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Rutgers makes progress in first three practices, but still has long way to go

<p>Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said Rutgers is growing depth at linebacker and if the depth continues to grow, it will be able to create a two-deep depth chart at the position it is comfortable with.</p>

Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said Rutgers is growing depth at linebacker and if the depth continues to grow, it will be able to create a two-deep depth chart at the position it is comfortable with.

The third day of the Rutgers football team's training camp marked the first practice in which shoulder pads were allowed to be used after the first two were held to helmets.

“Day three of training camp is down and put the shoulder pads on today, got a little banging in,” said head coach Chris Ash. “Just focused on the run game a little more, got the third-down situations a little bit today and keep pushing the players a little further along. I think our work ethic and focus at practice has been pretty good.”

Though Ash said he wouldn’t make any changes in the depth chart for the first week or so, there appeared to be some separation being made.

In the first hour of practice the media had access to, junior quarterback Chris Laviano was the only one of the four competing for the starting job working on the main field with the first team in an inside running drill as his teammates threw the ball on the next field over.

Listed as a co-starter on the initial depth chart, graduate transfer junior Zach Allen did not partake in any first-team drills during the first hour of practice.

The notion was quickly dispelled when Ash addressed the media post-practice.

“That’s how we started and that’s how we’re continuing,” he said. “That hasn’t changed yet in three days … when you look at the breakdown of plays that the top four quarterbacks have had, it’s almost identical through three days of practice.”

Working on the opposite end of the main field, the linebacker corps continued its quest to fill the holes left by the departures of starters Quentin Gause, Steve Longa and Kaiwan Lewis.

Called a “mess” by Ash during the spring, the group found redemption at Big Ten Media Day, where Ash called it the “most improved” since he arrived.

Still, the Scarlet Knights are far from establishing a steady hierarchy in that section of the field.

“We’re establishing some depth, which in the spring we didn’t necessarily feel we had because we didn’t know a lot about the guys, as much as we do now,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. “I think that if people continue to progress, we’ll be able to put a two-deep out there we’re comfortable with.”

Sophomore Deonte Roberts, the only linebacker on the roster with any starting experience, leads the line at middle linebacker.

Sophomore Najee Clayton remains atop the strongside pecking order, a fitting position for a player who’s gone from 203 pounds to 230 since arriving in Piscataway last August.

The former safety was enthusiastic about the position change in the spring and his excitement continues as he adapts to the middle of the defense.

“I’m excited to play linebacker,” he said. “I’m happy I made the transition and I’m just ready to make the transition and keep ballin’.”

Rounding out the top of the linebacker corps depth chart is sophomore Trevor Morris at weakside.

The three players will feature behind a defensive line both Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann praised following practice and ahead of a secondary which has improved from the spring, according to the first-year head coach.

“I think the defensive line is our strength. It was when we came out of spring and going into training camp and it still is after three days,” Ash said. “I think our secondary is much improved. I like the way we challenge balls. We understand coverages, we’re easy, we don’t panic when we’re going against a no-tempo offense, it happens a lot.”

The signs are pointing in a positive direction through the first three practices of training camp, but improvement is relative.

“We’re making progress,” Ash said. “Now, again, you didn’t once hear me say we’re good yet. But we’ve improved and as long as we continue to do that over the next 26 practices, I’ll be hopefully happy when it’s over.”

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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