Rutgers tries to combat bulky Big Ten offensive lines with speed, technique
One of the prevailing notions as the Rutgers football team enters the Big Ten is that the Scarlet Knights’ front four will have a difficult time winning battles in the trenches against bulkier offensive lines.
The eight conference opponents Rutgers will face this season featured offensive linemen with an average weight of more than 300 pounds last year. The heaviest defensive lineman on the Knights’ two-deep spring depth chart is junior Daryl Stephenson, who comes in at 280 pounds.
Senior 275-pound starting nose tackle Kenneth Kirksey couldn’t care less.
“It’s not about how big and tall you are. It’s what’s in your heart,” he said yesterday post-practice. “I’m undersized, but I’m strong and quick off the ball as well. I have a mentality — and I’m sure the whole defensive line can say the same — that nobody in front me can beat me. I don’t care if you’re a giant — you can’t beat me off the ball.”
Explosion, speed and technique, which head coach Kyle Flood has always valued over size, remained focuses for the unit as Rutgers began its second week of spring practice.
The Knights hope to produce a better pass rush than last year, when they struggled to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and aid an ailing secondary. Rutgers had few issues stopping the run, ranking fourth in the nation in that department.
Kirksey said defensive line coach Jim Panagos has implemented innovative practice drills and ways to use vision to gain an upper hand on the sets offensive linemen are running.
“We were definitely lacking in pass rush ability last year. It could’ve been much better,” Kirksey said. “This year we’re doing new drills, learning new techniques to help us do that better. I think it’s really progressing.”
But even with more finesse, there is no question the size within the Big Ten poses durability challenges for Rutgers. Junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, who finished second on the team with 4.5 sacks last year, is the only returning starter along the front four.
That makes building depth all the more vital, starting with getting back redshirt freshman Sebastian Joseph. The Stroudsburg, Pa., native had an impressive training camp last year before sitting out nearly all of the regular season with an ankle injury.
He has switched from the 3-technique — where Hamilton plays — over to the nose tackle, where Joseph is listed as the backup to Kirksey.
But at a rotational position, Joseph figures to play plenty of snaps this season. Kirksey called the 6-foot-4, 270 pounder a “freak of nature.”
Panagos has notoriously pushed the rookie, getting in his face plenty of times yesterday and demanding more from not only Joseph, but the entire defensive line.
“Coach P has nothing but great intentions for us. He has high standards,” Joseph said. “He tells me all the time, ‘I have high standards for you, so I’m never going to drop them.’ ... I don’t take any offense to what Coach P does. He’s a great coach.”
With the top-three running backs on Rutgers’ depth chart all dealing with injuries — senior Savon Huggins and junior P.J. James are currently out of spring practice with shoulder injuries — Desmon Peoples is getting an opportunity to make an impression.
The sophomore took nearly all of the first-team reps in yesterday’s two-hour session.
“I thought he made the most of it,” Flood said. “I was excited about the screen he caught, I was excited about the way he ran a mental drill, and then in pass protection he made a really nice block on a strong safety blitz that I thought was good.”
Peoples was named Most Improved Offensive Player last spring but received only six carries during the season as James and freshman Justin Goodwin took the backfield reins.
The 5-foot-8, 175-pounder said he is hoping to bulk up 5-to-10 pounds by training camp. He also felt motivated by Flood’s comments.
“It makes me just want to keep working harder and just get everything right,” Peoples said. “It feels like a big opportunity for me. I’m getting a lot of time in the huddle, and I’m liking it.”
In the next stage of Rutgers’ spring quarterback competition, Flood assigned first-team reps to redshirt freshman Chris Laviano and junior Mike Bimonte. Senior Gary Nova, sophomore Blake Rankin and redshirt freshman walk-on Devin Ray took snaps with the second team.
Nova’s assignment to second-team work was mostly because of his experience as the Knights gauge the other candidates to start.
“When we come out on Thursday, I think we’ll have a little bit more of a pecking order,” Flood said. “But I don’t necessarily think that we’re ready to say, ‘1, 2, 3, 4,’ but as we move through spring here, we’re going to have to get closer to who’s working with the 1s, because that’s the only way you’re going to build your rhythm on offense.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.