Experience propels defensive line to top of Rutgers position groups
The Rutgers football team is living by many mottos in its first season under head coach Chris Ash.
The Scarlet Knights are working on “THE HUNT” this spring as they continue to build towards competing with the top teams in the Big Ten. In order to do that, they must fulfill the other mantra of the offseason — 10 Strong.
Ash and his staff have preached that in order to achieve success, the Knights must be strong in all 10 position groups on the team, believing the team is only as strong as its weakest link.
Two weeks into the spring, there were a pair of groups ahead of the rest. Ash said he was impressed with the defensive line, praising it as “probably the strength” of the team in his second weekly press conference last Thursday.
With four returning starters in seniors Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Quanzell Lambert and Darius Hamilton and junior Sebastian Joseph, Rutgers has an experienced first line of defense.
But beyond that, there is some improving to be done.
“We’ve got a first group of older guys who have played … all four guys have played a lot of ball. You could see it, it shows up,” said defensive line coach Shane Burnham on his projected starting unit. “Behind that, there’s a big drop as far as experience depth, but I’ve been pleased with the effort and attitude we get every day and it’s a work in progress, but I’ve been pleased to this point.”
In addition to the experience they bring, the returning starters provide a spark for the team with the effort they put forth in practice.
Playing in a position where brute force and will is as important as skill and finesse, the fire they demonstrate at the line of scrimmage is crucial.
“They just play so dang hard, man. They’ve been through the battles, they know what it feels like, what it’s supposed to feel like,” Burnham said. “They’re just relentless in their effort and they bring it every day. That’s been the most pleasing thing because up front — let’s face it, that’s a try hard position. It’s a battle of wills, it’s a four quarter game and at some point, you gotta impose your will on somebody.”
A competitive unit already, the Knights have been incentivized by the coaching staff with awards for outstanding performances throughout the offseason.
During the winter workouts, players who showed both excellence and dedication in the weight room were enshrined in the Champions Club. Perks of membership include a gourmet dinner before spring practice while others received a buffet of hot dogs and hamburgers.
Members of the Champions Club started from scratch again in the spring as all players had a black stripe placed vertically through their helmet, a tradition Ash brought over from Ohio State after learning it from Urban Meyer.
"The black stripe is a symbol that when it's removed from your helmet, you are game ready, you're combat ready to go play,” Ash said of the tradition. “The players know that if they have a black stripe on their helmet, they will not play in a game here. They're not ready ... in terms of their ability, in terms of their trust level and a lot of other things that can go into it."
After earning a Champions Club membership, Joseph became 1 of 3 players to have his stripe removed last Saturday after the first scrimmage of the spring, joined by junior quarterback Chris Laviano and senior wide receiver Vance Matthews.
He wasn’t expecting to be among the first group of game ready Knights, and he’s certainly not going to be satisfied by it.
“I was shocked. I didn’t even know it was going to happen,” he said when he heard his name get called by Ash to get the stripe removed. “It’s an honor, it’s a blessing, but it doesn’t mean anything. I just gotta keep working, keep progressing, keep getting better and also I gotta take my teammates along with me. I want to get all the D-Lineman knighted … because we have the potential to.”
Burnham said Joseph has a “death grip” on the starting nose tackle position, building a sizeable lead over sophomore Kevin Wilkins, who seemed to make progress at the tail end of last season.
But while Wilkins has had trouble with his consistency in the first six practices, Joseph has been a “steady Eddy,” according to Burnham.
“He plays more consistently with his technique,” Burnham said. “(Sebastian) just has a better feel and really, he’s just more consistent in his effort and his production than anyone else in that position.”
Just as every other unit on the team, the defensive line is adjusting to both the new coaching staff and the style of play they've brought with them to the Banks. And just with all the other units, the most important thing to the defensive line is daily improvement.
“At the end of the day, football’s football and we have a bunch of guys who love football, coaches, players," Pinnix-Odrick said. "We’re going to get on the same page and I’m really enjoying the time with coach Ash, coach Burnham and coach Parker and everybody around them because everybody cares about the game. We’re all just trying to get better.”