RUTGERS RECRUITING NEEDS
Part 5: Defensive Line
When Head Coach Greg Schiano arrived on the Banks five years ago, he recruited a group of promising freshmen in his first two recruiting classes. And he played them early. As that group matured, the DLine became the heart of Schiano's defense, featuring playmakers at both DE and DT. For three consecutive years, Schiano had a DE earn First Team All-Big East laurels. For the second consecutive year, Rutgers led the Big East in sacks, fueled primarily by its DLine. For three years, the DLine has camouflaged deficiencies among the back seven. Their playmaking kept poor defenses from being unmitigated disasters. The DLine was the deepest and most productive defensive unit. A once-young unit matured and subsequently departed. Not a single player remains off the 2004 two-deep. After nearly playing a three-deep DLine in 2004, Schiano resorted a six-man DL rotation that left the unit vulnerable to fatigue and hampered development for the future. This article, the fifth in a series of eight evaluating the needs of the 2006 recruiting class, looks at the suddenly shaky foundation of Schiano's defense – the DLine.
RS Sr DE Ryan Neill (12 GS, 71 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 10 sacks, 3 FF, and one FR) departs after a comeback career of storybook proportions. Ryan played on the two deep as a true freshman. He earned a starting job as a sophomore before a severe knee injury – three torn ligaments – ended his season. He missed the 2003 season, too, while rehabilitating his knee. Ryan returned from the potentially career-ending injury to earn back-to-back First Team All-Big East honors in 2004 and 2005. Neill twice finished second in sacks among Big East DL and led the league's DL in tackles last year. Neill was the leader of the defense and the best playmaker. His absence will create a huge void for young players to fill.
Sr DE Val Barnaby (12 GS, 41 tackles, 13 TFLs, 10 sacks, 1 FF, and one BK) departs as two-year starter. Val similarly played on the two deep as a true freshman in 2002. He suffered a sophomore slump in 2003 and lost his slot as the third DE, which he inherited from the injured Neill. Barnaby vaulted two players on the depth chart to emerge as a surprise starter opposite Neill in 2004. Barnaby raised his level of play last year, becoming a playmaker to complement Neill and give Schiano a formidable set of bookends. Barnaby will also be difficult to replace as Schiano primarily used a three-man rotation at DE.
Jr DT Rameel Meekins (12 GS, 63 tackles, 15 TFLs, 9 sacks, and 3 FR) salvaged a potential disaster on the DLine last year. He played on the two deep as a true freshman walk-on in 2003. He played sparingly in 2004 on a three-deep rotation at DT. After three senior DTs departed last year and a fourth was dismissed from the team, Meekins not only earned a starting job. He anchored the interior line and emerged as a playmaker, leading all Big East DTs in sacks and TFLs. His absence from the All-Big East team was a miscarriage of justice. With the departures of Neill and Barnaby, the former walk-on will anchor the rebuilt DLine.
RS So DT Eric Foster (2 GS, 8 tackles, and 2.5 TFLs) was recruited as a LB but redshirted in 2003, practicing with the scout team at DE. Expected to contribute at DE, he instead earned a starting DT in summer camp last year. A promising season was short-circuited with an ACL injury in Game Two. A healthy return by Foster will boost the severely depleted DLine. However, less than a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, Eric may not be able to contribute significantly next year, if at all.
Sr DT Luis Rivas (10 GS, 12 GP, 9 tackles, and 1 TFL), as the most experienced DT, was expected to be the most valuable player on the defense last season. The one player the team couldn't afford to lose. Luis played on the two-deep as a true freshman and started as a sophomore. He missed spring camp in 2004 while recovering from groin surgery and subsequently lost his starting job in 2004 but played regularly as a backup. Nagging injuries sustained in summer camp hampered his performance last season. To the point where he was barely noticeable on the field. Instead of going out with a bang, Rivas just faded away.
RS Fr DE Jamaal Westerman (12 GP, 28 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, and one FF) enrolled at Rutgers in spring 2004 but redshirted behind a four-man DE rotation. He again showed promise in spring camp last year and was the third DE in essentially a three-man rotation. He was the best reserve on the DLine. With the loss of Neill and Barnaby, Jamaal will be under great pressure to contribute quickly and make plays.
RS Jr DT Cameron Stephenson (12 GP, 10 tackles, 2 TFLs, one sack, and one FR) joined the Scarlet Knights in 2004 after two years at Harbor Junior College (CA). Stephenson already used his redshirt season in JUCO and, as such, arrived with three years of eligibility remaining. Recruited as a DT to a team with a glut of DTs, Schiano immediately switched Stephenson to OT in summer camp. Stephenson earned a backup OT job 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 last year. Stephenson played well in the Spring Game but produced minimally as a backup on the two-deep last season. A frontrunner to replace Rivas as the starting DT next to Meekins, Cam will have to fend off challenges from several second-year players.
RS Jr DT Joe Giacobbe (7 GP, 6 tackles, 1 TFL, and one FR) walked on as a freshman DT in 2002 but redshirted. He played in two games in 2003. Schiano switched Giacobbe to center in summer camp 2004 due to a lack of options but Joe did not play. With the departure of the starter, Giacobbe was expected to win the starting center job nearly by default. He played with the first team in spring camp but lost the starting job to a JUCO transfer in summer camp. In midseason, attrition at DT prompted Schiano to move Giacobbe back to DT, where he played on the two deep. He will attempt to keep his job in the face of challenges from second-year players.
DE Peter Tverdov (9 GP and 9 tackles) was a very late addition to the 2005 recruiting class, committing in late July. Expected to redshirt, Tverdov saw spot duty as the fourth DE after Foster was injured. He will be competing for one of two starting jobs at DE in spring camp.
Sr DE William Beckford (1 GS, 7 GP, 7 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and one FF) was academically ineligible as a freshman but practiced with the scout team. He immediately seized the starting WLB job in 2003 and flashed great promise before an ACL injury cut short his rookie campaign. Beckford returned in 2004 but was not fully recovered from his knee injury. Expected to improve last year, Beckford performed poorly and quickly lost the starting job SLB job he inherited after an injury to the starter. Later in the season, Schiano switched Beckford to DE where William played as a third down pass rush specialist. Written off at LB, Beckford is expected to resume this DE role next season.
DT Vantrise Studivant (6 GP and 4 tackles) was expected to redshirt last season but joined a host of first year DL who played minimally. Though listed as a DE, I believe he saw action at the badly depleted and unproductive DT position, where only Meekins really contributed. Studivant will likely compete with Stephenson and Giacobbe for a starting DT job in spring camp.
DE Gary Watts (6 GP and 2 tackles) was also expected to redshirt
behind a deep DE rotation. But injuries along the DLine prompted shuffling
that thinned depth at both DT and DE. As a result, Watts was thrown into
the breach but played minimally. His was the second redshirt needlessly
burned in exchange for negligible contribution. He will compete with
Tverdov for a starting DE job in spring camp.
DT Chris Dirksz (2 GP and 2 tackles) was yet another wasted redshirt prospect last year. His negligible contribution was not worth the cost of a potential fifth year. He will join the competition for the starting DT job adjacent to Meekins.
RS So DT George Eshareturi transferred to Rutgers last summer from Iowa. Iowa recruited Eshareturi out of Mount St. Michaels HS in New York, NY. He contributed one tackle in five games in 2004 after redshirting in 2003. George quit the Hawkeye program last year during summer camp and enrolled at Rutgers, reportedly walking on to the Scarlet Knight football team last fall. He will compete in spring camp for a scholarship and should add some badly needed depth in the interior DLine. He could even earn a starting job.
Fr DT Jonathan Pierre-Etienne enrolled at Rutgers for the spring 2004 semester at Rutgers and participated in spring camp. Expected to play DE, Jon was switched to DT in spring camp to fill the depleted ranks. He played well in the Spring Game and was expected to compete for a spot on the two deep in summer camp. However, he underwent surgery after spring camp for a lingering hip injury from high school. He redshirted last season, the only first year DL to do so. PJE will compete for a spot on the two-deep in spring camp, either at DT or DE.
RS Fr DE Mike Ziarnowski redshirted in 2004 and practiced on the scout team. He missed spring camp and the 2005 season after undergoing surgery to remove a benign tumor on his wrist. His return is not yet certain.
RS Sr DE Piana Lukabu transferred to Division I-AA Western Illinois last spring. Lukabu was recruited as a safety but was switched to DE late in his freshman season, during which he mostly played on special teams. Piana redshirted as a sophomore and emerged as a surprise playmaker in 2003. Expected to start in 2004, he instead was suspended for the first several games of the season and struggled to regain his spot in the playing rotation. Schiano dismissed Lukabu from the program after spring camp for ongoing disciplinary problems.
Jr DT Nate Robinson transferred to Akron last spring. He was an extremely late addition to the 2003 recruiting class, committing to Rutgers in August after Miami denied him admission. Still rehabilitating a knee injury suffered as a high school senior, Nate did not play until late in the 2003 season. And then only sparingly. Robinson flashed glimpses of his potential in 2004 spring camp as injuries at DT provided an opportunity to practice with the first and second teams. Yet, when the 2004 season arrived, Nate was buried on the depth chart and again played only sparingly. Expected to fill the void created by the departure of three DTs last year, he instead was dismissed from the program by Schiano for repeated violations of team policy.
So DT Joe Salinardi redshirted in 2004 and practiced with the scout team. Expected to compete for three vacancies on the two-deep last spring, he instead quit the program for personal reasons.
Schiano still has eleven returning DL in his program but only four are experienced – and one of those four is injured. Therefore, DLine recruiting needs are difficult to gauge for an outsider since so few of the current roster have played significantly. Nonetheless, given the uncertainty surrounding the DLine, it would appear that Schiano needs to bring in a full class – two DEs and two DTs. Schiano currently has signed commitments from four DL – DE Matthew Hardison of Freehold Township HS in Freehold, NJ; DE Markus White of John I. Leonard HS in Lake Worth, FL; DT Charlie Noonan of St. Josephs Prep School in Philadelphia, PA; and DT Eric Wilson of Hibbing Community College (MN). With four DL recruits, plus six LBs – some of who could be converted to DE as has been Schiano's habit, it would appear that Schiano has filled his needs at DLine.
Coming Next: Rutgers Recruiting Needs, Part 6. A few year ago, Scarlet Knight fans were hailing Rutgers as the next Linebacker U. But the LB corps has been a disaster on the field for several years both in run and pass defense. A deep and experienced unit is suddenly very depleted. What is the status of this once-heralded unit?
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