Merrell’s transition maintains unit’s standards
Benny Merrell always told one of his sons, Jamil, to never approach anything without giving his best effort. He never tolerated quitting in the family’s Bear, Del., home, and that was the way he raised Jamil Merrell, now a junior defensive tackle for the Rutgers football team.
“No matter what I was asked to do,” Jamil Merrell said yesterday, “I was going to give it 110 percent.”
It is part of the reason the Scarlet Knights defensive line has shown few ill effects following a season-ending injury to former starter Isaac Holmes. Jamil Merrell moved from defensive end to replace Holmes on Oct. 6 against Connecticut, and he has entrenched himself there four games later.
Head coach Kyle Flood first knew Jamil Merrell could play inside when Merrell played on the Knights’ scout team as a redshirting freshman. Then offensive line coach, Flood saw some of the same qualities in Merrell he praises in senior Scott Vallone, a 47-game starter.
“When you play on the inside,” Flood said, “you have to have a certain degree of toughness and fight in you because every play you’re going to probably get hit by two people.”
The position also demands a low center of gravity.
The 6-foot-4 Merrell does not naturally have it, but years of coaching — and attitude — engrained it in him.
“Usually when you get high, that’s when you get de-cleated,” he said. “I’m not trying to get de-cleated or put on my back.”
It has not happened often to Jamil Merrell, who is tied for fourth on the team with 4.5 tackles for a loss and sits in a tie for second with two sacks. His twin brother, junior linebacker Jamal Merrell, is tied for first with 7.5 tackles for a loss.
But Jamil Merrell did not only serve as a stopgap in Holmes’ absence, said redshirt freshman defensive end Max Issaka. He has become a catalyst for the Knights’ success on defense.
“For the most part,” Issaka said, “it’s been really great just because of who Jamil is.”
Issaka, meanwhile, has seen his snaps reduced.
He said he earned about 15 plays per game during the middle of the season, but defensive line coach Jim Panagos has seen Issaka’s energy waver during practice. Issaka agrees.
“It’s easier to understand why somebody’s not playing more if somebody is performing to the best of their ability and helping us win,” Issaka said. “If it was a losing situation, my whole mentality is different.”
Flood said the Knights’ 69-38 loss two years ago at Cincinnati had no bearing in the defensive changes the team made following the season.
Former head coach Greg Schiano announced several moves in his opening spring press conference in 2011 based on incorporating more speed on defense.
Only Khaseem Greene, now a senior who moved to linebacker from safety, remains following the changes.
“There are different players on both sides of the ball,” Flood said. “We have a different coordinator now even though our system is the same.”
The loss to Cincinnati began a three-game stretch to end the 2010 season in which the Knights allowed 144 combined points. Rutgers surrendered less than 20 points in conference play that season only once.
Two of the teams Rutgers chased, Cincinnati and then-Big East member West Virginia, ran spread offenses centered on speedy playmakers in space.
Flood said Cincinnati’s offense last week did not change much after head coach Butch Jones inserted senior quarterback Brendon Kay at Temple.
Kay appeared in only five career games before this season.
“The way we would’ve game-planned for the first quarterback would be very similar to how we would game plan for this one,” Flood said.
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