Three days into the Rutgers Scarlet Knights’ spring practice and new offensive coordinator John McNulty spoke to the media for the first and probably only time this spring. McNulty addressed a magnitude of questions regarding everything from the obvious quarterback competition to how the new offense will look come game day. However, with all the talk that the offense has been getting, it’s going to be the defense that will steal the show once the season rolls around.
Taking a looks at the Defense
I know what you’re probably thinking, “how can we expect anything from a defense that was ranked in the bottom five of the Big Ten?” Well, it’s quite simple, the offense did absolutely no favors for the defense in 2017. Constantly going three-and-out and expecting the Jay Niemann coached defense to consistently keep opposing offenses at bay is a foolish presumption. Especially against the more prolific offenses that the Big Ten conference boasts. This season the defense has a chance to be very special, especially if McNulty can get a competent offense going to compliment them.
It all starts with the sheer experience that the defense will roll out come game day, specifically in the second and third levels of the defense. The Scarlet Knights return two stud inside linebackers in seniors Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts. The former ranked second in the conference in total tackles while his running mate, Roberts, fell in two spots behind him. Both are rangy linebackers who have played with each other since being true freshman. The experience together without a doubt has helped the two grow into their roles together.
Ross Douglass is a key loss to the linebacker corps but has worthy replacements in sophomores Tyshon Fogg and Tyreek Maddox-Williams. Fogg battled injuries during his true freshman season but was still able to account for 18 tackles and an interception in limited time. Maddox-Williams showed immense potential as a true freshman in 2016, when he was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team. 2017 was a lost cause for the redshirt sophomore as he tore his ACL early in camp and missed the entire season. Both linebackers look to play crucial snaps in wake of the loss of Douglass.
Behind them will be one of the most experienced backends in not only the Big Ten but college football. While the transfer of safety Kiy Hester hurts, the Scarlet Knights still have ample depth to account for the loss. Junior K.J. Gray will fill in for Hester as he’s slated to start next to redshirt senior Saquan Hampton. If Hampton can shake his injury bug, he can be a key cog in the secondary, as he’s an outstanding safety when healthy. Gray and Hampton have already played immense snaps together so the chemistry shouldn’t be a problem.
Rutgers also returns two starting cornerbacks in Isaiah Wharton and Blessaun Austin on the outside. Wharton can struggle at times but is a more than capable compliment to Austin, who is one of the best corners in the conference. Austin played four games in 2017 before being lost to a torn ACL. If (when) he can return to the form of his prior play, both Austin and Wharton can make the jobs of Hampton and Gray a lot easier. Junior Damon Hayes also has shown potential in the third cornerback role and also has the ability to play outside. Hayes can excel in a nickel role to round out the secondary.