Now that the look at RU’s potential offense this coming season is finished, it’s time to look at the rest of the team. The defense was truly the team’s greatest strength last year, and it will be interesting to watch them this year because while enough talent returns to suggest they will still play well, enough starters are gone to cause concern. This is especially true among the linebackers, where two of three starters (Devraun Thompson and Quintero Frierson) graduated. Nonetheless, the defensive unit, presided over by head coach Greg Schiano (this will be his third season of pulling double duty as the defensive coordinator), still appears likely to shape up as a strong point.

Position-by-position breakdown of returning players

Defensive Line: Two starters along the line (tackle Ramel Meekins and end William Beckford) are gone,but the line should be strong again on the strength of the return of end Jamaal Westerman and tackle Eric Foster. Foster, in addition to being one of the emotional leaders of the team, played at an extremely high level in ’06, even earning some All-America recognition. Westerman played well, too, with 13 tackles for loss, including eight sacks. The undersized Beckford will be replaced by George Johnson, who showed a lot of promise as a freshman. Meekins, currently with the Indianapolis Colts, will probably be missed the most; he played just as well as Foster, and it’s tough to replace an interior defensive lineman who put up the kinds of numbers he did (68 tackles and eight sacks in ’06). He will be replaced by junior Pete Tverdov, who was named the team’s most improved defensive player over spring practice. With him taking over for a player of Meekins’ caliber, Rutgers had best hope that he’ll play as well in actual games.

Linebacker: This is the potential trouble spot. Two of three starters (Frierson on the outside and Thompson in the middle) are gone. These two were experienced veterans who knew Schiano’s system and had been executing it on the field ever since he took over as coordinator. The projected replacements (juniors Chris Quaye in the middle and Kevin Malast on the outside) have some experience, but not so much in actual game situations, when it really counts. The unit has already had some bad luck this year: sophomore middle linebacker Ryan D’Imperio, who was on his way to becoming the starter at that position, broke his leg during spring practice and will not be ready for the start of the season. He still has a chance to return at some point during the year, but until then, the already somewhat up-in-the-air linebacker corps will be short a man. The return of senior Brandon Renkart, who was solid on the outside last year with 54 tackles (11 for a loss), will undoubtedly help, but there will likely be some growing pains for the new starters. What should also be a help is that two of the season’s first three games should be, relatively, incredibly easy (opponents: Buffalo and Norfolk State), and this should help give the new guys some time to work out the kinks. Though it won’t likely happen overnight, these linebackers have talent (and talent around them) and, especially if D’Imperio returns at some point, they should be able to play pretty well. Maybe I was spoiled by last season’s performance and am being overly optimistic, but I just don’t see this group dragging the team down.

***Edit, 8/21*** All right, now this group has me worried. No one has really stepped up at MLB, and Blair Bines is probably gone for the first month. It’s a good thing two of the first three games are Buffalo and Norfolk State, and that Ryan D’Imperio looks like he’ll be back by midseason.

Defensive Backs: This unit will be fighting a bit of an uphill battle because of the recent news that Dimitri Linton, a converted running back who had impressed at corner in spring practice, is leaving the team due to nagging injuries. There wasn’t a whole lot of depth at the position before, and obviously there is less now. In addition to Linton’s departure, two top contributing corners from last year (Derrick Roberson and Manny Collins) have graduated. Roberson started last season; his vacated spot will be filled by redshirt sophomore Devin McCourty, who had 38 tackles last year (although 14 were on special teams) and two interceptions. Devin’s twin brother Jason, a junior, will start at the other corner spot for the second consecutive year. In 2006 Jason had 45 tackles (4.5 for loss) and two pass breakups. However, the starters aren’t what have people worried; it’s the lack of depth beyond them. The return of redshirt sophomore Leslie Jackman, who missed almost all of last year with an injury, will help, and ex-walkon Billy Anderson has also drawn some early praise and is working with the second team. That’s about it for now, though, and the team will likely look to an incoming freshman (more on him in the next installment) and/or an undecided offensive player making the switch to defense…like Linton, only hopefully without the part where the leave the team months later.

The depth at safety also concerns some, but the starters do not. Another true freshman appears to be in the mix to earn some playing time (again, more on him in the next installment), and once again, the return of a player from injury (sophomore Zaire Kitchen – what a good name) will help out. Junior Glen Lee also figures to be in the mix, but again, it’s not the deepest group, and potentially having to partly rely on a true freshman and a guy coming back from an injury is worrisome. However, the starting tandem is rock-solid: the safety spot also has potential to be the strongest area of the team. It consists of two players who have gotten significant playing time since their freshman seasons – senior Ron Girault and junior Courtney Greene (pictured). Girault has garnered preseason mention as a second and third team all-conference pick, and he’s the “weaker” of the duo. Last year Girault had 69 tackles, three interceptions, three pass breakups, and recovered two fumbles, and there is no reason to not expect another strong performance from him in ’07. Greene is on the preseason watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award (nation’s top defensive back) and Nagurski Award (nation’s top defensive player), as well as getting some early All-America mention and first team all-conference mention as well. Last year, he had 82 tackles (2.5 for loss), four interceptions, and forced a fumble. Likely the only reason he failed to replicate his 116-tackle performance of 2005 was a vastly improved front seven making more plays before the secondary became a factor. When Greene and Girault are called on to make plays, however, they make them consistently, and that’s why the safety spot will be a major strength for Rutgers as long as these two stay on the field.

The next installment, likely the last, will touch on incoming freshmen, special teams, coaching, and generally attempt to tie up whatever loose ends remain. As with the previous segment, information from scarletknights.com was used in compiling this post.