Rutgers defense shows depth, experience along front seven
Last fall, defense was a relative term for the Rutgers football team.
In their first season in a new conference, the Scarlet Knights (8-5, 3-5) struggled at times to adjust to some of the high-octane offenses produced by Big Ten programs. And the statistics reflected Rutgers' growing pains.
The Knights surrendered 5,756 yards of offense in 2014, allowing opponents to gash the defense with the running game, giving up an average of 212.3 rushing yards per contest.
This season, the front seven is stout with experience at every position, giving reason to believe that Rutgers can progress in its second year in a power-five conference.
When the Knights take on Norfolk State at High Point Solutions Stadium at noon on Saturday, they will be missing some key components, but the depth produced over the spring and summer months should allow them to plug and play.
Sophomore sensation Kemoko Turay (questionable) will likely be held out of game one after captivating the country in 2014 with his freakish athletic ability (three blocked kicks) and his penchant for pummeling opposing quarterbacks (7.5 sacks).
Fifth-year senior standout Darius Hamilton (six sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014) is already listed as “out” against the Spartans, but veteran defensive lineman Julian Pinnix-Odrick will step up in Hamilton’s stead.
Pinnix-Odrick, a junior, began his career at defensive end. But after a knee injury and the team’s necessity for big bodies on the interior of the line, he put on 15 pounds and slid inside this summer to the three-point technique at tackle.
The West Paterson, New Jersey, native’s vocal leadership is vital to a defense that gave up 5.5 yards per rush in the 2014 campaign. As quickly as Pinnix-Odrick dishes it out, he is willing to take it in.
“If I get on them, at the same time, I’ll be the one to come up to them after practice and tell them like, ‘Yo, I believe in you, but I gotta get after you a little bit — and I want you to get after me,'” Pinnix-Odrick said. “I’m not exempt. Get after me when you see me doing something crazy. I need that, and I’ll say thank you. I might get mad at the moment, but I’ll say thank you after.”
In place of Turay, junior defensive end Quanzell Lambert will earn his first career start after changing positions four times over the course of his career on the banks.
Lambert began as a linebacker before being moved around the defensive line from tackle to end. He offered a glimpse into the foundation of his versatility for the Rutgers defense.
“My versatility is basically based off of explosion,” Lambert said. “Any explosive football player can do anything on the football field because football is a game of explosive movement.”
After shutting out Norfolk State in all three previous meetings between the teams, Lambert spoke about the momentum a fourth shutout would carry for the psyche of the Knights.
“As a defense it’s always good to see a shutout," he said. "Especially for our first game of the season, it kinda gets the ball rolling for the season, just gives us the confidence.”
But the Knights didn't register a single shutout last year. Instead, they gave up 30.2 points per game to opponents in 2014.
But even with his success from the past two years returning tackles leader Steve Longa isn't worried about last season.
“I don’t really care about what happened last year,” the junior linebacker said. “I wanna make sure my team — this defense, this 2015 team — goes out there this year and plays the best it can. I know it’s going to be a better defense.”
From his position on the weak side, Longa headlines a linebacking corps saturated with experience. His back-to-back 100-plus tackle seasons have kept Rutgers afloat on defense the last two years, along with the steady play of senior strong side linebacker Quentin Gause.
Gause, who totaled 72 tackles in 2014 with seven for a loss, believes the improvements will come with the focus on the little things.
“I need to continue to watch film, to study what I do on the field each day,” the senior captain said. “Go through every little thing, every small detail I need to correct. Even if it’s okay, I don’t think it’s okay. I need to perfect it. Just like John Wooden said, ‘If you do the little things right, everything else will come easy.'"
Lining up in between Longa and Gause at middle linebacker is senior Kaiwan Lewis.
Lewis spent three years in the Southeastern Conference before graduating from South Carolina and transferring to Rutgers this fall. The Pleasantville, New Jersey, native’s best season in Columbia came his sophomore year, when he notched 53 tackles and two interceptions.
Lewis has quickly acclimated to the Knights' scheme, while focusing most his mental energy on diagnosing what he sees on the other side of the ball.
“I want to continue to learn as much as I can and pick up different tendencies, whether it’s our offense or the offense we’re going to play against Sept. 5,” Lewis said. “That’s the only focus right now — to continue to learn and get focused, ready to go.”
Between the depth along the defensive line — Lambert called the position group a starting nine — and the experience at linebacker, Rutgers should be improved in 2015.
Even without Turay and Hamilton, head coach Kyle Flood’s front seven is formidable. And the next-man-up mentality is echoed by every player, including sophomore nose tackle Sebastian Joseph.
“We’re all capable of starting, every given day,” the starting nose guard said. “We’re all talented enough to do it because we’re all pushing each other hard and we all just want it, we all just grind. And we love each other. It’s bigger than just football with us, you know. We genuinely love each other as a unit.”
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