Rutgers is bringing back 11 starters on offense, but it will need to replace a pair of key players on defense — one up front and one in the backend.
Here is a look at the projected pre-spring practice defensive and special teams depth chart (spring drills are on hold due to the Scarlet Knights’ COVID-19 pause).
DE: Aaron Lewis and Mike Tverdov; Tijaun Mason and C.J. Onyechi
Tverdov played like Rutgers’ best defensive lineman by the end of the season, racking up 19 tackles and four sacks in the final three games. Lewis was the best high school prospect Rutgers signed in 2020 (albeit after a brief stopover at Michigan) and showed promise this past season. Onyechi had his moments as well. They both figure to play significant snaps, but Lewis has more upside.
Elorm Lumor’s departure could open up playing time for Mason, who flashed in the 2018 opener before suffering a season-ending injury and has not done much since. Another name to keep an eye on: Canadian 2020 recruit Wesley Bailey, who has great potential and will have a year in the program under his belt.
DT: Ifeanyi Maijeh, Mayan Ahanotu
Maijeh, a Temple transfer, figures to slide right in and replace the departed Michael Dwumfour next fall at the interior tackle spot. Maijeh had 6.5 sacks during the 2019 season. Ahanotu was a consistent fixture in the tackle rotation this past fall and should play a big role again.
NG: Julius Turner, Robin Jutwreten
Turner played at an All-Big Ten level early on in the season, but opposing offenses appeared to figure him out as the fall progressed and use his aggressive style against him. The key for Rutgers in 2021 will be to utilize his lightning-quick first step while reducing what was a heavy snap load. Jutwreten proved a capable backup on the nose as well. Ireland Burke could also become a factor here or at the tackle spot.
WLB: Olakunle Fatukasi, Drew Singleton
Fatukasi was Rutgers’ best defensive player in 2020, leading the Big Ten with 101 tackles. He will enter next season with 213 for his career, giving him a chance to crack the top 10 for stops in school history.
MLB: Tyshon Fogg, Tyreek Maddox-Williams
Fogg will almost assuredly crack the top 10 in career tackles if he stays healthy. He has 240 entering 2021. Maddox-Williams gives Rutgers a lot of depth given his wealth of experience. Rashawn Battle is also expected back.
SLB: Mohamed Toure, Deion Jennings
Rutgers has to get Toure starter-level snaps in 2021 after he was so impactful as a situational pass rusher last season. The fact he cross-trained at all three linebacker positions should make that possible.
CB: Tre Avery and Avery Young; Max Melton and Patrice Rene
Avery had the best season of his long and winding college career in 2020 while Young bounced back from a so-so 2019, but still has plenty of room to improve. Melton was the most productive freshman on the roster last season and saw significant snaps as a nickel corner. The fact Rutgers used a remaining spot for this recruiting cycle somewhat unexpectedly on Rene, a North Carolina transfer, indicates the staff believes he can play starter-level snaps and make an impact despite recent durability concerns.
Don’t be surprised if Rutgers moves one of its corners to safety given the strength of its cornerback depth compared to the lack of it at safety.
S: Christian Izien and Naijee Jones; Peyton Powell and Lawrence Stevens
Izien came on strong down the stretch after some early-season struggles. He was a takeaway machine with four picks and three fumble recoveries over the final three games of the year. Jones jumped to the head of the pack to replace Brendon White with solid play in the second half of the season. Powell was listed as a corner on the roster, but there is a greater need at safety and his size would fit the position well. Stevens is a special teams ace, but he acquitted himself well when forced to play defensive snaps.
A wild card to consider here: Camden’s Alijah Clark, who was the top-ranked 2021 recruit and enrolled early.
K: Valentino Ambrosio, Guy Fava
P: Adam Korsak, Zach Feagles
LS: Billy Taylor, Zach Taylor
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James Kratch may be reached at [email protected].