Spring Football Review - Part 1

This article is the first of a two-part review of the Rutgers football team as it finished spring camp. This review is intended as a companion piece to my spring preview series. I will review developments in camp, revisit issues raised in my preview, and present my vision of the two-deep roster. Since I previewed the defense first, I will similarly review it first.

 

THE DEFENSE

This article is the first of a two-part review of the Rutgers football team as it finished spring camp.  This review is intended as a companion piece to my spring preview series.  I will review developments in camp, revisit issues raised in my preview, and present my vision of the two-deep roster.  Since I previewed the defense first, I will similarly review it first.  I would like to acknowledge the assistance of both Andy Richter and Bill Hilden in preparing this series.  The view of spring ball from my vantage point 2,500 miles away was not a good one.  I appreciate the insights that each so generously shared to provide some meat for this review.  The original text from the preview is presented in bold italics.  

 

BIG PICTURE ISSUES

The defense was better relative to 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 defense appears improved, performance in spring camp against a suspect offense can hardly be used as a barometer of quality.  Strong performances against a suspect offense will not necessarily be an indicator of improvement but weak performances will be a bad sign.  A very bad sign.  With so many young player gaining strength and experience, will the defense outplay the offense this spring?  Anything less will be very disappointing. 

The answer, as witnessed in both scrimmages and the spring game, was a resounding "yes".  The defense opened spring camp as the dominant unit and closed it as such after turning in a 9-7 performance in the spring game, which pitted the first and second defensive units against their opposite numbers on offense.  The defenses throttled the running games (roughly 100 yards in about 30 carries) and blanketed the passing games (20 of 47 for 256 yards).  I'm withholding judgment about the absolute improvement of the defense until I witness its performance against a quality opponent.  For that, I'll have to wait until Game 4 against Pittsburgh. 

Here are a few big picture issues: 

·        Are the DBs still making more tackles than any other unit?   Without defensive statistics, this is a tough issue to evaluate.  However, the general impression was that the DBs were not making a disproportionate number of tackles in spring camp.  While this isn't necessarily a direct sign of improvement, it does represent the absence of a negative.  Because I would have been very concerned if the DBs were still the leading tacklers against the Rutgers offense.   

·        Are the DL getting penetration into the backfield and recording TFLs?  The DLine was clearly the most-improved unit on the team.  New DLine Coach Randy Melvin may be the best coach on the staff based upon his experience and pedigree relative to his coaching assignment.  The DLine is the youngest and perhaps most talented unit on the team.  The young players have made great strides under Melvin's guidance.  They were making plays throughout spring camp.  Both inside and outside.  Against both the run and the pass.  In the spring game, 1st team TB Marcus Jones gained only 21 yards on 9 carries versus the 1st team defense while 2nd team TB Clarence Pittman gained only 77 yards on about 20 carries against the 2nd team defense.  The DEs kept both 1st and 2nd team QBs under heavy pressure from the outside.   

·        Are the DBs still consistently missing open-field tackles?   Missed open-field tackles have been a problem against opponents of all calibers.  Especially considering the loose man-to-man coverage that our CBs play.  Open-field tackling was more consistent in spring camp.  This is one deficiency that must be corrected if the DBs are to be the strength of the defense.  Villanova and Buffalo will be early tests because both teams feature 3WR and 4WR sets that put pressure on the DBs to make open-field tackles.  If our DBs struggle against their WRs, it will be another long year.   

·        Is Defensive Coordinator Paul Ferraro still using his safeties aggressively in run support?   Absolutely.  Aggressive safety play is a Schiano philosophy.  One or both safeties playing close to the line of scrimmage, blitzing against both the run and the pass.  Although Ferraro used more Cover 2 zone coverage than previously seen, the primary defense is still a Cover 1 zone with a safety up near the line of scrimmage.   

·        Are the DBs employing more press coverage when the safeties are used in an aggressive run support posture?  Can the CBs take away the short routes and force opponents to hit the big play over the top?  Schiano's defense doesn't use a lot of press coverage.  The CBs play soft man-to-man coverage.  I guess that the theory is to avoid giving up the big play deep.  But the soft coverage concedes quick hitters underneath.  And runs a greater risk that an opposing WR can break a long run off of a short pass, especially if an open-field tackle is missed.  No amount of blitzing can prevent easy gains on hot routes.  And the loose coverage still runs the risk that the CB will bite on a fake or simply get turned around, thus getting beat deep anyway.   

 

DEPTH CHART

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, better players.  Defenders can be judged better against peers at the same positions rather than their counterparts on offense.  Of particular interest on the defense 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.  Who will win the contest?  Nate Jones emerged from spring camp as the first of equals.  Schiano reportedly said during the April Touchdown Club meeting that Thompson is always pushing both Jones and Haw and that all Thompson does is make plays.  Thompson should continue pushing and will assume the starter's job should one slip in performance or become injured.  

·        Backup Brian Hohmann has started more games at SLB than has incumbent starter Brian Bender.  Who wins the starting job?  Injuries at WLB postponed this battle as Hohmann replaced injured starters Nate Leonard (ACL) and Brad Cunningham (groin) at WLB.  Hohmann held the starting WLB job the entire camp, even after Cunningham returned.  I think that this battle between Bender and Hohmann for the starting SLB job will be rejoined in summer camp if Cunningham is healthy.   

  • Can Greg P'zmuka hold off Gary Gibson and maintain his starting DT job?  P'zmuka missed spring camp with a shoulder injury.  Meanwhile, Gibson's strong play at DT was one of the biggest surprises of camp.  Gibson has likely claimed one starting job at DT, relegating the battle for the other starting job to P'zmuka, Will Burnett, and Davon Clark. 

·        Backup Brad Cunningham has started more games at LB than has incumbent starter Nate Leonard.  Who gets the starting nod?  Leonard, still rehabilitating an ACL injury, did not participate in camp and a groin injury slowed Cunningham.  As a result, Brian Hohmann took a lot of repetitions at WLB, mostly with the 1st team.  The battle may evolve into one between Cunningham and Hohmann if Leonard is unable to return from his knee injury.   

  • Where will Will Burnett play and where will he fit on the depth chart?  With three true freshmen DEs on the two-deep at the end of last season, DE appeared to be the more probable location for the more experienced Burnett.  Nonetheless, Burnett practiced at DT and worked his way onto the 1st team by the spring game.  Davon Clark or Greg P'zmuka will now have to displace Burnett from the starting lineup.  

·        Brandon Haw reports to spring camp fully recovered from a knee injury.  Will he win back his starting job?  Haw actually played with the 2nd team defense in the spring game.  However, most reports from camp indicated that Haw saw most repetitions with the 1st team.  His open-field tackling was the best in the secondary.  Haw should cement his starting job during summer camp.  How will he perform compared to his peers around the conference?  His competition includes Virginia Tech's Roynell Whitaker, Syracuse' Will Hunter, and Pittsburgh's Shawntae Spencer.   

  • Tony Berry reportedly will be switched to safety this spring, meaning a likely demotion to the 2nd team behind two solidly entrenched starters.  Where will he play and where will he fit on the two-deep?  One week into spring camp, Schiano indefinitely suspended Berry from the team for disciplinary reasons.  Speculation focused upon Berry's response to his demotion and position change.  Berry missed most of spring camp and is not expected to return.  Berry never quite realized the potential that many saw in him. 

·        Jarvis Johnson enters spring camp as the front-runner for one of two backup safety jobs.  Will he be the primary backup for both positions?  If not, which does he play?   Johnson played FS behind Nate Colon in the scrimmages and with the 2nd team defense in the spring game.  I'm not certain whether he was practicing at SS, too, because most reports came from scrimmages or the spring game.  With the arrival of additional reinforcements for the secondary in summer camp, I expect Johnson to settle in as the backup FS behind Colon.    

  • Will Mitch Davis continue his role as utility reserve or will a younger player displace him from the two-deep?   The absence of Nate Leonard and Brad Cunningham for much of spring camp created a big hole in the two-deep at WLB.  The juggling started with the switch of Brian Hohmann from SLB to WLB.  That opened backup slots at both SLB and WLB.  Davis settled into the backup SLB slot.  Ever the utility man.  

·        With the reported switch of Tony Berry from CB to safety, Eddie Grimes is the front-runner for the one vacant CB slot on the 2nd team.  Will Grimes sew up a backup job?  Can he crack the starting lineup?   Grimes practiced with 2nd team but never threatened to take a starting job – it was always a three-way race between Brandon Haw, Nate Jones, and DeWayne Thompson.  Grimes was suspended for the spring game.  However, his replacement, 3rd team CB Vaughn Calhoun, reportedly was picked on in the spring game and his performance likely did not present a challenge to Grimes' position on the depth chart.   

  • How will Cedric Brown fare while competing with Burnett and Jenerette for a place on the 2nd team?   Schiano moved Brown from DT to MLB at the outset of spring camp.  A surprising move given the relative depth at DT vs MLB.  Instead of Will Burnett and Ron Jenerette, Brown competed with Jeremy Campbell and Ishmael Medley for the backup MLB role.  Brown quickly asserted himself and the won the job as 2nd team MLB behind Gary Brackett.  

·        Can Ron Jenerette crack the two-deep this spring?   The absence of Greg P'zmuka from spring camp with a shoulder injury created a second opening on the two-deep at DT.  Will Burnett, returning from academic ineligibility, quickly secured one backup position.  The move of Cedric Brown from DT to MLB gave the second backup DT job to Jenerette, by default.  However, the return of P'zmuka should relegate Jenerette to the 3rd team next fall.   

  • With the switch of Ron Simone from DE to FB, will Piana Lukabu have any competition for the backup DE job this spring?   Lukabu's only competition was from walk-on Syheem Farrar. At this time, Lukabu is clearly 4th in the pecking order at DE.  Missing the spring game under suspension did not help his development.  Lukabu likely will face a challenge from incoming freshmen to maintain his place on the two-deep.  

·        Will Steve Berson, Jeremy Campbell, and/or Ishmael Medley earn any of the openings on the two-deep?   With Nate Leonard out and Brad Cunningham missing much of spring camp, openings existed on the two-deep at SLB and WLB.  Jeremy Campbell filled the opening at backup WLB, scrimmaging and playing with the 2nd team.  Not much was heard from either Berson or Medley.  Each is in jeopardy of being passed by freshmen on the depth chart come the fall.   

  • Will Jereme Baker, Vaughn Calhoun, Anthony Frazier, or Jason Grant position themselves to contribute or will they be an afterthought?  In order to do so, they'll he'll have to beat two players who saw more action in the secondary last year – FS Jarvis Johnson and CB Eddie Grimes.   Schiano moved Frazier to WR and Baker to RB at the outset of spring camp.  Frazier missed most of camp with a hamstring injury.  With Tony Berry's suspension, Grant moved into the backup SS slot behind Shawn Seabrooks.  Calhoun was a 3rd team CB but played with the 2nd team in the spring game while Eddie Grimes was suspended.  Only Grant looks like a candidate for the two-deep next fall.   

 

TWO DEEP

Here's the two-deep, from my perspective, at the end of spring camp.  Players who missed the entire camp have been dropped from the two-deep under the theory that they will have to work their way back into the rotation.  Players who missed only some portion of spring camp are included in the two-deep.  Their location is based upon their actual place in the rotation during the spring, which may have been limited by the injuries.   

Position

1st Team

2nd Team

DE

Raheem Orr

Piana Lukabu

DT

Gary Gibson

Ron Jenerette

DT

Will Burnett

Davon Clark

DE

Alfred Peterson

Ryan Neil

SLB

Brian Bender

Mitch Davis

MLB

Gary Brackett

Cedric Brown

WLB

Brian Hohmann

Jeremy Campbell

CB

Brandon Haw

Eddie Grimes

SS

Shawn Seabrooks

Jason Grant

FS

Nate Colon

Jarvis Johnson

CB

Nate Jones

DeWayne Thompson

 

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT

The development and progress of the following players will be interesting to observe: 

  • Will Burnett's participation in spring camp is uncertain because he supposedly is recovering from a second operation on his injured knee.  Burnett's progress will be the most interesting development story this spring.  His size and experience should enable him to regain a position on the two-deep, but how far back will he come?   Burnett provided some of the biggest surprises of camp.  First, he showed up with a heavy brace on his knee, the same knee upon which he suffered an ACL injury two years ago.  Burnett was coming off a second operation on that same knee.  The brace was the first indication that Burnett had health issues and Schiano mentioned that Burnett's participation was uncertain.  Yet Burnett was able to practice and eventually beat Davon Clark for a starting DT job by the end of spring camp.  Burnett played with the 1st team defense in the spring game.  After nearly a two-year absence from the playing field, let's see how Burnett looks against outside competition.  

·        Nate Leonard is still rehabilitating his knee and is poised to miss his third consecutive spring camp.  Schiano has raised the possibility that Leonard may never return.  And may never play with his younger brother, Brian.   Leonard missed spring camp completely.  Although Schiano has not officially addressed Leonard's status, the Leonard family has announced that Nate's playing career is virtually over.  His knee, the same one also injured two yeas ago as well, simply isn't recovering.  I wish him well.  He had a hard luck career on the Banks.   

  • Can Raheem Orr stay healthy throughout spring camp and reclaim his perceived status as the best player on the defense?   Orr appeared fully recovered from a high ankle sprain that hobbled him all of last season.  He also survived spring camp with no further injuries.  Orr probably was the best defensive player in camp.  The OTs simply couldn't block him.  Of course, they couldn't block anybody last year, either.  Let's see how Orr does against outside competition.  

·        How effective will Alfred Peterson and Orr be as bookends?  Given our weakness at OT, Peterson and Orr should dominate spring ball.   Peterson missed much of spring camp with an ankle injury that relegated him to the 2nd team for the spring game.  Nonetheless, when paired together, Orr and Peterson dominated from their DE positions, as expected.  I would have been very disappointed had they not.  Both need to stay healthy during summer camp and continue their development.   

  • Can Brad Cunningham shed the nagging injuries that plagued all season last year?  Will Cunningham to entrench himself as the starting WLB?   Cunningham missed most of spring camp with a groin injury.  Recall that he played last season with a nagging groin injury.  I'm worried that this may be a chronic problem.  Former DE Torrence Heggie had a groin injury that required surgery.  Cunningham may yet need surgery, too.  If so, preferably sooner than later because the defense needs him.  

·        How does Davon Clark look and perform after a year of strength and conditioning?  Can Clark establish himself as our top DT?   I have not received any direct reports specifically about Clark.  But I understand that he entered spring camp as the top DT and slipped to the 2nd team by the spring game.  DT has been a historical weakness at Rutgers.  Clark must grow up in a hurry.   

  • Brian Bender now has fewer career starts than does his supposed backup.  How does Bender look coming off of a shoulder injury?   With WLB decimated with injuries to Nate Leonard and Brad Cunningham, the LB corps was thinner than expected.  Bender held down the starting SLB job throughout camp and showed no lingering signs of his shoulder injury.  

·        While Shawn 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.   Seabrooks is the third leading returning tackler in the conference and the co-leader in forced fumbles.  Missed open-field tackles were less evident in spring camp.  Seabrooks' ability to make these tackles may play a considerable role in winning individual post-season honors.  Seabrooks is one of the most experienced strong safeties in the conference.   

  • Has Ryan Neil has added some meat to his frame?   Neil is still a little on the light side.  The Star Ledger reported that, despite his youth, he is one of the strongest players on the team.  Neil is yet another 2nd year player who must grow up quickly if the DLine is to improve.  

·        Gary Brackett is a lock for the starting MLB job.   I didn't hear much about Brackett during spring camp.  He's not really spectacular.  Just steady and reliable.  Jerry Izenberg wrote a nice feature about Brackett's perseverance to successfully balance both academics and athletics.  Brackett is the 5th leading returning tackler in the conference.  Will he get consideration for individual honors while competing against Miami's Jonathan Vilma, Pittsburgh's Gerald Hayes, and Syracuse's Clifton Smith?   

  • Nate Colon is a lock for the starting FS job.   Colon is another player who has had problems making open-field tackles.  Missed tackles were not a noticeable issue in spring camp.  Colon has not received any mention for all-conference honors.  There are still too many holes in his game – man-to-man coverage and open-field tackling.  His competition for post-season individual honors include Virginia Tech's Willie Pyle, Boston College's Ralph Parent, and Temple's Jamaal Wallace.    

 

Coming Next:  Spring Preview, Part 2.  The second half of this series will review offensive developments during spring camp  

Please send any comments to bump86@earthlink.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.


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