Knights adjust to new position as Rutgers looks to fill starting holes at linebacker
Jay Niemann has been in football for more than 30 years, coaching at seven different schools in all three NCAA Divisions before arriving in Piscataway to take charge as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Rutgers under Chris Ash.
But despite all his experience and wisdom, he’s facing a challenge he’s never had before — replacing three starting linebackers at once.
“Don’t think I have (ever had to do it), don’t think I have,” Niemann said of his new challenge. “But they’re working hard, they’re competing. We just got to see how the competition works out.”
The Rutgers football team had starters Steve Longa (NFL Draft), Kaiwan Lewis and Quentin Gause (graduation) leave the Banks following its final game last season. The program was left with a young linebacker room with just one start between 12 players.
Sophomore Deonte Roberts owns the sole start among the group after taking Longa’s place when he was out injured against Army.
Experience is something you can’t teach, but having players without it may have some hidden benefits for Niemann.
“Well, you don’t have to deprogram them from something different they’ve already learned, so that’s a positive,” he said. “So everybody’s starting with a clean slate and working from the ground level up. From that perspective, that’s a positive, yeah.”
Since arriving at Rutgers, Niemann and the rest of the staff have shifted players around to different positions based on how they could best help the team with the skill sets they possess.
Sophomore Najee Clayton came in last season as a wide receiver out of powerhouse high school program Paramus Catholic, playing six times as a true freshman. He was moved to safety by former head coach Kyle Flood and his staff and figured to stay there during his sophomore season.
But after playing a majority of his snaps in special teams in his six appearances last season, the Paterson, New Jersey, native is tackling a new position.
He’s loving the transition.
“It’s really fun,” Clayton said of the move. “This is something I’ve really wanted to do. Even coming out of high school, me and (former Paramus Catholic head coach and current Michigan Special Teams and Linebackers coach Chris) Partridge talked about me moving, making that transition after, probably, my freshman year as I started to gain weight. This is something I really love to do. Getting in on the action, that contact, covering a lot.”
Fifth-year senior Greg Jones is in the same boat as Clayton.
Jones came in as a walk-on running back from Monroe College but was moved to cornerback by the previous coaching staff. Once the new coaching staff arrived, he was moved to safety and then finally to his current position at strong side linebacker.
The move was made with the team in mind. When approached with the proposition, Jones didn’t hesitate.
“The conversation I had with (defensive backs) coach (Bill) Busch when I moved from safety to linebacker was, basically, ‘We’re going to give you an opportunity to get on the field and wherever you fit the team best and help the team, would you be willing to do that?’” Jones said. “I said ‘I’m willing to help this team wherever I got to be.”
Both players were moved for their athleticism and ability to move to counter the multitude of spread offenses the Scarlet Knights will see throughout the season, according to Niemann. The Avaco, Iowa, native sees the players as a “hybrid between a linebacker and a safety.”
Just as the pair of players is in a transition period between positions, the team is in a transition period between coaching staffs, as well as from experience to inexperience.
Like all transition periods, there are still plenty of kinks to work out with 12 more practices to go this spring.
“It’s a mess simply because we got lots of guys competing, they’re all trying to learn a new defense,” Niemann said of the linebacker pecking order. “Right now, we’re just rotating guys through trying to get them equal reps until we could figure out if there’s a little bit of separation between guys. So right now, it’s even for everybody.”