July 16, 2018 | ° F

Returning players in front seven offer stability

Knight notebook

Photo by Enrico Cabredo |

Junior running back Savon Huggins missed spring practice yesterday for undisclosed reasons. Huggins is projected as the starting back next season.

One year removed from the program’s first-ever share of the Big East Championship, the Rutgers football team has a few more questions thanks to several player losses to graduation and the NFL draft.

Many of those questions exist on the defensive side of the ball.

The Scarlet Knights lost two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene, defensive tackle Scott Vallone — the program record-holder for most consecutive starts — and six others who earned significant playing time in their tenure.

But the team’s front seven still has some experience remaining, which head coach Kyle Flood expects to be the center of the defense.

Photo: Nelson Morales

Senior linebacker Jamal Merrell, right, is the only starting linebacker returning, as former linebackers Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais have graduated and declared for the NFL Draft. Junior Kevin Snyder has the most experience of any returning linebacker besides Merrell.

“I think the defensive line and the linebackers … they play like an experienced group and they should,” Flood said. “I think they [look like the most experienced group].”

The linebackers, though, appear to have lost more than the defensive line. Greene is projected for the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, and former middle linebacker Steve Beauharnais had been starting since his sophomore season.

Only senior linebacker Jamal Merrell remains from last season’s starting unit. Junior Kevin Snyder has the most playing experience after Merrell, but the rest of the group’s game time is extremely limited.

But the defensive line is a different story.

Senior defensive lineman Jamil Merrell and senior defensive end Marcus Thompson started almost all of last year.

The Knights also see the return of senior defensive tackle Isaac Holmes, who missed nearly all of last season with a broken wrist.

“Ike is going to be Ike,” Jamil Merrell said of Holmes. “You know every time he is going to give you [everything he has]. He’s a big part of our defense in the middle. He holds it down in the middle.”

The experience those three bring to the lineup will be key in the defense, especially since the main focus in the past has been to stop the run.

The naming of last season’s linebackers coach Dave Cohen as this season’s defensive coordinator means that focus will not change.

And stopping the run begins with the defensive line.

“We always feel like we’re the center of the defense,” Jamil Merrell said. “We’re the first line of the defense. We have to be the toughest in order to stop the run.”

But Holmes, Jamil Merrell and Thompson will need some help, especially since Flood said he can foresee at least a six-man rotation, similar to last season.

That means the defensive line will feature at least three players who have never started a game for Rutgers.

One of those players, barring injury, will be sophomore defensive tackle Darius Hamilton.

After not quite living up to the expectations that come with being the program’s first-ever five-star recruit in the 2012 season — partly because of limited playing time — Hamilton is out to prove he deserved that ranking.

“I’m trying to have a breakout season,” he said. “It’s time to produce. Everybody knows me as a high recruit. For my sophomore year, expect bigger things from me.”

That leaves at least two open spots along the line that are far from claimed.

Junior defensive tackle Kenneth Kirksey and sophomore defensive ends Max Issaka and Myles Jackson — all of who saw time last season — will figure in the decision.

Junior running back Savon Huggins — pegged by Flood as the starter — missed practice yesterday for undisclosed reasons.

With sophomore running back Paul James also absent from practice, players such as redshirt freshman tailback Desmon Peoples earned extra carries.

“[Peoples] continues to be a guy who is hard to get your hands on,” Flood said. “He’s slippery. He’s got excellent change of direction.”

Early enrollee Dontea Ayers and junior fullback Michael Burton also earned extra carries.

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @Joey_Gregory. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.

By Joey Gregory

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