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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Five burning questions for Rutgers football's defense for Big Ten follow-up

By Tyler Barto
Twitter: @Tyler_Barto

PISCATAWAY — On Friday, I reviewed the most pressing issues facing Rutgers' offense this spring and into its Big Ten encore. Now let's look at some defensive questions.

5. How will the safety position look with the graduations of Johnathan Aiken and Lorenzo Waters?

Former DePaul Catholic teammates Kiy Hester and Davon Jacobs will likely battle it out at strong safety. Waters has already noticed Hester's maturity after he transferred this fall from Miami (Fla.).

While Delon Stephenson appears an obvious pencil-in at free safety, he struggled as a tackler this season. He'll often be Rutgers' last line of defense. Stay tuned.

4. What's going on at the nose tackle position?

Head coach Kyle Flood said last week that he spoke with Daryl Stephenson (who has one more year of eligibility) after the latter contemplated not returning.

Should that be the case, Rutgers faces a severe shortage of experience along the interior. Kevin Wilkins redshirted, as did three-technique Eric Wiafe. Sebastian Joseph isn't necessarily better suited at nose. 

RELATED: Position-by-position look at Rutgers' returners in 2015

3. How much will defensive end Kemoko Turay develop as a sophomore?

The 6-foot-6 edge rusher warranted more playing time on early downs late in the season and was on the field for a game-clinching stop against Maryland.

Look for Turay to add more weight to his frame and eventually become an every-down player at the rush end position, which also returns Quanzell Lambert.

2. Will leading tackler Steve Longa return to middle linebacker?

Much of that depends on Rutgers' faith in likely starting candidates L.J. Liston and T.J. Taylor.

Liston, who appears better suited at MIKE, got a brief audition against Tulane and North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. Results were mixed.

"What we'll do going forward, that'll be a little bit based on what the personnel is around him," Flood said of Longa. "It's not a decision that you make in a vacuum — you've got to look at everybody at that position group and who are the best three guys to get on the field." 

1. What will defensive coordinator's Joe Rossi's system look like in year two?

Rutgers' run defense ranked 106th nationally, even as Rossi at times devoted another defender to the line of scrimmage in a 3-4 alignment.

Still, it's difficult to draw conclusions on Rutgers' improvement given the steep talent incline and culture differences from the AAC in 2013 to the Big Ten.

"I don't know that I would compare them," Flood said. "I think we made significant improvements this year defensively from the year before. I thought we were able to do some things this year on certain plays that a year ago we couldn't make. Can we be better? Sure, and that's going to be our job at every position on the team."

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