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Holmes injury forces d-line versatility

<p>Junior defensive tackle Isaac Holmes eyes Arkansas running back Knile Davis in the Knights’ win Sept. 22. Holmes is out for the season with a wrist injury.</p>

Junior defensive tackle Isaac Holmes eyes Arkansas running back Knile Davis in the Knights’ win Sept. 22. Holmes is out for the season with a wrist injury.

The Rutgers football team lost its second starter in less than a week yesterday, when head coach Kyle Flood announced Isaac Holmes will miss the rest of the season.

The junior defensive tackle suffered a wrist injury Sept. 22 at Arkansas. The team’s bye week likely gave the Scarlet Knights coaching staff time to evaluate Holmes’ status, which was more serious than expected, Flood said.

“We’re disappointed that that has happened to him,” Flood said. “He was having a nice year for us.”

Holmes entrenched himself as the starter at nose tackle during the spring, allowing senior Scott Vallone to move permanently to the three-technique. Vallone, a four-year starter, played nose last season without a viable candidate to do so.

“It’s difficult because we’re 4-0 and everyone wants to continue to ride the train,” Vallone said. “He wants to be a part of that, and obviously that’s tough for him. He was real down about it you could see.”

Holmes recorded nine tackles and 1.5 for a loss in four games started this season. He spelled Vallone at nose tackle last season, but earned credit this year for the Knights’ No. 1-ranked rush defense nationally.

Still, the Knights have alternatives.

Flood said senior defensive end Marvin Booker, who missed the last three games with injury, looked good in practice yesterday and could return Saturday against Connecticut. His presence could allow junior Jamil Merrell to return to a hybrid end-tackle role Merrell earned a year ago.

Flood reinstated junior Michael Larrow, who missed the first four games because of suspension, giving the team another viable option inside. Larrow appeared in six games in 2010 at defensive tackle and another six last season at defensive end.

“We’ve got a couple guys in there working,” Flood said. “We’ve got a little flexibility up front. As we get through the week, we’ll kind of work through it.”

Holmes’ absence could also mean an increased workload for Vallone, who estimates he sees 90 percent of the defense’s snaps. Vallone anticipates moving between nose tackle and the three-technique, but it is ultimately defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s call.

“If I’m in there the whole game, we’re going to have to go the whole game — that’s just the way it is,” Vallone said. “But I don’t think that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Sophomore Sam Bergen continues to fill in for the Knights’ other lost starter, sophomore fullback Michael Burton, who suffered a season-ending lower leg injury at Arkansas.

Bergen, Burton’s roommate, dealt with multiple knee injuries at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) High School.

“I can definitely empathize with him,” Bergen said. “His injury is pretty serious. We’re kind of going to be going through the same thing.”

Bergen moved to fullback during spring practice from linebacker, where he played near-exclusively in high school. His learning curve remains steep.

“It was definitely a challenge in the spring,” Bergen said. “I barely played fullback in high school. It was a whole new world coming over from defense.”

A platoon scenario at the position remains the most likely outcome.

Sophomore tight end Paul Carrezola earned a bulk of the reps at Arkansas following Burton’s injury. Flood also mentioned redshirt freshman Tyler Kroft and senior Beau Bachety as alternatives.

But Bergen’s specialization at the position could work in his favor.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” he said. “In the game of football, these types of things happen. You always have to be ready to step up if they call your number.”

The Knights continue to game plan for Huskies punt returner Nick Williams, who leads the Big East in return yards. Williams, an East Windsor, N.J., native, already has a touchdown on a punt return this season and a long of 58 yards.

“We feel he’s the No. 1 punt returner in our league,” Flood said. “He certainly did a great job against us last year. He’s somebody we have put a lot of emphasis on this week.”

Williams returned a punt 30 yards and averaged 42.7 yards per kick return against Rutgers last year. He scored on a 100-yard kick return at Rutgers in 2010.

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.

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