Rutgers defensive line aims to live up to high expectations
When the Rutgers football team took the field for its first scrimmage of training camp on Saturday, Darius Hamilton was a mere spectator on the sidelines.
The defensive tackle hadn’t reinjured his hampering right knee nor was there anything else physically wrong with him. Hamilton was physically able to play but head coach Chris Ash simply wasn’t going to put the star of his defense at risk in the weeks leading up to the start of the regular season.
“I know a lot of people asked why Darius didn’t scrimmage yesterday," Ash said at the team’s media day the day following the scrimmage. “Well, 'cause I’m not nuts. He’s one of our best players. I’m not going to get him hurt before we get to a game.”
Beginning the 2015 season on the shelf, Hamilton appeared in just one game before being shut down for the remainder of the year with a right knee injury.
Eventually granted a medical redshirt for his true senior season by the NCAA, the now-redshirt senior was a limited participant during spring camp and was held out of the Scarlet-White game in late April.
While he has continued to don the 'limited' green jersey during the first couple weeks of training camp, Hamilton — who is now up in weight from the 240s to around 285 — has increased his activity during practices and appears more than ready for game action.
“I look at the offensive linemen that line up against him in practice, and I'm not seeing a lot of guys that have a lot of confidence in beating Darius right now,” Ash said. “And that's not to take away anything from the offensive line. I really like the way our offensive line is playing, but I think Darius, his play is at another level, and he's feeling really good. He's practicing extremely well.”
Darius Hamilton will certainly be the game changer on the Scarlet Knights’ defensive front this season, but he won’t be a one-man show in the trenches.
Playing alongside Hamilton at nose guard is the only non-senior of the group in Sebastian Joseph.
Last season, Joseph started all 12 games as a sophomore and had the third most tackles-for-loss on the defense. He figures to play a big role in the Knights run defense this season.
Seniors Quanzell Lambert and Julian Pinnix-Odrick will line up on the edge for Rutgers as the defensive ends.
In 11 starts at defensive end last season, Lambert compiled 43 tackles, with 7.5 of them coming for a loss. Pinnix-Odrick will move back to the outside this season after making all 12 of his starts at the 3-technique last season.
The combination of experience, production and upside boasted by the starters is why the defensive line is considered to be the strongest unit Rutgers has to offer.
“For sure you take pride in it,” Pinnix-Odrick said of the line being considered the strength of the team. “Obviously it’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. I think some people see me as a leader and some of the older guys on the line, we have to drive that, especially with the young guys on the d-line. But I think we’re doing a great job of adjusting."
Playing with a downhill, attacking style, defensive line coach Shane Burnham said he would like to have the ability to rotate in a new player at each position over the course of a game.
But Burnham said the staff is still in the process of figuring out which depth lineman will be in the rotation come September 3 in the season opener against Washington.
“We’re still trying to find out how many guys can rotate,” Burnham said. “Hopefully we’ll have eight that we feel good about. Like I said, it’s a work in progress but I’d like to at least roll two through every position, if not pair and spare at each position so to speak … It’s such a physical strain on those guys that you gotta be able to roll (guys out), in my opinion, to have success.”
The ultimate goal of any defense is to have the line generate enough pressure that all of the linebackers and secondary have the ability to drop back in coverage. The Knights' line being able to consistently generate pressure on the quarterback this season will be especially important when considering the inexperience of the seven players behind them.
The Knights success on the defensive side of the ball in 2016 will rely heavily on the front four and the defensive lineman are looking forward to having that kind of weight on their shoulders.
“We don’t look at it as pressure. We look at it as a challenge,” Joseph said. “And each and every day we go to work is a chance for us to get better so we could live up to those expectations put upon us.”