3 Defensive Questions Prior to Spring Camp

If the thermometer is any indication of the date on the calendar - and it is - then using it as an indication of the timing of Spring Football's start may not be such a bad idea. With Spring Practice getting underway later today, the Scarlet Knights will have important evaluations to make on the defensive side of the ball.

Rutgers Football ended the 2007 season on a positive note. The Scarlet Knights finished 8-5 overall, 3-4 in Conference play, and defeated Ball State in the International Bowl.  RU finished an idiosyncratic season tied for fifth in the Big East, but the end result of postseason play maintained forward progress of the program Greg The Architect Schiano had begun building years earlier.

The Scarlet Knights lose three starters on defense: Eric Foster [DT], Ron Girault [SS], and Brandon Renkart [LB].  Rutgers does return 8 starters on the defensive side of the ball, including significant experience at nearly every position on the football field.  Considering the level of play RU was able to sustain during 2007 (5th ranked pass defense in country; 12th most sacks in country; 20th most TFL in country; 17th in total defense in country; 30th in scoring defense in country] while mentoring a number of young, though talented players, the 2008 version suggests significant promise.  Nevertheless, there are important subtractions to a unit that, much like the offense displayed with Ray Rice, will have to do without players like Eric Foster whose Scarlet Knight status will forever be etched in stone.

The 3-technique spot will feature a different flavor this year due to the graduation of Eric Foster.  Foster, who saw repeated double teams and had a generally more difficult time due to the departure of 1-technique Ramel Meekins, was still able to put forth a strong year.  Foster's initial step and some of the best hands in the country, in addition to a simple - though not ubiquitous - passion for the game, will be sorely missed.  Ron Girault's arrival to Rutgers is widely known to all RU fans.  His development in the defensive secondary for 4 years was associated quite nicely with a defensive unit that was much maligned upon his arrival, but one that learned to dictate the pace of the game by the time of his graduation.  Brandon Renkart was the embodiment of what it means to be a student athlete, excelling in the classroom as an engineering student as well as on the field.  The former walk-on and eventual unit captain's leadership qualities will have to be replaced.

Rutgers will have to replace 24% of 2007's tackles, just under 26% of 2007's total number of sacks, and 33% of the season's interceptions.  There is talent on the defensive side of the ball, unlike Rutgers has had in quite a few years.  Coupled with that talent is youth, but not totally green youth, as seen in the offensive backfield.  Providing Rutgers can fill in some key gaps, the RU D may see significant improvement in '08.  However, finding the replacement pieces is not all that trivial.  We now take a look at the 3 most pressing questions, on the defensive side of the ball, that Rutgers faces as it enters Spring Camp.

1.  It all starts on the defensive line for Rutgers - everything.  The key is getting sufficient pressure on the opposing QB, because, like the proverbial dominos, all else follows.  Last season, Rutgers showed it sorely missed the presence of Ramel Meekins, though that limitation was, to some degree, offset by Eric Foster's relentless motor.  This season, Rutgers will have to continue to find the 1-technique they were unable to last season, in addition to filling the big shoes of 1st Team All Big-East honoree Eric Foster.  How the middle of the Rutgers DL is eventually addressed will go a long way to patching up a rush defense that took a step back in 2007.  Moreover, improved play on the interior, will free up the ends to continue to do what they do best - create havoc.

Rutgers has bulked up in the interior.  The Scarlet Knights are bigger and stronger, but as evidenced by Meekins' outstanding play, size doesn't necessarily translate to better.  The recent suspension of So. Justin Francis will hurt RU significantly, primarily due to the early promise he showed.  Seniors Pete Tverdov and Vantrise Studivant will have the opportunity to perform at the 1- and 3-technique, respectively.  Jamiel Farrington shows promise, though he may be too light to play the 1-technique.  Matthew Hardison, who has bulked up significantly, may be the beneficiary of Francis' suspension and could, conceivably (i.e., in an emergency role) play anywhere on the DL if asked to. 

The Rutgers secondary has benefited tremendously from above average DL play during the last two years and if that is to continue players like Tverdov, Studivant, Farrington, and Hardison must shore up the interior and find ways to get into the opposition's backfield.  How fast this unit can gel may dictate whether the RU Defense, as a whole, becomes a nationally dominant defense or not.

2.  It's not every season that a defensive coordinator is blessed with experience at not one, but both CB spots.  The twins, as they have affectionately become known - Jason and Devin McCourty - both return as anchors of a defensive backfield that ranked fifth nationally in pass defense.  Of course, this didn't happen in a vacuum, and was most certainly helped by the ability of RU to put pressure on the opposition's QB.  The fact remains - the CB position is one that RU fans do not have to worry about.

Actually, they do.  The twins backups', Billy Anderson (participated in 4 games in '07, and 1 in '06) and Brandon Bing (participated in 12 games as a true Fr.) have both seen limited time.  The backups have combined for 10 career tackles (8 by Bing in '07).  Davon Smart, in the case of an emergency, could be moved to CB, but he's currently at FS in a back-up role behind Courtney Greene.  It may very well be that the twins will participate in the majority of all snaps in '08, and that the issue of CB depth is one on paper only, allowing the reserves to grow and develop while those currently ahead of them continue to make the plays.

This is a question that may need to be addressed at some point, or not at all, depending on how the season plays out.  In an ideal situation, one would like all players on the two-deep (and beyond) to be experienced-laden. 

3. Despite the graduation of Brandon Renkart, Rutgers has major talent at the LB position.  At this point, however, it is still untapped talent, in part because the players have yet to see an initial opportunity.

Ryan D'Imperio's 2007 injury is fully healed and the throwback LB will have his chance to showcase his skills starting immediately.  Whether he winds up in the middle, or winds up relinquishing his spot to Damaso Munoz, who will miss the entirety of the spring, is really besides the point.  Rutgers boasts several LBs that play with good instincts, that can gallop like horses, and that have impressive size.  There is also significant youth at the position, suggesting that this position will continue to improve this season and beyond. 

Antonio Lowery and Manny Abreu are two players with tremendous god-given ability that have begun to learn the game.

Nevertheless, outside of Sr. Kevin Malast, who was 14th in the Big East in tackles per game in 2007, RU has no additional LBs that have started a game in the two-deep.  Despite this, the group of players have been together for some time (in excess of 1 season), they have had the opportunity to absorb the playbook and have continued to make strides, during the off-season, in terms of speed and strength.  How that cohesiveness translates on the field is a question that will not likely be answered by the conclusion of Spring Camp.

Matei may be reached at mgeorge@rutgersfootball.com

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