Rutgers defense finds both familiar and new footing ahead of Washington opener
For starters, John Ross is gone.
The wide receiver who torched the Rutgers defense in last season’s 48-13 opener in Seattle with 183 total yards is too busy preparing for his first NFL season to revisit a matchup he so relished a year ago.
In other news, virtually everyone else from the Washington offense returns to a second consecutive season opener against the Rutgers football team. The difference: the Scarlet Knights will play host at High Point Solutions Stadium, and head coach Chris Ash and company insist the team is mounds better on the defensive side of the ball.
Absent from last year’s matchup against the Huskies was the one who coaches and players alike at Rutgers have been singing the praises of: Kemoko Turay.
The fifth-year senior defensive end proved to be one of the brightest spots of the defense early into spring camp, and that shine has persisted. After setting 13 sacks as his goal for the season, Turay was named as a starting defensive end on the depth chart released Monday.
Against a quarterback like Jake Browning who threw for 287 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s affair, Turay’s objective faces its first steep challenge come Friday. All things considered, Browning was sacked twice by the Knights defense last September, and if Turay’s performance this summer is any indication, that number could climb.
Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann is anything but oblivious to the opportunity for turnovers with Turay at his disposal on Friday, and he maintains it has been a point of attention for the team throughout the summer.
“It’s been an emphasis for sure,” Niemann said. “The only way I know how to do it is to practice it, drill it, reinforce it on the field, reinforce it in the media room, and try to get your players to play aggressively and try to put them into positions where they’re not having to think too much. When all of those things come together, then you have a good chance to get your fair share (of turnovers).”
Perhaps the greatest obstacle for that defensive line (aside from Washington) is the fact that it only returns one starting player from last year’s game.
Joining Turay are junior defensive end Kevin Wilkins and junior defensive tackle Jon Bateky, while fifth-year senior nose tackle Sebastian Joseph sees the first snaps for the second year in a row versus the Huskies.
Some may label the defensive line inexperienced against this Washington offense, “fresh” would be a more apt descriptor in the eyes of some. Browning and the offense relied on its passing game last year, thanks in part to the lack of pressure levied on the quarterback from the defensive line, though Niemann holds that Washington has an arsenal beyonds its receiving core that gives it options.
“What makes their offense tough to defend is they’ve got weapons all over the field, whether it’s QBs, wideouts, tight ends, running backs, their O-line. There is not a weakness in their offense," Niemann said.
Besides the defensive line, the Rutgers defense remains relatively unchanged from last year’s contest against Washington.
Heading the depth chart among the linebackers are juniors Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts, while fifth-year senior Ross Douglas played meaningful minutes last year.
Similarly, the secondary returns three of its four starters from last year, as juniors Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin line up at cornerback, with junior Saquan Hampton at free safety. Taking Anthony Cioffi’s spot on the strong side is junior Kiy Hester.
That experience, against the Huskies specifically, hasn’t gone unnoticed to the coaching staff, as Niemann attests to the importance of past game time in influencing the team’s preparation this week.
“Just having lined up and playing against the rest of them so to speak last year, there’s a familiarity there,” he said. “You can look at the film and look at your matchups and what their skillsets are like, what our skillsets are like, those types of things. … I think they’ll know what to expect come Friday night, and that’ll help them having that point of reference.”