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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rutgers' Jamal Merrell comes to terms with unexpected role on defense

By Tyler Barto
Twitter: @Tyler_Barto

After entering the season with thoughts of being a third-down pass rusher, Jamal Merrell's role has changed exponentially in 2013.

The senior linebacker says he's been asked to play in space about 90 percent more this season because of Rutgers' spread-heavy opponents.

"On film, I'm always outside the box," Merrell said Tuesday. "It's something my talent allows me to do, but this year I had to really grind on it because every team was a spread team pretty much. It just shows the game changing."

Merrell envisioned lining up in a three-point stance on passing downs, similar to Steve Beauharnais' role the last few seasons. Beauharnais often rushed the C gap — outside shoulder of a tackle — in three down-lineman sets.
Rutgers' Jamal Merrell (37) hasn't been used as a pass rusher this season, but the Scarlet Knights still have 32 sacks. (AP photo)
Rutgers' pass defense struggles forced Merrell to the perimeter. He juggled run responsibilities with defending the flank. It took its toll.

"It wouldn't allow me to put my hand down because spread teams have three receivers outside, so I'd have to help out in the flat," said Merrell, who added he thinks he's proven capable enough in space to intrigue NFL evaluators. "It just phased out all that."

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Marcus Thompson, who has played both end and linebacker, said Merrell could've contributed as an edge rusher.

"Actually they tried (Merrell) at end maybe my sophomore year (in 2011)," Thompson said Wednesday. "He was pretty good. He's quick. He knows how to use his hands real well. He reads the sets real well. I think 'Mal has a physical ability to rush the passer."

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To that end, Rutgers' staff would've likely replaced Merrell with a defensive back, moving Rutgers out of its base package.
On other passing downs, Rutgers turned to its "30 package", with three down linemen, two outside linebackers and six defensive backs, one or two of whom would line up as middle linebackers.

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