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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Jamal Merrell expects large coverage responsibility for Rutgers in 2013

Linebacker Jamal Merrell says the pass-coverage role he played at Fresno State will remain throughout the season. (AP Photo)

By Tyler Barto
Twitter: @Tyler_Barto

Jamal Merrell says the pass-coverage role he adopted Aug. 29 at Fresno State is here to stay.

The fifth-year senior often lined up outside the far hash mark, serving as a de-facto nickel cornerback. While most teams will not stretch the line of scrimmage as much as Fresno State, Merrell expects a similar game plan from coordinator Dave Cohen.

"I know a lot of teams are going to try to open it up this year," Merrell said Monday. "I know my coaches are going to use me more in open space because they know I can tackle in open space and use my athleticism. I'm ready for it. I already know it's coming."

At strongside linebacker, Merrell primarily lines up across opposing tight ends. But given the rising popularity of offenses with packaged plays — plays that can be either run or pass depending on defensive personnel — Rutgers could still play mostly base defense.

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Merrell is the key piece in doing so effectively.

"I always looked at it how (former head) coach  (Greg) Schiano told me: hybrid," Merrell said. "Not too many people have that range and that speed and footwork to cover receivers. ... I know I'm going to be used in open space a lot."

It is a stark contrast to training camp, when Merrell said he expected to see an increased pass-rushing role on certain downs. That will likely fall to junior Kevin Snyder along the weakside.

"In our base defense on pass downs I was one of the primary cover guys obviously outside," Snyder said of last season. "But when it came to third down when I rotated in, I was more in our scheme an edge-rush type of guy.

"I like to be able to play in the box and play more of a physical game rather than an open-field and in-space game."

MORE: Gary Nova goes in depth on progressions in Rutgers offense

Few offenses will replicate Fresno State's pace, giving more value to a blitz-heavier system. 

Still, Rutgers' first objective remains stopping the run. It leads to leaving base-package personnel — with a linebacker-cover hybrid like Merrell — against passing fronts.

"That's the main thing I love about the game: when I can run around, use my speed and tackle people," Merrell said. "Looking out there sometimes and seeing how much space I have to work with, it's almost a challenge because they had a lot of speed, but at the same time I love taking on challenges. I know my athleticism is great for that."

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