July 16, 2019 | 67° F

Youth expects to build on growing pains

Photo by Shawn Smith |

As the middle linebacker spot remains a question mark between redshirt-freshman Brandon Russell and junior Isaiah Johnson, the Knights will rely on leadership around them from the likes of junior weak side linebacker Steve Longa and senior strong side linebacker Quentin Gause.

BRONX — Kyle Flood repeatedly gave midseason reminders of the Rutgers football team’s abundant youth when answering to a string of blowout losses.

As fans grew restless, injuries and inexperience were among few explanations for the downward plunge of a program once seen on the upswing in pursuit of an elusive BCS bowl berth.

Yet once the Scarlet Knights’ first losing season in three years became official Dec. 28 at Yankee Stadium, Flood opted against discussing the bigger picture.

“I think it’s probably disrespectful to the game, the Pinstripe Bowl … to make this a reflection on the season,” he said following the team’s 29-16 loss to Notre Dame. “The game itself is so emotional. ... You look in the eyes of the seniors in your locker room after the game and it’s the last time that they’ll suit up as Rutgers football players and how much it means to them. The day itself is a very emotionally draining day.”

The afternoon previewed the more physical, smash-mouth style of play Rutgers will face next season in the Big Ten.

Notre Dame featured superior size up front, controlled the clock for 38 minutes and gashed the ball for 175 yards on the ground. It ultimately wore Rutgers down.

But one Knight who showcased a high motor throughout the game was sophomore outside linebacker Quentin Gause, who will likely replace senior captain Jamal Merrell next season as the starter on the strong side in Rutgers’ 4-3 base defense.

Gause totaled nine tackles — one for loss — and snatched a fumble recovery.

His career game capped off a breakout season. The Rochester, N.Y., native finished fourth on the team with 53 tackles, including 8.5 behind the line of scrimmage, despite only making one start.

Junior linebacker Kevin Snyder sees it as only the beginning for the third-year sophomore.

“From the second that guy walked on campus with me our freshman year, I knew he had the talent,” Snyder said. “He’s got the talent to do whatever he wants to do. It was just a matter of him picking up the defense and understanding it, and he’s well on his way. I thought he did a phenomenal job this year … and I think he’s got a bright future.”

Rutgers is also set to return its tackles leader in freshman middle linebacker Steve Longa, whose 123 were the program’s most at middle linebacker since Gary Brackett’s 130 in 2002.

While an effective run stopper, Longa had blemishes in pass coverage. He was not alone.

Opposing quarterbacks torched Rutgers nearly all season, leading to the most passing yards allowed in school history.

The woes stemmed from the secondary, which lost all starters but junior strong safety Lorenzo Waters from last season. Injuries and off-field issues prematurely thrust inexperienced players into game action.

But Flood is confident the Knights will not be steps late on the finer details of pass defense come spring.

“I think the first thing that improves the defense will be experience,” he said Jan. 6 via teleconference. “When you lose six players to the NFL ... those guys aren’t easy to replace. I think some of the struggles this year and some of the things that weren’t always so pleasant to the eye to watch defensively were some of the growing pains that we needed to go through with the age of the players we have on our roster.”

Only cornerback Lew Toler and free safety Jeremy Deering will graduate this year from the unit.

Junior Jonathan Aiken and freshman Delon Stephenson made impacts against Notre Dame and are viable candidates to start next year at free safety.

Freshmen cornerbacks Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi also showed promise and should continue to grow with offseason training.

On offense, sophomore running back P.J. James took perhaps the biggest leap forward. The Glassboro (N.J.) High School product ran for 866 yards in only eight games after receiving just five carries last season.

“There’s still things I’m working on, but there are a lot of things I learned — how to read defenses, reading linebackers better, reading the d-line, know what they’re going to do, how to read blitzes if they’re coming,” James said.

But James has dealt with nagging injuries since high school, which to some extent may be inevitable since he sometimes uses a power-running style.

Flood said Jan. 6 the team will conduct a study this offseason on the types of injuries throughout the roster and how they occurred. Even so, he knows only so much can be prevented with the nature of the sport.

What the Knights do control, though, is the depth of their personnel. Tight end, linebacker and offensive line are all positions of emphasis for Flood going forward.

Flood called developing young players the best part about his job, so he would not have it any other way.

“Injuries happen in this game and other guys need to be ready to step up,” he said. “As a football team, we need to have enough depth that we can get the production that we need.”

By Greg Johnson

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