Projection of RU’s defensive starters next season
The Rutgers football defense loses little when it comes to statistical production for next year. But after allowing more yards than any defense in school history, the unit must repair its identity.
The young defense is littered with potential breakout players. Spring and training camp will help determine who might take their game to the next level or whether most of the young talent is still overmatched in college.
Here are The Daily Targum’s projected defensive starters for the 2014 season:
DEFENSIVE LINE: DE Djwany Mera, DT Kenneth Kirksey, DT Darius Hamilton, DE Quanzell Lambert
The Scarlet Knights can be confident in their defensive tackles next year. Hamilton positioned himself for a monster junior season with 2.5 sacks in the last four games.
One thing that could stop the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder from becoming a great defender is his size disadvantage against Big Ten defensive lines. But lack of d-line size is an issue with Rutgers overall and not just Hamilton.
Kirksey played a key role before getting injured three games into his junior season. He alternated at nose tackle with senior Isaac Holmes.
Mera started all 13 games his sophomore season, and the position is his to defend. But 2.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss are underwhelming numbers, and head coach Kyle Flood has never been afraid to switch starters at any time in non-skill positions.
Lambert was a four-star linebacker recruit — rated by Rivals — who moved to defensive end in last year’s training camp.
Even though he is talented, he still must prove he deserves to be on the field. But there is a good chance he will with solid edge rushing this year, another year at the position and more experience than redshirt freshman Julian Pinnix-Odrick and true freshman Sebastian Joseph.
LINEBACKERS: OLB Kevin Snyder, MLB Steve Longa, OLB Quentin Gause
Leading all rookies in tackles with a team-leading 123, redshirt freshman Steve Longa gave middle linebacker more certainty that any position on the team.
Snyder finished with 96 tackles as a junior — second on the team. He was a good run stopper but overmatched when he often had to flank out against speedy slot receivers. If enough members of the secondary improve, Snyder can focus more on stopping the run.
Gause enters next year a speedy junior likely to take over Jamal Merrell’s starting spot. Interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi heavily used Gause in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, where he made nine tackles.
CORNERBACKS: Gareef Glashen, Ian Thomas
Glashen showed greater consistency than any Rutgers cornerback toward the end of this season. It would be difficult to mark a big play allowed that was his fault.
Thomas leaves Rutgers with an interesting predicament in how to use him. He started the first three games of this season and played three more before quitting the team.
But Flood would not have let Thomas back on a conditional basis if he did not have faith in Thomas’ talents. Thomas only switched from wide receiver to cornerback during 2012 bowl practices, which gives him incredible room for improvement.
Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell are also starting candidates for their sophomore years.
Both certainly have potential, but both allowed several big plays. Barnwell missed some key tackles even in the Pinstripe Bowl. Cioffi often left a lot of space between him and his defender, allowing for yards after the catch.
SAFETIES: FS Delon Stephenson, SS Lorenzo Waters
Waters, entering his senior year, is a skilled run stopper. His biggest issue this year was too often having to do too much as far as run stopping and pass protection because of the secondary’s inexperience.
Junior Jonathan Aiken was solid filling in for Waters for two games and starting for senior free safety Jeremy Deering in the Pinstripe Bowl.
But Aiken’s skillset, with his strength being his play at the line of scrimmage, is a little too similar to Waters to start alongside him. He should see significant playing time as a senior, though.
Stephenson fits the free safety mold more, showing ability to stay on the ball deep, even recording an interception.