‘D’ keys in on fundamental improvements for home opener
Pac-12 member Washington State and FCS school Howard are polar opposites in terms of offensive philosophy, which means the Rutgers football team is likely to employ equally different defensive personnel groups in Saturday’s home opener.
The Scarlet Knights went with nickel formation for much of Thursday’s contest, rotating five or six defensive backs to provide better zone coverage against the Cougars’ Air Raid assault.
Sophomore Delon Stephenson, the nickel back in the personnel group, played a significant role matching up with slot receivers alongside two linebackers.
It was one of new coordinator Joe Rossi’s tweaks to a defense that stuck more with 4-3 base personnel against spread offenses last season.
“I have to come in the box sometimes. I’ve got to make certain calls,” Stephenson said Tuesday post-practice of the role. “If I mess up, it could lead to a big play.”
Rutgers’ starting free safety played mostly cornerback last season, recording an interception in his first collegiate start against Temple. He said experience as a true freshman instilled a firmer understanding of the defense.
Now the Sayreville, New Jersey native’s talent is coming to the forefront.
“He’s extremely versatile,” said senior strong safety Lorenzo Waters. “He can step back and play safety, I’ve seen him play corner, and now he can play nickel. Just him knowing and understanding the whole defense where he can do those things is definitely critical to our defense.”
But Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, who threw on 80 percent of snaps for 56 attempts, eventually found mismatches and pushed last season’s third-leading passing attack into the end zone five times.
Still, although the 532 yards allowed were misleading to an extent, the Knights are well aware of breakdowns and missed tackles that still need to be cleaned up.
“I want to see better fundamentals,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “I don’t know that that will be exclusive to the secondary, but I think when you talk about every player in their position — alignment, assignment, technique — those are things that you control on a day-to-day basis as a player and those are things that you should be able to improve on a little bit each day.”
There’s no better opportunity for Rutgers to do so than this week as it prepares for Howard, which the Knights shut out two years ago, 26-0.
Stephenson said the first day of practice centered on pressing the hips for better tackling. Waters added that eye discipline remains crucial.
Rutgers likely won’t need to step away from its traditional 4-3 defense outside of third-and-long situations, as Howard ran the ball 51 times and passed only 26 times in its opener against Akron.
But fundamentals — not scheme — are the Knights’ pinpoints of improvement from Week 1 to Week 2.
“We’re just going to get the right personnel that matches up, depending on the offense,” Waters said. “It’s not a matter of making the base [defense] better. It’s just whatever the offense presents you want to match up personnel.”
Ralph Friedgen was named Athlon Sports National Coordinator of the Week, Rutgers announced.
The Knights’ new offensive coordinator called the plays for a balanced unit that put up 281 passing yards and 215 rushing yards against Washington State.
Junior running back Paul James paced the offense with 173 yards on the ground, scoring three touchdowns.
Rutgers’ 41 points were the most in school history in a road season opener against FBS competition.
Flood said the line of demarcation for deciding on redshirts this season is after the sixth game, which comes before Rutgers’ first bye week.
Senior running back Savon Huggins, who is out again this week with an upper body injury and missed all of spring and training camp, figures to be one of the candidates.
“That’s really where you have to make a decision based on who has played, who hasn’t played, has there been an injury to a player who has played four of the first six [games]?” Flood said. “They can still redshirt if they’ve had an injury. … If a freshman hasn’t played by game six, in my mind it would have to be an extraordinary circumstance for that freshman to play.”
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