Defense returns bounty following offseason of changes

Underclassmen lead way against Iowa State at Yankee Stadium in Rutgers’ fifth conseuctive bowl victory

NEW YORK — Less than an hour after the Rutgers football team’s 27-13 New Era Pinstripe Bowl victory against Iowa State, Max Issaka was not content.

So the redshirt defensive end sought out the defense’s elder statesman, fifth-year senior Justin Francis.

“Congratulations,” Francis said.

“Thanks,” Issaka said. “But next year, we’re going to really grind to get another [bowl win].”

Francis, who exhausted his eligibility, appreciated the gesture. He and two other defensive starters graduate in May, but the cupboard in Piscataway is far from bare.

The Scarlet Knights return a three-year starter on the defensive line and three-fourths of their secondary, which includes All-Big East first- and second-team selections.

But head coach Greg Schiano’s biggest coup is in the middle, where four linebackers who earned legitimate playing time will vie again for reps in a crowded corps.

“It gives me hope that we’ll have a good football team going forward,” Schiano said Dec. 30. “We’ve been a pretty consistent program — going to bowl games, winning bowl games. We have to get to the next level. I hope that these guys — this group of players, this group of coaches — will get us over the top, get us to the championship level.”

The face of the movement might be the player who stood to gain the most from leaving. Junior linebacker Khaseem Greene, the Big East’s co-defensive player of the year, announced Dec. 26 he would return for his final season instead of opting for the NFL.

He and middle linebacker Steve Beauharnais, who enjoyed his most productive season as a Knight, headline a unit that ranked third in the nation in takeaways and 10th in scoring defense.

Add in sophomore Jamal Merrell and freshman Kevin Snyder, and the linebacking corps is its deepest in recent memory.

“The whole defense in general is just talented throughout — the offense, too,” said Greene, who will have a contact-free spring along with Beauharnais after injuring his ankle in the bowl finale. “This team is going to be special next year. We’re going to get ready to work ... and get ready for what’s going to be a better season next year.”

Greene and the middle of Rutgers’ defense faced the most questions entering the season.

The Elizabeth High School product transitioned in the offseason from safety. Beauharnais began training camp on the outside before moving back to the signal-calling role he occupied as a sophomore. Merrell was a former wide receiver, and Snyder never played a college snap.

But Greene led the conference four months later with 140 tackles. Beauharnais tacked on a team-high 15 tackles for loss, five sacks and three interceptions. Merrell proved adept in pass coverage, and Snyder began to make a living behind the line of scrimmage.

“It makes me feel really good. We have something special in this locker room,” Greene said. “We didn’t need anybody to believe that or understand that. It’s great for me to say I’m coming back to be a part of it for next year. It’s going to be special.”

The secondary boasts talented returners of its own. Only a sophomore, cornerback Logan Ryan became the Knights’ premier threat in pass defense. He broke up two passes, recorded seven tackles, registered half a sack and picked off Iowa State’s Steele Jantz at Yankee Stadium.

Ryan finished the season with a team-high 13 pass breakups, the third-most tackles and three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

“With all the work we put in and all the position changes and Eric LeGrand and all the things that went wrong for this program, I think it shows how much we fight,” Ryan said. “This is definitely our reward.”

Junior safety Duron Harmon, a conference first-team pick with five interceptions, joins Ryan in the defensive backfield. So do junior Brandon Jones and a host of young cornerbacks.

Francis realizes the unit’s potential. He saw it every day, and now he will do the same — albeit from afar.

“That’s all I really wanted to see — me leaving my legacy for the younger guys and seeing them do great things,” he said. “Guys see it seldom during games. I see the younger guys in there grinding, watching film. I can only appreciate that grind and that mentality.”

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