Training camp preview: Defensive Line

Despite losing two senior starters that combined for 234 career tackles and 31 career sacks, the Rutgers football team's defensive line is still the deepest unit for the Scarlet Knights.

Having no Pete Tverdov and no Jamaal Westerman did not seem to faze the d-line one bit this spring as senior left end George Johnson and junior right end Alex Silvestro emerged as leaders and the unit as a whole emerged as a sack machine in the team's three scrimmages.

The spring sack attack culminated during April 18th's spring game in the form of sophomore Eric LeGrand.

LeGrand — likely to see significant time at defensive tackle this season after spending last season at linebacker, defensive line and fullback — recorded two sacks with the second team defense and one with the first team, but still is unlikely to start at the beginning of the season. Rutgers Football head coach Greg Schiano has said all spring that he expects an eight or nine man rotation with Johnson and Silvestro anchoring the end spots.

Junior Jonathan Freeny will be the primary backup at defensive end after spending two seasons as a reserve pass rusher. Because Johnson played minimally over the spring to prevent injury, Freeny saw the majority of snaps with the first team defense and should benefit from that come training camp.

"I thought the entire spring went really well for us," Freeny said after the spring game. "[Playing so much with the ones] helped a lot."

At defensive tackle, however, it is still unclear as to exactly how the rotation will pan out. It seems that senior Blair Bines and junior Charlie Noonan will start training camp working with the first team after both turned in impressive springs. Bines has gotten noticeably larger than his listed weight of 260 pounds and Noonan impressed Schiano enough to earn the Douglas A. Smith Award for Most Improved Defensive Player.

"I think Charlie has really done exactly what the award says," Schiano said at his press conference to wrap up the spring. "He busted his rear end and he's fought through adversity with knee injuries and surgery, but he's really improved his quickness and reaction time."

Bines and Noonan combined for 24 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss last season in backup roles to Silvestro and Tverdov.

And behind Bines and Noonan is where the bulk of that defensive depth comes in. That depth starts with LeGrand, continues with sophomore Justin Francis, redshirt freshman Scott Vallone and ends with the addition of four new true freshmen in ends Andre Civil and Junior Solice and tackles Isaac Holmes and Antwan Lowery.

Francis and Vallone are both returning from injuries last season as Francis also returns from a suspension that kept him away from football for a year.

"I really think Justin is going to take a huge pop going forward from here," Schiano said on Francis' progress. "All of that other stuff is behind him now and I think it takes a while to get back. Not only did he have his off the field distraction, but he also had shoulder surgery — a double whammy so to speak and when you're a young kid especially, you don't just come back like that."

There is a good chance that, because of the position's depth, Holmes and Lowery will both redshirt their true freshman seasons. Both tackles are considered to be very raw at this point and both may need to spend significant time with strength and conditioning coach Jay Butler before seeing playing time.

Civil, a 6'3" 240-pound Brooklyn native, is the most likely of the four freshmen to see immediate playing time because he, along with safety Mohamed Sanu (who is more likely to end up on playing with the offensive unit), enrolled in the spring to participate in spring practices. Civil worked primarily with the second and third team defenses and said that adjusting to college in the spring, rather than the summer, will be an advantage for him.

"The toughest thing is that it's physical and everything is fast," he said. "The mental thing is tough too. Every day they install new plays, new things so you have to be on top of your game and make sure you're ready.

"People are a lot stronger, a lot stronger. When you're trying to get past people that are 300 pounds plus and that fast, you realize that it's not high school. That's the biggest thing you have to adjust to."

Make sure to also see previous Training Camp Preview installments:
Running Backs
Offensive Line [Non-Premium]
Linebackers
Defensive Secondary
Quarterbacks

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