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Opponent Defense Preview: Rutgers

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Awwwww yeah. It’s game week.

Penn State v Rutgers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Guys.

How beautiful is it to see the first game week posts up? Seriously, I know I’ll be complaining about the effort of putting words on paper (er, screen, I guess) in a few months but for now I’m just so happy.

Because it’s The First Motherf&%^in’ Husky Game Week of the Year.

This is the best week of every year and, to celebrate, we’re rejoicing in some good old-fashioned opponent previews.

Today, naturally, is Rutgers’ defense.

Personnel

Secondary

While none of Rutgers’ defense is scary, it’s the defensive backs that will be by far a strength and, given help from the other units, could end up even better. (If you’d like to read a bit about them from the Rutgers SB Nation site, you can go here.)

Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton are names familiar to those of you who paid attention in last season’s opener and both are among the better players on the team. Austin was 12th in the nation in passes defended per game while Wharton, a junior, started every game in 2015 and 2016 as a true frosh and sophomore.

The cornerbacks include sophomore Damon Hayes, who was named a B1G All-Freshman Honorable Mention.

Roaming between the corners are safeties Saquan Hampton and Kiy Hester. Hampton missed part of last year with injuries. The defense felt the impact of his absence but, upon returning and getting his stride back, the junior started clicking well during the end of 2016.

Another rising defensive back is the versatile KJ Gray, a sophomore whose smarts and athleticism have combined as a potential for turnovers on a team that forced few last year.

Essentially, the defensive backs are a solid group with some depth going for them and an unquestioned strength of this team. Despite that, they might be put in some pretty crappy situations as the rest of the defense has to load up on resources to stop opponents’ run game, isolating much of the secondary.

Exacerbating this stress on the secondary is DC Jay Niemann’s love affair with press coverage, which could at times be quite effective and at other times be... less so. If you recall Rutgers-Washington last year, the Dawgs took advantage of that with three long bomb touchdown passes to Chico McClatcher and John Ross.

Linebackers

The linebackers start the season with a major blow to their depth and play-making power after Tyreek Maddox-Williams was lost to an ACL injury in camp. He spent the second half of 2016 coming into his own and would’ve been a boon to a Rutgers defense trying to revamp itself.

That development throws a bunch of guys into a bigger role; junior Deonte Roberts will be more in the spotlight, while players like TJ Taylor and Eric Margolis have been getting first team reps in fall camp.

If there’s a silver-lining, it’s that Roberts established himself as a leader of the defense last year and so won’t be thrown in the fire from a place of prior inexperience.

Another intriguing guy is Ross Douglas, a former grad transfer from Michigan who graduated in three years and thus had two years of eligibility for the Scarlet Knights. Douglas can play a bit of hybrid linebacker while providing the unit with the mobility to move over and cover the slot. Not only does that versatility help the linebackers, but it could also alleviate some of the pressure the secondary is sure to face from being left alone while the trenches and backers have to be constantly wary of the run.

Defensive Line

In interviews out of fall camp, DC Niemann says the rushing defense has gotten a bunch better.

Then again, how much of that is the rushing defense being good and how much is it that, for their 2016 season, “total ass” would be a generous term to describe said run defense?

For real, Rutgers was not good last year where the run was concerned.

And, while the post-2015 Oregon mantra of, “Well, at least the defense can’t get worse” proved that, in fact, it can get worse even when you thought it impossible, it’s still likely that Rutgers’ rush defense will improve at least a bit. Right?

A combination of poor depth and undersized linemen sunk the 2016 run defense which allowed more than 250 ground yards per game last year.

Luckily for Rutgers, they’ve gotten bigger and, significantly, more bodies of potential playmakers for the upcoming season, many of whom have been in the program four or five years. The trio of Sebastian Joseph, Jon Bateky, and Kevin Wilkins could all see the field at once under some new looks, with all three of them weighing around 300 lbs.

Those guys are complemented by defensive ends Elorm Lumor, Darnell Davis, and Kemoko Turay. Lumor is a converted linebacker and member of the “Is That a Hogwarts Student?” All-Name team while Turay is a fifth year senior who began his career on many Freshman All-American lists before stagnating somewhat and being hit with injuries. If he’s healthy and improved, though, he’ll be an ideal two-point pass rusher before going to the NFL.

Bottom Line

Rutgers’ 2017 defense will likely be decided by two things: Their ability to not get totally screwed by opponents’ run games... and offense.

The latter probably doesn’t get enough attention for the woes of Rutgers’ defensive performance last year but Rutgers’ offensive ineptitude kept their defense on the field a lot longer than it should’ve been. I mean, really, even a moderately okay defense is gonna look pretty bad if their offensive counterpart goes three and out like it’s going out of style. If you disagree, consider: What’s worse than going up against Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley?

The answer, of course, is “Going up against Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley for 82 snaps ‘cause your team’s rushing averages 1.2 yards/rush and your quarterback has a QBR of 4.9 so that freaking offense can’t sustain anything and ends up on the field almost half as much as the Rutgers defense.

The point is that last year’s Rutgers defense was crap, just not as crap as it looked, since the crap offense couldn’t maintain a series for more than a second before forcing their defense back on the field.

Otherwise, the Scarlet Knights’ overall defense can improve as much as their run defense does. As long as that unit is the weakness of this squad, they’ll decide the ceiling of Rutgers’ defensive growth.

If, like Niemann says, the rush defense really is improved, that takes a bunch of pressure off the secondary who can then have a chance to shine. A line that can potentially hold its own in the trenches would give linebackers more freedom to be concerned with the pass instead of having to stack the box in a desperate move to stop the run. That obviously buys the defensive backs more leeway and gives them the opportunity to take more risks with big play potential.

Looking back at the 2016 season opener, that tendency towards press coverage did not work out too well for RU. While I think it could be a bit less of a liability this week now that the Huskies no longer have John Ross’ insanity speed, Chico and Salvon Ahmed — if he plays — could make that trouble. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see if they stick with it persistently or if the trauma from last year forces the coverage to play a little looser, giving room for Dante Pettis’ precision and guys like Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia to make plays.

Overall, this squad shouldn’t give Washington too much trouble but it will fun to see how they’ve improved over the course of the year.

(Also, if you’re a Rutgers fan lurking over here to see what we Dawgs are saying prior to the game, please chime in your thoughts in the comments!)

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