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WSU vs. Rutgers: Scouting the Scarlet Knights defense

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Yes, Rutgers is starting a former second-string running back at corner. No, that is not the only player on their defense. Just getting that out of the way first.

The Scarlet Knight defense swarms against Arkansas
The Scarlet Knight defense swarms against Arkansas
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers is hoping to improve on a defense that didn't fare too well in the American Conference last year. The Scarlet Knights finished 76th in overall defense (S&P+) playing the 83rd toughest schedule.  They have the run game figured out, ranking No. 4 nationally in rush defense but struggled mightily in pass defense, ranking 122nd.

The Scarlet Knights gave up 170 pass completions of at least 10 yards, worst in the country (credit: Bill C). Rutgers also managed to allow 58 completions of at least 20 yards (3rd worst), and a QB completion percentage of 64 percent with 31 touchdowns to eight interceptions.

Want more stats? Note: there were 125 teams in FBS College Football for 2013

Per Game AVG National Rank
Opponent 4th Down Conversion 75% 119
Opponent TD:INT ratio 3.88 111
Pass Efficiency Defense 148.6 104
Pass Attempts Allowed 38.5 122
Pass Completions Allowed 25.3 124
Pass First Downs Allowed 13.4 125
Passing Yards Allowed 311.4 122
Yard per Pass Allowed 7.88 100

Stop drooling. That's all in the past. Or rather, they hope it is but it's probably a tad worrisome when "the secondary was the biggest concern last season, and no definitive answers emerged during camp".

After a season where they gave up the most passing yards in school history (either 4,056 or 4,580 oddly enough reports differ, 4,056 seems to come from Phil Steele) and before the Pinstripe Bowl, the Scarlet Knights fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen and gave special teams coach Joe Rossi the interim job, which he took over full time at the end of January.

Rossi was outstanding in charge of the special teams. Rutgers blocked 18 kicks over his first two seasons -- the eight last year was good for tops in the nation -- and they scored four special team touchdowns in 2013.  Rossi follows the path of former Rutgers DC Robb Smith (now with Arkansas). Rossi served under Smith at Maine, and was promoted to DC when Smith left for Rutgers in 2008. Maine ranked 21st nationally in the FCS in sacks and 31st in pass defense under Rossi's guidance. He took over special teams at Rutgers for the 2012 season.

Greg Schiano installed a 4-3, shifting, stunting, zone blitzing defense that had completely overwhelmed the Big East by the end of his time there.  Rutgers has been running that system ever since -- well over a decade.  The players and coaches have confidence in what they do, and don't see any want or need for wholesale changes after a rough season.

Head coach Kyle Flood recently spoke about making changes on defense:

"The system is the system. Our system is not going to change, and when played effectively we feel like we can match-up with any offense in the country. But I think Joe's [Rossi] aggressiveness and that part of his personality has probably come out more than anything".

Still, some tweaks were inevitable -- necessary, really. Rossi, on some of his changes to the defense:

"We have some elements of 4-3 and 3-4. We like to zone blitz. We like to move. We like to use games up front."

To which starting middle linebacker Kevin Snyder replied:

"I actually don't know exactly what he's talking about, to be God honest with you".

No one covering Rutgers really knows what this defense will look like, exactly. Changes seems to be in form of positional switches around the front seven, while the system remains the system scheme-wise. Any particulars about the specific coverages they use couldn't be found, but the usual suspects are most likely (Cover-2, Cover-4).

You can be sure of one thing: The Scarlet Knights have pass rushers that can get to the quarterback. Their "R" position sounds fairly similar to the "Buck" linebacker at WSU in Coach Breske's 3-4. When Rossi talks about "3-4 elements," this slight tweak in assignment could be what he's referring to. The player at R will have some variability in where he lines up and how he plays, sometimes with a hand on the ground, other times standing up. Sometimes he comes off the edge on a speed rush, occasionally he covers the flat.

Let's take a look at the personnel.

Depth Chart

Rutgers_2deep

Starters are listed on top

Editor's Note: the year listed is the eligibility year, heights and weights were taken from the team's official roster.

Defensive Line

Defensive "R" End:

No. 90 - Sr. - Dave Milewski (6-4, 245)
Milewski is a 5th-year senior and team captain. Last season he had 24 tackles, 1.5 for loss, and 1 sack while playing at every spot on the line.  The former linebacker should feel more comfortable at R where he can play standing up, and should have a greater impact rushing the passer than he did last season. He was fully healthy for spring practice for the first time in his career, as Milewski has undergone three knee surgeries.

No. 22 - So. - Quanzell Lambert (6-1, 250)  OR  No. 58 - RFr. - Kemoko Turay (6-6, 235)
Turay is the raw athletic specimen of the group at R. He only played one year of organized football at Newark before going to Rutgers and due to his size, was moved to linebacker.  He's a natural pass rusher that'll crank up the speedometer on the offensive tackles when he spells Milewski. Lambert is another linebacker convert who always felt more at home getting after a quarterback.

Nose Tackle

No. 95 - Sr. - Kenneth Kirksey (6-1, 275)
A converted 3-technique defensive tackle, Kirksey makes the move to nose this season after suffering a season-ending triceps injury last year. Kirksey is fast, athletic, and doesn't let the size disparity affect him, saying "That's my cup of tea, I love going against bigger offensive lineman because once I get on the field I'm the biggest man out there. I use a combination of speed and strength" (link).

No. 98 - Jr. - Daryl Stephenson (6-3, 275)
Stephenson had been running as a second team 3-technique defensive tackle, but switched spots with Sebastian Joseph after Joseph, who had been at NT, played well at DT during camp. He's played one game in the past two seasons.

Defensive Tackle

No. 91 - Jr. - Darius Hamilton (6-4, 255)
The other team captain along the defensive line and potential all-conference DT, Hamilton (a 5-star recruit) is their real stud on defense. Hamilton made 34 tackles, 11.5 for loss, and 4.5 sacks in 2013 and is looking to add to that now as a team leader.

No. 51 - RFr. - Sebastian Joseph (6-4, 285)
Joseph spelled Hamilton during camp when he caught the injury bug (he's fine now) and played well enough to earn the back-up role.  Hamilton will probably be on the field as much as possible.

Defensive End

No. 93 - Jr. - Djwany Mera (6-4, 260)
Mera came into his own last year, garnering 22 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks. Continuing the theme of speed and athleticism over pure size, Mera is another guy that has shown a real knack for getting into the opposing team's backfield.

No. 53 - So. - Julian Pinnix-Odrick (6-5, 260)
The sophomore lost 2013 to an ACL tear in practice, and is looking forward to making his debut for the Scarlet Knights. Coach Flood says the best thing about "JPO's" game is his effort, he plays at a really high level.  He's one of the defensive lineman Rutgers fans are most excited about, and for good reason.  Coach Flood expects to rotate him and Mera frequently.

--- The skinny ---

Rutgers isn't big up front, but they don't see that as a negative. They'll be fast, stunt, slant, and speed rush, testing the athletic ability of the big Coug offensive lineman. They'll get to Halliday a few times; it's pretty inevitable when you throw as much as the Cougs do.

The game to watch in the trenches will be between offensive tackles Joe Dahl (LT, 6-4, 303) and Cole Madison (RT, 6-5, 300) with the speed rush Rutgers throws at them.  And Hamilton. Just watch him -- he's nasty and could be working against redshirt sophomore Eduardo Middleton (RG, 6-5, 318) for much of the game. Weight isn't the end-all be-all, but he is giving up 60 pounds to Middleton.

The Scarlet Knights will rotate through their depth, using Turay as a QB-seeking missile, and try their best to utilize a speed advantage to disrupt the WSU passing game.

If the Coug OL technique is sound, and it's improved steadily under line coach Clay McGuire, this might be where you can see offensive line splits really play a role.  These ends are going to be about 4 or 5 yards further away from the quarterback than they're used to and Connor Halliday has a really quick trigger. Whether WSU is successful on offense will depend on whether the line can keep him upright for three seconds.

Linebackers

Strong Side

No. 50 - Jr. - Quentin Gause (6-1, 220)
Gause made one start for Rutgers last year, against Arkansas, and recorded 53 tackles on the season, 8.5 for a loss.  That experience is pretty crucial, as his backup is true freshman Brandon Russell (6-1, 210). Here's a commit analysis of him.

Middle

No. 45 - Sr. - Kevin Snyder (6-3, 235)
Snyder switches to Mike after playing on the outside in 2013. Last season he totaled 71 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and 2 sacks. He appears to be a more natural fit in the middle, and is taking to his role as a leader on defense.

No. 25 - So. - LJ Liston (6-2, 235)
The only second-string linebacker that has game experience. Liston made 8 tackles in 12 games last year as a true freshman.

Weak Side

No. 3 - So. - Steve Longa (6-1, 225)
Longa is the most athletic of the linebackers; some say he was played out of position last season as the Mike. Rossi moved him outside and seems to be a much better fit. Last year he had 87 tackles, 7.5 for a loss, and 3 sacks to go along with 2 forced fumbles. He's backed up by RS freshman No. 36 TJ Taylor (6-3, 200).

--- The skinny ---

The linebackers, along with the defensive line, are a real strength of the Rutgers defense.  Unlike the defensive line, things get a little dicey past the first team linebackers. The youngsters have some talent, but they're still undersized and pretty novice considering all the route concepts Wazzu will throw right at them. The Air Raid is not exactly an offense you can team defend on pure athleticism alone; it requires some sound coverage technique out of the linebackers.

Like WSU, expect to see the LBs stunt quite a few times. Rutgers likes for them to be an active part of the pass rush.

Longa is probably the most capable coverage backer, but most all of the LB group has switched roles this season.  Run stopping shouldn't be a concern for them; they've been solid against the run pretty consistently throughout the years.  The WSU run game has heard some praise coming out of camp. Halliday might be able to pick his spots against a newly shuffled LB unit that could be overly concerned with defending the pass. It may not be consistent yardage, but it could lead to Jamal Morrow and/or Gerard Wicks breaking off a few big runs.

Who knows how well they'll do playing out in space, but I would be a little worried about them taking coverage drops against five eligible receivers, especially one of the most capable receiving corps in the pass-happy Pac-12.

Secondary

Cornerbacks

No. 2 - Sr. - Gareef Glashen (5-10, 180)
Glashen has six career starts, mostly used in the nickel cornerback position, guarding slot receivers. This will be his first start as a true corner. I was unable to find who was boundary or field, so it may be that Rutgers switches sides with their corners based on match-up or field position, or they just don't track that on released depth charts. Glashen played in 11 games and got one interception.

Backing him up will be true freshman No. 24 Andre Boggs (5-11, 175), a 3-star recruit. Boggs worked his way up to the first team and could be starting had an injury not sidelined him toward the end of fall camp. He's mentioned as being one of their potential impact freshman.

No. 32 - So. - Justin Goodwin (6-0, 200)
Goodwin was still a running back a month ago, but some injury troubles created a vacancy at corner that needed to be filled.  Goodwin was surprised by Flood asking him to switch positions. He had 111 carries for 521 yards as a true freshman. He last played corner two years ago in high school, but is said to be one of the best athletes on the team and smart enough to not only pick up corner, but possibly play both ways.

Backing him up will be a pair of true sophomores, either No. 31 Anthony Cioffi (6-0, 185) or No. 12 Nadir Barnwell (5-11, 185).  Both played in 12 games last year, getting thrown right into the fire, and had 28 tackles.

Free Safety

No. 27 - So. - Delon Stephenson (5-11, 190)
Stephenson, along with Cioffi and Barnwell, return from last year's unit, hoping a year was enough time to shore up their deficiencies. He had a contested battle during camp with his backup Johnathan Aiken, who had three starts last year. Stephenson was also in the mix at corner, and his ability to play both positions, paired with Aiken's ability at safety, makes him a prime candidate for nickel corner, should they opt for five defensive backs against WSU.

No. 26 - Sr. - Johnathan Aiken (5-11, 190)
Stephenson won the camp battle, but it wasn't by much.  Both guys say they expect to share time with the other.

Strong Safety

No. 21 - Sr. - Lorenzo Waters (6-0, 195)
Waters, the elder statesman of the secondary, is also a team captain.  He has plenty of experience and made 49.5 tackles last season.

No. 29 - So. - Devon Jacobs (6-0, 195)
Jacobs was recruited as a corner and moved to linebacker by former DC Cohen, where he was really undersized.  Rossi has moved him back to the secondary at strong safety.

Big Picture

If this was a 7-on-7 game, WSU would break the scoreboard.  The Rutgers secondary has a lot of potential when it's fully healthy, and that's just not the case for them in this first game. WSU has its own running back, Teondray Caldwell, transitioning to the secondary but the scenarios are vastly different. Caldwell is a little older, and was buried by young talent at running back.  There was an opportunity at safety where his athletic ability could earn him playing time and he wanted the switch.

Goodwin is a true sophomore and was a major part of their run game last season, poised to have a big year playing behind Paul James in a run-favored offense. He didn't ask for the switch; he just stepped up to do what his team needed from him. And Rutgers really needed a corner after a few went down with injuries.

Aside from team captain Lorenzo Waters, most of this secondary's experience comes from last season where, to put it bluntly, they got torched. A big question is whether they were able to learn from it and get better, not just older.

Very few teams have tried to sit in a base defense, with four in the secondary, for a whole game against WSU. Most will be in nickel, bringing in an extra defensive back in lieu of a linebacker. Rutgers has a couple guys that could fill that role, most likely Stephenson, but Glashen has lots of experience at the position as well. It will be interesting to see if Rutgers even starts in their base 4-3 and tries to let their outside backers play in space, or goes straight to nickel coverage.

Depth in the secondary is a real necessity when you're forced to play five every snap, and depth in the secondary is something Rutgers doesn't really have at the start of the season.  Wazzu will fire eight receivers at you in two platoons. Every time they run they'll be fresh and you could be asked to defend a 30 yard vertical multiple plays in a row.

WSU has been troubled most by man coverage in the past, something it doesn't sound like Rutgers does a lot of. Wazzu receivers have really emphasized busting man this season, as they already have enough experience in the system to make finding holes in zone second-nature.  When facing press-man underneath, things were a little more difficult.

Rutgers will likely spend the majority of their time in zone behind a stunting defensive front, but if they do switch to man that advantage has to remain with the offense.

Thing is, this isn't a 7-on-7 game.

Defensively, Rutgers' strength is in the pass rushing defensive line and its weakness is the secondary.  Offensively, WSU's strength is its wide receivers and quarterback, and its weakness (or unknown at this point) is at offensive line. Both squads are matching their strengths to the opponent's weaknesses.

If Halliday has time the receivers will be open, but that may be a big if. WSU fans who were curious how the new faces along the OL would do this season? You won't have to wait past the first game to find out. If they get the job done against Rutgers, you can feel pretty good about their chances the rest of the season.

Football is almost here. See you Thursday at the CLink.