Despite losing three starters, Rutgers defensive shows improvement

When a position unit loses 75 percent of its starters, one would think things could only get worse. But for the Rutgers defensive line, it resulted in a new look group that put together a strong performance against a top-tier Washington offensive line.

Gone is three-time captain Darius Hamilton and 2016 leader in sacks Julian Pinnix-Odrick, opening the door for juniors Kevin Wilkins and Jon Bateky. Senior Sebastian Joseph continued as a mainstay and senior Kemoko Turay returned after two disappointing seasons as a result of injuries.

Wilkins, who came to Rutgers as defensive tackle, moved outside to defensive end, beefing up the line to have three starters at or near 300 pounds. 

Turay adds a dynamic option as a pass-rusher, but has also developed as a run stopper.

WIth Turay healthy and improved as a run defender, the defensive line becomes a complete unit, with each starter being able to adeptly defend both the run and the pass. That showed on Friday, as the Knights were able to neutralize Myles Gaskin as a rusher in the first half, with Turay getting in on multiple run stuffs near the line of scrimmage.

The 5th-year senior is not shy to talk about how he has had to put in a lot of work to improve his run defense and believes he has made strides in his development

"That's what I've been working on and that's what Coach Ash has been preparing me to do," he said.

Senior defensive end Darnell Davis noticed the overall unit improvement against the Huskies, a team that physically overmatched Rutgers last year.

“We can keep up with any team in this country, we just can’t beat ourselves," he said. "When we go out there, we put our pants on just like they do. I feel like we had a good game at the d-line. But there’s team success, unit success and individual success. I think the d-line played well, but we just have to keep working and perfect our mistakes.”

While head coach Chris Ash admitted the unit wore down as the game went on, he was pleased with the way it played through the first two quarters. 

Turay had two quarterback hits while sophomore Willington Previlon had a sneaky good game as a backup, knocking down two passes at the line of scrimmage while also getting a hit on Washington quarterback Jake Browning.

"I thought we were dong a great job early on in the game," Ash said. "We were stopping the run...I thought we were putting good pressure on the quarterback in the first half."

And although he isn't a starter, Davis had arguably the play of the game for Rutgers, a sack of Browning where Davis lit him up and knocked the ball loose.

But the walk-on turned captain was quick to credit teammate Kevin Wilkins for that play, noting his stunt that absorbed the right tackle, freeing up Davis.

The hit rattled Browning, who was slow to get up after the play, and with Rutgers holding a 7-0 lead at that point, it let the Huskies know that this wasn't the same team that they beat 48-13 a year ago.

A group led by Shane Burnham that goes by the "#RUdeBoyz" is not the same one that was ran all over last season and Turay will be the first to speak on the new attitude of both the defensive line and the team.

"We're sending a message out there. We can't be messed with," Turay said. "We're a new team, new year, new us. (We're) just starting to go ball."

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