Preview: Defensive Line

The defensive line is one of the more intriguing positions entering the 2006 campaign. Replacing two NFL-level talents in Ryan Neill and Val Barnaby, each of who tallied 10 sacks last year, seems to be quite a daunting task.

The defensive line is one of the more intriguing positions entering the 2006 campaign. Replacing two NFL-level talents in Ryan Neill and Val Barnaby, each of who tallied 10 sacks last year, seems to be quite a daunting task. However, with the return of injured interior lineman Eric Foster and the move of exceptional athletes Chenry Lewis and William "Papa" Beckford from LB to DE, Rutgers has now added 3 players, albeit small, that will allow the RU defense to be even more swarming as a unit. Getting those guys plenty of reps in summer practice and expediting the learning curve is the key task facing Godette and Galiano.  But based on raw talent, once these 3 additions get it together, they can help form a fierce front four.

In 2005, the Rutgers front four made a ton of noise, racking up 46 sacks to tie Nebraska for the lead nationwide. In addition, the DL was constantly in the opposition's backfield, accounting for 68 tackles for losses. Rutgers will have a much more athletic group of young men to rotate this year. What that results in, in terms of production is yet to be determined.  But in meeting these young men over the summer, they surely have worked their bodies and now seem to have the make-up to become a formidable a group.

    Impact Players lost off the two-deep include:
    DE Ryan Neill [All-Big East] (71 tackles, 10 sacks)
    DE Val Barnaby (41 tackles, 10 sacks)
    DT Luis Rivas (9 tackles)
    DT Cameron Stephenson (10 tackles, 1 sack. Moved to offense)

Neill, the Wayne Hills, NJ product was a 4-year player for the Scarlet Knights. He unfortunately suffered what seemed to be a career ending injury to his right knee during the 2001 game against the University of Miami. However, perhaps the most persevering Scarlet Knight of the Greg Schiano era, Neill overcame adversity to become the second most feared pass-rusher in the Big East behind Elvis Dumervill. Neill was a player that always had to be accounted for and frequently drew double teams. As a result, his presence allowed other players to shine. The warrior Neill signed a free-agent contract with the Buffalo Bills and has a great chance of making that roster.

Val Barnaby, from Franklin NJ, came to Rutgers via prep school in New Hampshire. He entered Rutgers as a very raw, 6'5" 240 pound athlete. Val always played with great passion and finally put it all together during his senior year as a Scarlet Knight. Val registered 10 sacks and was one of the vocal leaders that will be difficult to replace. Val had signed free-agent contracts with the Detroit Lions and New York
Jets this summer, but did not secure a position with either club.

Luis Rivas, from Coral Park HS in Miami, Fl, was one of the more highly recruited young men of the Greg Schiano era. The big Nicaraguan always showed tremendous promise, and was a four year contributor. Entering into 2005, he was expected to be a stalwart in the interior line. Unfortunately, he was plagued with injuries early during camp, as he was during much of his career, and ended his senior year quietly.

Cameron Stephenson was a major role player last year. Not much of a pass rusher, he was known for his great strength and athleticism at the point of attack. Cameron has been moved to offense this year where he has a chance to be a leader as an OG.

    Sr Ramel Meekins (63 tackles, 9 sacks)
    So Jamaal Westerman (28 tackles, 4 sacks)
    So Peter Tverdov (9 tackles, .5 sacks)
    So Vantrise Studivant (4 tackles)
    So Gary Watts (2 tackles)
    Jr Eric Foster (8 tackles, 2.5 for loss, .5 sacks. In 5-quarters of football)
    Sr Joe Giacobbe (6 tackles)
    So Chris Dirksz (2 tackles)

Ramel Meekins (Defensive captain, Outland Trophy candidate, and All-Big East Preseason selection), the former NCAA wrestling standout was an awesome football player last year, accounting for 9 sacks, 9 QB hurries, and 15 tackles for losses. And with his gains in the weight room, he looks to have the potential for an even more impressive senior year. His combination of low-center of gravity, superb strength, cat-like quickness, and nasty streak makes him nearly impossible to block one-on-one. Ramel had some huge performances last year in big games for Rutgers, most notably his 4 sacks against Cincinnati, which helped secure Rutgers first bowl birth since 1978.  One main question that needs to be addressed is the impact of the now departed bookends and their subsequent effect on Meekins, who is now the center of attention.  

While Ramel received the accolades last year, entering the 2nd game of the year, it seemed like Eric Foster would be the star of the interior line. His performance against Illinois which saw him constantly in the backfield harassing QB Tim Brasic and running sideline to sideline making tackles had Rutgers fans giddy. That level of performance from an interior lineman is what Rutgers needed. But an unfortunate ACL tear in the second game of the year forced Foster to miss the rest of the campaign. If he would have played last year, the Rutgers defensive line could have been unfathomably good. The exciting news for Rutgers fans is that many expect Foster to be further developed physically at this point this year than last year. Foster has no pre-season accolades, but don't be surprised if he is nominated for Big East post- season honors.

True Sophomore Vantrise Studivant was forced into action last year due to a lack of depth. Studivant however, was no slouch and made several veteran like plays during the year. Vantrise has continued to develop his body and now looks the part of a major Division 1 football player.

True Spohomore Chris Dirksz has battled both weight problems as well as nagging injuries to his shoulder and foot during his last year at Rutgers. Dirksz, who now weighs in around 260 pounds, is finally healthy and ready to go. He is a player that the staff believed would benefit from a red-shirt, but his motor and passion for the game may force his way into the lineup.

Peter Tverdov is an undersized DT at 6'4" and 250 pounds. But one must remember is that he may be one of the strongest players on this ball club. This young man will not be man-handled by 300 pound offensive linemen. And the former HS LB seems to have not lost a step in the process. He plays with great leverage and motor. With the many great attributes he brings to the table, he has reminded many of a young Ryan Neill.

"Jersey" Joe Giacobbe is the quintessential recruited walk-on at Rutgers. This young man just continues to fight his way through practice and will be counted on to make plays in 2006. He entered the 2005 camp as the starting center, before losing that job to Darnell Stapleton, and making a graceful transition to DT. Like Ramel Meekins, he is a smaller, explosive guy with incredible strength and attitude.

Jamaal Westerman came to Rutgers two years ago from Brampton-Ontario, Canada as one of the fastest first steps to hit the campus. He was incredibly explosive, but lacked the upper body strength to get on the field. After one red-shirt year and a very solid freshman campaign, Westerman now has the strength, size, and experience to become a force at DE. A lot of pressure has been placed on Westerman to become the heir apparent as the next great pass rusher for the Scarlet Knights. He certainly has all the tools to fit that role.

Gary Watts was a last second commitment a couple of years ago. He came to Rutgers as a rush end and showed a strong first step in his limited time in 2005. But like Westerman early in his career, Watts did not have the physical strength to become a regular part of the DL rotation. Now Watts has made big gains in the weight room and looks forward to making some noise this season. Watts will be one of five DEs that Rutgers plans to use as part of their DL rotation.

Players making position changes:
    Chenry Lewis LB (32 tackles, 1.5 sacks)
    William Beckford LB (7 tackles, .5 sacks)

Chenry Lewis started most of the later half of the year at the SAM LB after Terry Bynes was lost to injury - and Chenry shined. The Rutgers defense did not lose a step when Lewis came into play. But due to graduation of Rutgers' two major monsters at DE, Lewis has been asked to move to DE. He has the strength, athleticism and speed to be an excellent DE. The question becomes has he had enough time working on technique in order to be a difference maker at the position.

William "Papa" Beckford seems to have locked up the spot opposite Jamaal Westerman. "Papa" came in with much hype out of Glades Central HS in Florida. An unfortunate ACL injury hurt his development as a LB affecting his lateral speed. However, Papa still is a freak of nature and runs in the 4.5 range. He has also added some much needed weight and has filled out nicely. The Rutgers coaching staff is trying to model him after Louisville's Elvis Dumervil, and have Papa just pin his ears back and become a force as a pass rusher. The question with Beckford is how well will his lighter weight hold up against the run.

    George Johnson

George Johnson - The late addition to the Rutgers class is one of the gems of the 2005 recruiting class. Luckily for Rutgers, he was released from his scholarship at Virginia and was quickly scooped up by Rutgers. At 6'4 ½ 230 pounds, with 4.5 speed, Johnson has made a ton of noise in summer camp and earned himself significant time with the 2nd team. An unfortunate back injury has slowed his progression. The gravity of that injury has yet to be determined. If his injury is minor, he will be too talented to be kept off the field. The kid is a major talent.

Injured players returning
    Mike Ziarnowski

Mike Ziarnowski was a highly regarded member of the RU recruiting class 2 years ago. He now returns to the practice field after suffering a benign soft tissue tumor to his forearm. With his health back, he looks to fulfill the promise RU fans had of him after a great HS career at Immaculata HS.

After the great 2005 campaign, the RU DL emerged as one of the better units in Rutgers history. Positions thought to be question marks, were answered early with big years by Val Barnaby and Ramel Meekins. Production from Ryan Neill was as expected and finding a replacement for him will not be an easy task. The 2006 version, although needing to replace a combined 46 sacks, gains a new and improved Eric Foster in the interior, as well as some significant experience. Jamaal Westermen is expected to be the leader of the DE's, while the two converted LB's have incredible upside, but lack experience. Additionally, the physical development of Studivant, Dirksz, Tverdov, Watts, and Giacobbe add toughness and speed to the 2-deep. George Johnson, if healthy can be expected to make noise early on defensive side of the ball as well. Mike Ziarnowski finally joins the club after dealing with a terrible career threatening injury and looks to make most of his opportunities this fall.

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