine and LB corps, the evolution of the depth chart will be the most telling development of spring camp. The starting lineup is nearly a lock. Seabrooks and Colon are anchors at safety. Haw is most assuredly one starting CB. The evolution of the two-deep will be worth watching. Who wins what jobs? Who will start and who will sub? Of particular interest in the defensive backfield will be the following:
- The battle between Nate Jones and DeWayne Thompson for Tony Berry's former starting CB job will likely be one of the most closely contested of the spring.
- How does Schiano play his safeties and corners this spring? Last season, Schiano played his safeties aggressively in run support and his corners very loosely in man-to-man coverage. Opponents passed at will against us – short or deep. Will Schiano use more press coverage this year, taking away the short routes and force opponents to hit the big play over the top?
- Tony Berry was demoted from starting CB and switched to safety. Where will he end up?
- Will Jereme Baker, Vaughn Calhoun, Anthony Frazier, or Jason Grant position themselves to contribute or will they be an afterthought?
Coming Next: Part 4 of my Spring Preview. I've finished with the defense. Now, it's time to punt and look at the offense. As with the defense, I'll up start up front with the foot soldiers – the offensive line.
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