The biggest question to answer on defense

As the Rutgers offense works to find playmakers and go-to guys for the upcoming season, the defense has already found that.

Going into camp, the biggest question for a bruising defense is leadership. The Scarlet Knights lost five starters on defense to the NFL including four team captains.

Safety Courtney Greene and cornerback Jason McCourty got the call on draft day as both were taken in late rounds. Linebacker Kevin Malast and defensive end Jamaal Westerman got the call soon after with both signing as undrafted free agents. Defensive lineman Pete Tverdov also got a shot at the NFL, trying out with the Chicago Bears.

But losing that many starters on defense doesn't necessarily result in a lack of leadership.

With this team, there is an abundance of leadership ready to step up and replace what is lost.

Jason's twin Devin is one of two remaining starters in the secondary and has already emerged as a leader of not only the secondary, but the entire team. Now in his fifth year with the Scarlet Knights, Devin McCourty has not only proven to be an impact player on the field, but a strong leader off the field.

McCourty said that developing leadership is something that he has focused on over the offseason as both a returning senior and returning starter.

"I'm just trying to be a more vocal leader this year, trying to speak at different times just to try to keep the team going and making sure we stay on the right path," he said during spring practice.

And that effort seems to have paid off as younger defensive backs like junior Brandon Bing acknowledge McCourty as the leader he's become.

"I see Devin McCourty as a leader," Bing said during the spring. "They have definitely taught me a lot about the game and what I have to do. Those two guys are definitely leaders, and they always say they took me under their wing when they first got here which is somewhat true. They showed me what I had to do and tried to encourage me on doing certain things."

With the loss of three leaders and impact players in the front seven, two key seniors emerge as the new world order in terms of potential team captains in middle linebacker Ryan D'Imperio and defensive end George Johnson.

D'Imperio was enough of a leader last year alongside Malast, as he was finally fighting fit after a broken leg. And last year's healthy D'Imperio was a force to be reckoned with on defense earning a Big East Defensive Player of the Week honor against Syracuse and recording a team second best 93 tackles.

The next challenge for D'Imperio, other than building on a monster junior season, is to step up as the sole leader of a deep linebacking corps.

"Ryan D'Imperio is a big leader," said junior defensive end Jonathan Freeny who spoke for the entire defense in saying so. "All he ever does is everything right. Everybody on the team looks up to him and he's pretty much the role model that we need on the team."

Johnson, who has battled with back problems since joining the Scarlet Knights, finally came on last season as the big time player that people said he could be, recording 39 tackles including 10 for losses and one memorable hit on West Virginia's Jarrett Brown on 4th and short to give Rutgers one more shot to take the lead against the Mountaineers.

Other locker room guys to look out for this season are fourth-year juniors backup linebacker Jim Dumont and defensive tackle Charlie Noonan, the respective winners of the Frank R. Burns Mental Toughness Award and the Douglas A. Smith Most Improved Defensive Player Award.

"Jim Dumont is one of the toughest guys that I've ever been around," said head coach Greg Schiano in his press conference to wrap up the spring. "He broke his hand and didn't miss a play, finished the practice with a little tape on it and casted it and practiced every day."

Senior safety Zaire Kitchen, making the transition to an every down player, will also be a big leader for the 2009 Scarlet Knights because of his ability to overcome knee injuries and make impacts on both defense and special teams.

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