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Opponent Defense Preview: Rutgers

Yesterday we got a look at the Scarlet Knights’ offense. Today we’ll check out the other side of the ball.

Penn State v Rutgers Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Disclaimer: If you were to rank each FBS team by "How much Gabey knows about them," Rutgers would be relatively low on that list simply due to the fact that they play a billion miles away and have never had much to do with the Dawgs. If you’re a Rutgers fan and spot something you deem inaccurate, please leave a profanity-laced tirade in the comments about how my IQ is roughly equal to that of an acorn. Also make sure to express that it’s personal while using the wrong form of "there," "their," or "they’re." Oh, and if you could rant about my excessive use of the Oxford Comma, please do.

That being said, I am a mega-genius and everything here is better than everything you will ever read about Rutgers, so I’m sure the above won’t be necessary.

A brief rundown of Rutgers’ defense would look something like this:

Last year they surrendered an average of 35 points per game, coming in at 104th in the country. They had at one point given up 656 yards in a single game to B1G foe Maryland. They run a 4-3 front. They are returning seven starters and only have two freshmen listed anywhere on the two-deep (neither of the two are listed as starters). That being said, the Scarlet Knight defense was more than capable in one area: they ranked 4th in the B1G in red zone defense, which coincidentally was an area where Washington’s own offense was pretty weak.

Among other issues, Rutgers in its recent past has had a tackling problem, and new head coach Chris Ash seems to be going back to fundamentals just like Chris Petersen did two years ago. Ash too has preached rugby tackling: wrapping up, hitting low, head behind the body as opposed to across. Under their old coaching staff the defense didn’t focus on the tackling this much, according to multiple players. Coincidentally, Ash had previously consulted with the other Coach Pete of Seattle before installing the same technique at Ohio State.

Whatever their struggles last season, Ash looks like he very well could be the guy Rutgers needs for defensive improvement. He comes from a defensive background and is a rare combination, young but battle-tested; he was the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Ohio State during their national championship season and previously held the same position at Wisconsin and Arkansas.


Although the RU defensive line includes three-year captain and multi-year All-B1G lineman Darius Hamilton, their rushing defense was a less-than-stellar 84th in the country, giving up on average 186 yards per game. Furthermore, they were a less-than-less-than-stellar 120th in the nation for sacks per game at an average of 1.17.

In spite of that, the defensive line is still considered a relative strength. They have above-average depth and leaders all along the line.

Hamilton, incidentally, was a five-star recruit who will be a fifth-year senior in 2016. He is undoubtedly a serious threat, having forced his way into playing time as a true freshman. He ended up taking a redshirt year anyway last season because of a injury to his right knee, which he asserts is behind him.

Also of note is, looking at the depth chart, none of the players in the two-deep on the line are above 300 pounds. I don’t really have any analysis on that, but it caught my eye and further emphasized that this defensive line on paper anyway appears antithetical to Washington’s (further emphasized by their base 4-3 front and rare-ish usage of nickel).

In the linebackers, all three regular starters from 2015 have since graduated. True sophomore Trevor Morris takes over at WIL after having played in 12 games last year primarily on special teams. Greg Jones will play opposite him at SAM; he flitted between numerous junior college programs before landing at Rutgers. Maybe most promising however is Deonte Roberts at middle linebacker. Roberts is another true sophomore who was thrown into the mix last year and even started a game at the weakside. Those more familiar with RU and their defense have had plenty of praise for him in regards to both his physical and mental game. Although the linebacking inexperience is an obvious weakness, they seem like a unit who have a lot of potential where the future is concerned. Luckily for Washington the Huskies get them when they still have the whole season to grow into what they could become.

Which brings us to the secondary.

These guys on some level parallel their UW counterparts; the last few years saw them plagued by high turnover and subsequently playing a lot of young guys. Sound familiar?

This year could see that possibly pay off. Although they’re still young, the defensive backs are now experienced and young. Three of their starters are sophomores (with Blessuan Austin never having utilized a redshirt year and showing some serious promise) with one senior, strong safety Anthony Cioffi. Cioffi was third in the B1G last year with four interceptions, paving the way for a stat in which Rutgers excelled: the Rutgers pass defense, led by the secondary, was third in the B1G last year with 13 interceptions across the board. Corner Isaiah Wharton was named to the B1G Network All-Freshman Team while free safety Saquan Hampton showed he’s on the trajectory to do some good, earning the Douglas Smith Award for most improved defensive player of the spring.

What the defensive backs lack is great depth. CB Damon Hayes and SS Lawrence Stevens, two true freshmen, managed to fight their way into the two-deep; this can be read either as some serious talent coming through, or the alternative lack of depth that Husky fans became well-acquainted with two years ago. The latter of the two is also a true freshman walk-on, so either a bunch of schools were really blind or that doesn’t bode well for a unit that otherwise is supposed to be a relative strength. I’d guess it’s probably a combination of the two.

It’ll also be interesting to see how the secondary executes Chris Ash’s philosophy change from a year ago. Whereas the 2015 Rutgers tended towards a more conservative (and, by most accounts, pretty darn bad) off-man coverage, Ash is in the process of installing a press coverage base designed to attack receivers more aggressively.

Bottom Line

The two things that stand out to me about this defense is their proficiency in the red zone and the secondary’s focus on the press.

It’s no secret that the Huskies took a few too many field goals when they were in striking distance of six points and one of the main keys to not only this game but this season will be, as far as I’m concerned, being able to convert red zone possessions into touchdowns. Since that was a relative strength of Rutgers’ defense last year I think this could be a good litmus test for Browning and co. and their improvement in that area.

The press coverage that the Scarlet Knights are going to be emphasizing should also be an interesting matchup. If this were last year I would be legitimately worried; our 2015 receiving corps lacked physicality and a deep threat. However, the coaches this offseason have stressed the importance of toughness in the receivers, and the ridiculousness of John Ross’ speed should force Rutgers’ pass defense to stay more honest than they’d probably like. If they play as aggressively as they’d like, the quick passes and bubble screens (the latter of which I know you all love so much) will likely prove to have suboptimal results, but if a speedster like Ross can get his man so much as a half-step off within the first couple yards, the supposedly improved long connection between he and Browning could get its first chance to shine.

With that in mind....

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.