Jury remains out on RU?run ‘D’ catalyst

<p>Linebackers Steve Beauharnais, top, and Kevin?Snyder wrap up Howard running back William Parker in the Knights’ 26-0 win Sept. 8. Senior Ka’Lial Glaud credits the team’s active linebackers for its No. 1 national ranking against the run.</p>

Linebackers Steve Beauharnais, top, and Kevin?Snyder wrap up Howard running back William Parker in the Knights’ 26-0 win Sept. 8. Senior Ka’Lial Glaud credits the team’s active linebackers for its No. 1 national ranking against the run.

Khaseem Greene earned Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors last year, posted a career high in tackles and is the emotional leader of an undefeated team.

But for all of his exploits, the senior linebacker still owes Scott Vallone.

“I just told Scott the other day in practice that I was going to take him out to eat,” Greene said. “Some of the things he does up front, and some of the problems he presents … is stuff that doesn’t get penciled down on the stat sheet.”

Greene credits the Rutgers football team’s front four for its No. 1 run defense nationally, but like the Scarlet Knights’ 4-0 start, the answer runs deeper.

After entering the season as arguably the Knights’ biggest hole, the defensive line has found its own answers. Vallone, a senior defensive tackle, worked beside new starter Isaac Holmes and a host of rotating defensive ends.

Junior linebacker Jamal Merrell emerged in the same breath as Greene and senior Steve Beauharnais. And per Rutgers’ defensive philosophy, its cornerbacks enter the fold in rush defense, as well.

But which level of defense deserves the most credit remains up for debate.

“[The linebackers are] all doing a great job this year, and that’s why I think we stop the run,” said senior defensive end Ka’Lial Glaud. “If we mess up on one of our jobs, we always have people behind us that have our back that are great tacklers.”

Glaud points to former head coach Greg Schiano for setting run defense expectations. Vallone says it comes down from the current staff, which sets goals for opposing rush totals each week.

And Greene insists it is the defense’s execution of coordinator Robb Smith’s scheme.

The numbers, meanwhile, give the most clarity.

“Sixty-two-and-a-half yards a game, that’s big stuff,” Vallone said. “We need to continue to do that, but it’s only four games in. There’s times in games where we feel like … we gave them runs. That number could be even less.”

By all accounts, there have been few opportunities to do so.

Of the top-10 rush defenses nationally, only Oregon State (74) has faced fewer rush attempts than Rutgers (102).

Of the 64 first downs the Knights have allowed this season, only 19 came on the ground. Two of its opponents — Tulane and Arkansas — ran fewer than 20 times and threw the ball twice as often.

The number figures to change in the final two-thirds of the season.

Seven of the Knights’ eight remaining opponents — and their final six — run more than they pass.

“We know the championship defenses as you look around the country are all top inside stopping the run,” Glaud said. “You stop a team from running the ball, it equates to winning games.”

They will have to do so without Holmes.

The starting nose tackle suffered a season-ending wrist injury Sept. 22 at Arkansas, leaving a position of strength to a host of questions. Holmes’ emergence led to Vallone’s return to the three-technique, but Vallone figures to play both spots now.

Several Knights could enter the fold in Holmes’ wake, as well.

“They have to build it in practice,” Vallone said. “Obviously those guys have been back for a couple weeks now. They need to show they can add the depth, and there’s not going to be a huge drop-off when we come out.”

Holmes was one of those players last year, spelling Vallone between series. His loss adds a new wrinkle after Holmes earned a bulk of the credit for demanding double teams against the run.

“Ike was playing top notch if you ask me, that’s no bias,” Greene said. “I’ll be the first one to say it: I don’t make 140 tackles [last year] without Scott and guys like Ike. This year, I don’t make as many tackles as I make without those guys up front.”

Vallone estimates he sees 90 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. He could be in line for more, depending on Smith’s approach.

Smith could turn to junior Jamil Merrell, whose 6-foot-4 frame could warrant a return to a hybrid end-tackle role. He could also seek out junior Michael Larrow, who recently returned from a four-game suspension.

And sophomore Kenneth Kirksey, who has yet to see the field because of a training camp injury, could earn a call.

“The toughness of your football team,” Glaud said, “is on your nose guard and on your three-technique, the guys who are really inside to fight every single play.”

Whoever it is will have to earn Greene’s offer.

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