Future looks bright for Rutgers' young defense
When the Rutgers football team walks off Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium following its regular season finale against the Terrapins Nov. 26, the Scarlet Knights will consequently lose three veteran mainstays on their defense.
Up front, Darius Hamilton's illustrious career as the Scarlet Knights' defensive tackle will come to a close. To the outside of Hamilton, Julian Pinnix-Odrick will leave Piscataway on the heels of consecutive solid seasons at two different positions on the defensive line.
In the defensive backfield, the Knights will lose a safety that made at least five starts in each of his four seasons on the Banks in Anthony Cioffi.
Between Hamilton, Pinnix-Odrick and Cioffi, Rutgers will graduate a total of 94 starts and 394, and counting, total tackles.
But the flip side of losing three integral players is that Rutgers will return eight starters when the schedule turns towards 2017. That number inflates to nine when considering that sophomore safety Kiy Hester has made four starts in relief of sophomore Saquan Hampton, who was injured earlier in the year, and has also rotated in with Cioffi and Hampton in recent games.
Going even further, with the insertion of Hester among the starting 11, Rutgers has been playing with a total of seven underclassmen on defense, all of which are behind the front four.
That high mark of young, returning starters has head football coach Chris Ash excited about the future defensive football still to come on the Banks.
"I still look at the defense out there. For the majority of that game, we got nine guys coming back next year. ... I'm encouraged by a lot of that" Ash said after Rutgers' loss to Michigan State. "Do I wish that we were winning games right now? Yeah, absolutely. Like I said when I got here, this wasn't going to be easy. It's not easy right now. ... But there's a lot of positives moving forward."
When the season began the Knights had five seniors in the starting lineup, but injuries thrusted even more young, inexperienced players into action. At the tail end of Rutgers' conference-opening loss to Iowa, senior defensive end Quanzell Lambert suffered a season-ending injury. Lambert's injury bumped junior Darnell Davis into the starting lineup.
In the Knights' following game in Columbus, senior linebacker Greg Jones was carted off the field and ruled out for the season the following week, which elevated true freshman Tyreek Maddox-Williams to the top of the depth chart at outside linebacker.
Maddox-Williams, who is fifth on the team in tackles, is one of Rutgers' three first-year starting linebackers. Sophomores Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris are both relatively new to the position, but currently lead the Knights in total tackles.
There have been growing pains throughout the process, but it has been an important developmental year for the trio of linebackers.
"(I'm) a lot more confident," Morris said on his growth this season. "I think one of the things I do need to work on is to be more consistent. Trusting my eyes. At the end of the day, just being more consistent and doing my job. I feel more comfortable in the position."
The Knights are hoping the linebackers can build off a full year of game experience the same way Rutgers' secondary improved from their baptism by fire during the 2015 season.
Injuries and off-field issues forced then-freshman cornerbacks Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin into the starting lineup for nearly all of last season, as the Knights finished with the third-worst passing defense in the Big Ten.
But both Austin and Wharton have made strides during their sophomore seasons on the Banks, with Wharton being named 1 of the 18 most improved college football players of this season by Pro-Football Focus.
Not only will Rutgers return nine starters next season, but in two years the Knights project to still have both their full secondary and linebacker core together.
Entering that 2018 season, that would give Rutgers two full years of continuity in the back seven of its defense.
"We know each other like the back of our hand now," Austin said of the secondary's continuity. "I can only imagine our senior year what it will be like."