Football: Linebackers attempt to fill void
There is no doubt — in the public eye at least — that whoever ends up playing alongside senior linebacker Jamal Merrell this season will be caught in two very large shadows.
Following last season, the Rutgers football team lost two prominent figures in one position group.
Two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais both exhausted their eligibility and moved on with NFL hopes in mind.
With five seasons of starting experience between them, Greene and Beauharnais left some holes in the depth chart.
But the linebackers that are left are not the least bit concerned with that.
“It’s not the matter of the person,” said redshirt freshman Quanzell Lambert. “Everybody is replicable. It’s all about how you are going to play, how you’re going to fill the shows. You’re not going to be the same exact player as the other person, but you’re going to do what you have to do to compete.”
Part of that has to do with the confidence and talent that have brought them this far and part of that has to do with the players that are still there.
But more of that has to do with the fact that despite having much less experience in previous seasons, the linebackers are still in good shape.
“We’re a little bit ahead on defense,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “That’s usually the case when you start training camp and start the spring. I think we had a little bit more in on defense than we did on offense.”
While both the offense and defense received new coordinators, the new defensive coordinator, Dave Cohen — formerly the Scarlet Knights linebackers coach — kept the same defense in place.
That was especially good news for the younger linebackers, who found out they did not spend their redshirt season learning a system that is no longer used.
Redshirt freshmen such as Lambert and Steve Longa have worked to compete to fill the holes left behind by Greene and Beauharnais.
In doing so, they have impressed veteran linebackers Merrell and junior Kevin Snyder.
“I’m seeing that they’re really starting to get it and they’re really starting to fly around and play good football,” Snyder said.
Lambert has to adjust to one of the most important spots on the field — middle linebacker.
While Greene made most of the tackles on the outside, Beauharnais was considered the “quarterback of the defense” from the middle-linebacker position.
Lambert is one of the candidates to fill that role.
Communication is key in that role, something that impressed Flood while recruiting Lambert, and he will need it.
“Certainly one of Steve [Beauharnais’] greatest strengths was his ability to communicate with the entire defense,” Flood said. “Whoever is in that spot, whether it’s Quanzell or Lester or Kevin Snyder — whoever else is in the middle of the defense — they have to be a great communicator.”
Others like freshman Lester Liston are expected to compete for time in the linebacker corps.
But it remains to be seen who will make the 219 tackles Greene and Beauharnais made last season.
Sophomore running back P.J. James — who is slotted as one of the primary candidates to back up junior starter Savon Huggins — left practice early yesterday.
Flood insists the reason for James’ exit was not serious.
“We could have pushed him back in, but I think it’s better served to let some of the other guys get an opportunity,” Flood said.
He said it was a good chance for others such as junior fullback Michael Burton, redshirt freshman Desmon Peoples and freshman Dontea Ayres to get some more carries.
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @Joey_Gregory. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @targumsports.