Defensive line deals with injuries, suspensions as unit continues to develop consistent pass pressure
If the first two games serve as a litmus test for the fate of the Rutgers football team’s defensive line this season, junior defensive end David Milewski believes the Scarlet Knights will do just fine.
“[Defensive line] coach [Jim] Panagos has been pretty proud of us,” Milewski said. “We’ve limited the mental mistakes that we had, which is important. If you have mental mistakes on the defensive line, you’ll get exposed. That’s what kills defenses are mental mistakes.”
But if hard stats are what define the production of a defensive line, the Knights’ front seven do not pass the eye test so far.
As a unit this season, the Rutgers defensive line has produced seven tackles for loss, with just five coming from the regular rotation. Senior defensive end Marcus Thompson has that rotation’s only two sacks.
Senior defensive tackle Isaac Holmes does not worry about the lack of hard stats.
“We look at the total yards given up and things like that as a total defense. We’re really not chasing sacks and TFLs,” Holmes said. “All those things are going to come. What we like to see on the scoreboard is if we don’t give up any points. That’s the ultimate goal at the end of the day.”
They did that last Saturday against Norfolk State, as the Spartans were held to just 133 total yards and their quarterbacks left with little time to throw.
Norfolk State registered just eight completions for 74 yards, as Rutgers’ front seven had no problems getting inside pressure.
Though head coach Kyle Flood would like to see more production in terms of sacks and tackles for loss, he knows his defensive line can be effective in other ways, with added pressure to the quarterback being one of them.
“If you play against a team that alters the way they play to get rid of the ball more quickly, well, then you’ve had an effect on them,” Flood said. ”If you have a quarterback who maybe is not going through his second, third and fourth read because he knows the rush is coming, then you’ve had an effect on the game.”
While it is hard to gauge how effective the Knights’ defensive line will be after two games, injuries and suspensions have also made it difficult to get a solid view at the unit’s potential.
Senior defensive end and captain Jamil Merrell has missed Rutgers’ first two games with a lower leg injury sustained at the end of training camp. Merrell said he feels like he could suit up against Eastern Michigan but will let the doctors decide. Merrell finished last season with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.
Junior nose tackle Kenneth Kirksey was suspended for last Saturday’s game after violating team rules, and career-ending injuries to sophomore defensive end Myles Jackson and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamil Pollard have not been ideal for the line’s depth.
Sophomore defensive end Djwany Mera and sophomore defensive tackles Daryl Stephenson and Al Page have all stepped in to fill the void, which Milewski said is important to develop depth at the most physical position on Rutgers’ defense.
“Personally, I know how fragile it is in terms of health and injuries and you never know when your number’s going to get called,” Milewski said. “So to be able to get a little experience early on definitely helps you in the future because you can feed on that experience.”
Mera has started at defensive end in both games for Merrell thus far and is listed as the Knights’ starter for Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan.
Stephenson has seen extensive time in the rotation too, and Page was able to register 1.5 sacks against the Spartans.
It is only a matter of time before the unit can produce at full force, but for now, younger players will provide the depth if key players cannot.
When everything returns back to normal, Holmes believes the sky is the limit.
“We have a lot of young guys that were able to come in and play and had some pretty good games,” Holmes said. “I like how these young guys are stepping up, it allows us to have more depth on the defensive line and things like that. Once guys get healthy we’re going to be a problem up front.”