Better or worse? Previewing Rutgers' defense in 2020
If you were to bet on one thing Rutgers would’ve hung its hat on under Chris Ash, you would’ve put money on the team having a solid defensive presence. Too often, that wasn’t the case.
Now Greg Schiano returns — another defensive-minded head coach hoping to elevate Rutgers’ defensive presence in the B1G. He’s hired Robb Smith, who endured some struggles while at Minnesota, to be the defensive coordinator.
Things really can’t get much worse in Piscataway than they were last season. Rutgers ranked last in the B1G in scoring defense (36.7 points per game) and run defense (201.8 yards per game), and 12th in total defense (433.6 yards per game).
There are some positives heading into the 2020 season, though. There’s a lot of returning experience on the defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary is still fairly young, but a lot of those guys have seen their fair share of snaps, as well. That should be somewhat beneficial for Schiano and his staff entering Year 1.
What will be better and worse for the Scarlet Knights defensively in 2020? Let’s take a look.
Pressuring the QB: Same
No team in the B1G had more trouble reaching the quarterback than Rutgers last season. The Scarlet Knights ended the year with 18 total sacks in 12 games and five of those came in the team’s only two wins — vs. UMass and Liberty. Improving the program’s poor play along the defensive line is a focal point for Schiano, and that’s apparent from his work in the transfer portal.
Since arriving at Rutgers, Schiano has added four transfer defensive linemen to the roster — Michael Dwumfour (Michigan), Ireland Burke (Boston College), Malik Barrow (UCF) and Mayan Ahanotu (Minnesota). Dwumfour is the only one with guaranteed immediate eligibility in 2020, according to 247Sports, but it’s still a major improvement up front.
Rutgers does return Julius Turner, who registered 2.0 sacks and 4 quarterback hurries a year ago. There are a few other names also back in 2020 — Mike Tverdov, Jaohne Duggan, Brendan Bordner and Tijaun Mason — but that group wasn’t very productive.
Defensive line coach Jim Panagos has his work cut out for him, but the Scarlet Knights do have some solid reinforcements from a personnel standpoint. That should be at least somewhat helpful in getting more pressure on the quarterback this year. But this unit probably won’t be too much better from a year ago.
Run defense: Better
Another area where Rutgers ranked dead last in the B1G again was run defense, surrendering 201 yards per contest on the ground. Teams didn’t even really need to pass all that often because they were able to trample the Scarlet Knights on the ground with relative ease.
But, if there’s a bright spot for Rutgers’ defense this season, it’ll certainly be in stopping the run. Why? The personnel improvements on the defensive line will help, but so will having a fully stocked linebacker group, which might be the strongest position group for the team in 2020.
Tyshon Fogg was Rutgers’ leading tackler from a season ago. Olakunle Fatukasi led the way in stops in the backfield. Rashawn Battle was the team’s leading sack-getter. Tyreek Maddox-Williams had a solid year in several statistical categories. All four are returning as seniors, which is huge from an experience perspective.
Rutgers has everything it needs to be more capable at slowing down the run. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Scarlet Knights won’t get scorched by some of the better running teams they’ll face, such as Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan, but they should be better prepared to handle other opponents. And that may result in an extra tally or two in the win column.
A ton of experience at linebacker, improved personnel on the defensive line and a new scheme should result in some progress in this area. It may not be all that pretty, but it should certainly be better.
Pass defense: Worse
When Rutgers starts to see improvement in run defense, it may result in some struggles in the secondary. There are some talented defensive backs suiting up in Piscataway, but it’s still a relatively young group. Against some of the more experience quarterbacks and receivers in the B1G, they’re likely going to struggle.
Mesh that with a pass rush that may look similar to a year ago, and you’ll probably see opponents put up some more passing yards on the Scarlet Knights.
Avery Young and Christian Izien are the stars of the secondary. Young intercepted two passes and forced a fumble last year while Izien tallied 78 tackles and broke up three passes. Behind those two, though, there really isn’t much skilled depth. And with so much athleticism in the B1G at the wide receiver position returning in 2020, it’s going to be hard for Schiano’s secondary to keep up.
This is going to be an area that needs some time to develop.
Special teams: Same
Adam Korsak was easily the most dangerous weapon Rutgers had a season ago, which is a big accolade for Korsak but also shows just how bad things were for the team a year ago.
Korsak was a three-time winner of the Ray Guy Punter of the Week Award and was a second-team All-B1G selection. He averaged 43.8 yards per punt with a net average of 41.5 yards, leading the B1G. Of his 76 punts last year, 31 were downed inside the 20-yard line, 18 dropped inside the 10-yard line and 9 halted inside the 5-yard line. So, yeah, he had a solid season.
If there was one thing you could say about Rutgers last season, it’s that Korsak regularly helped the Scarlet Knights in terms of field position. Unfortunately, the offense and the defense were rarely able to capitalize.
Having a defensive-minded coach like Schiano on the sideline certainly helps. And with experience at the linebacker position and improved personnel up front, stopping the run should be a strength (somewhat) for the Scarlet Knights. That’s significant in the B1G.
Rutgers will continue to struggle on this side of the field, and there’s obviously still a huge talent disparity between the Scarlet Knights and other B1G programs. But with a new scheme, experience and (slightly) improved depth, this defense should take some steps in the right direction in 2020.
Hey, you have to start somewhere, right?