Review of the Defense

A new season is dawning, which means renewed hopes, expectations and unanswered questions. SOR will attempt to fill in the gaps of where Rutgers football stands heading into the 2008 campaign. Today's installment: defense.

Last season Rutgers’ defense employed a “bend but don’t break” style with mixed results. The Scarlet Knights registered the 17th best overall defense in the country, but they were suspect against the run, allowing 156.9 yards per game on the ground.

The most experienced unit for Rutgers this season is the defensive backfield. All four starters this season have significant playing experience. The linebacking corps and defensive line are inexperienced but have plenty of potential.

Rutgers returns eight of its 15 starters on the defensive side of the ball.

Key returning players:

FS Courtney Greene. He had a chance to leave after his junior season, but Greene eschewed the National Football League for one more year at Rutgers. He was the leading tackler for the Scarlet Knights last season (101 total tackles) and has been the team leader in that department two of the last three seasons. Greene is on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list for the best defensive back in college football. He is also on the watch list for the Bronco Nagurski Award for best defensive player and the Lott Trophy for skill and personal character among defensive backs.

DE Jamaal Westerman. The fifth-year senior is the most experienced lineman returning to the team and will have to act as the team leader. Westerman led the Scarlet Knights with eight sacks in 2007 and registered 14 tackles for loss.

DT Pete Tverdov. Tverdov came to Rutgers as a prized recruit, but he has yet to fulfill that potential. Tverdov will be relied upon to fill the hole left by the departure of Eric Foster to graduation. Last season Tverdov, who missed the first three games due to injury, appeared in 10 games last year and registered 36 total tackles. He appeared to be ready to make the next step late in the season.

CB Jason McCourty. The true senior has started the last three seasons and has proved himself to be a capable cover man. Playing opposite his twin brother Devin (a redshirt junior), McCourty led the team with 12 pass breakups last season and rarely let receivers get behind him.

Key additions:

DL Scott Vallone. Vallone, a highly touted recruit, is coming off foot surgery in the offseason, but he is expected to get significant playing time at defensive tackle this season as a true freshman.

LB Manny Abreu. He has the skill to excel on the college level and was ranked No. 2 by at his position coming out of high school in 2007. After a redshirt season in 2007, Abreu should be the starting strong side linebacker for the Scarlet Knights this year.

Key losses:

DT Eric Foster. The emotional leader of the Scarlet Knights the past couple of seasons, Foster leaves a big gap in the interior defensive line. He registered 15 sacks and 145 tackles for his career, including seven sacks and 64 total tackles in 2007.

DB Ron Girault. Girault’s presence was most felt last season when he went down with an injury and had to miss four games. He was a hard hitter whose grit made him a feared defender.

LB Brandon Renkart. One thing the co-captain brought to the linebacking corps the last couple of seasons was stability. Renkart’s strength was more positioning than pure athletic ability, and he was an invaluable asset as a leader for the younger players on the team.

Here’s a quick look at each defensive area:

Defensive line:

Westerman, true senior Gary Watts (four starts, four sacks in 2007) and true junior George Johnson (nine starts, four sacks in 2007) will have to pace the team at defensive end, and Rutgers has plenty of question marks regarding depth. The Scarlet Knights have moved linebackers into the interior line to shore up the tackle slot, and experience is thin among the front four.

RU has moved players around to try to solve the depth problem on the line, including Blair Bines, a junior who spent the last two years at linebacker. Alex Silvestro, a sophomore, was shifted from end to tackle and is expected to start opposite Tverdov on the interior line.

Kevin Malast and Damaso Munoz, who both return as starters, anchor a linebacking unit that has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency in the past couple of years. Malast was second on the team with 92 total tackles last season. The true junior will continue to operate as an outside linebacker. Munoz, a redshirt junior, returns as an inside linebacker after registering 67 total tackles in 2007. Abreu rounds out the starting lineup.

Providing depth at the positing this season will be junior Ryan D’Imperio, who made some noise in preseason camp last season before going down for the year with a leg injury.

Defensive backs:
Rutgers has the most impact players in the defensive backfield. Greene should finish his Rutgers career ranked in the top three in career tackles, and the McCourty twins are solid at the corners. Joe Lefeged looks to be the hitter to replace Girault at strong safety, as he made a splash during his freshman season last year.

The depth goes beyond that to Jason Lee, a true senior safety who came to Rutgers from New Rochelle, N.Y., with Ray Rice and Greene. Lee has registered 61 career tackles and started four games at strong safety in place of Girault last season.

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