By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (July 30, 2014) – Whether he looks to his immediate right or left along the Rutgers defensive line this year Darius Hamilton likes what he sees. The assembled talent is a major part of that, of course.
But it’s really the depth on the unit that Hamilton views as being a difference maker for the school’s inaugural Big Ten season, with training camp set to start on Friday.
“When you can rotate eight or nine guys and not skip a beat I think that has to be the strongest part of your defense,” said Hamilton. “That’s going to make a huge difference for us this year.”
The 6-4, 265-pound Hamilton is one of two returning starters to a defensive line that may actually go 10-deep if true freshman Eric Wiafe, a January enrollee, can work his way into the mix.
David Milewski, Quanzell Lambert and promising redshirt freshman Kemoko Turay will compete for minutes at the rush end position. For now, Hamilton will be backed up by Daryl Stephenson at one tackle. The nose tackle minutes will be split between Kenneth Kirksey and redshirt freshman Sebastian Joseph. At the other end spot, returning starter Djwany Mera and third-year sophomore Julian Pinnix-Odrick, healthy and eager to finally get on the field, are the anchors.
It’s a unit brimming with potential.
“I don’t think that does anything but help,” Hamilton said of the depth. “We’ve got some great younger guys coming up, guys who have really made strides in the spring, guys like Eric Wiafe, Kemoko Turay, Sebastian Joseph. Then we get guys back (from injury) like Julian Pinnix-Odrick. He’s going to be a great addition to the team.
“We’ve got a lot of guys turning heads, we’ve got starters back who are good players and so many guys have improved. I think this is the best I’ve ever seen David Milewski look at rush end. Djwany Mera is a very consistent end. Kenneth Kirksey is doing well coming off his injuries. He’s finally healthy at the nose. Me at three-man. I just think this defensive line is finally coming together. It’s the most tight-knit group I’ve seen as far as trust, too. And they’re physically gifted guys.”
Hamilton knows that strong line play will impact a defense looking to improve dramatically against the pass after injuries and defections decimated the secondary a year ago, forcing coach Kyle Flood to rely on true freshmen at the corner spots and a converted offensive player (Jeremy Deering) at free safety.
The Scarlet Knights were stout against the run, finishing No. 4 nationally in that category after allowing an average of 100.8 rushing yards per game. But that was negated by a pass defense that was the worst statistically in school history.
And that made it difficult to tell if Rutgers was really that good against the run or if opponents simply stopped trying to establish a ground game because of the success they were able to have through the air.
“I think we were a solid defense against the run. Very solid,” Hamilton said. “Obviously we had our problems in the passing game but the best thing about last year is that it’s last year. It’s a new year, a new set of opportunities and a new chance to prove ourselves.
“With the pass defense last year you have to understand how young we were in the back end. But they will be better for what they went through. At the same time our leading sacker was Marcus Thompson with (5.5) - I was right behind him with (4.5). So we’ve got to do a better job as a defensive line getting to the quarterback. That’s on us. There were too many times when quarterbacks just sat in the pocket last year five to eight seconds and just let it sling. On defense, it’s all connected. Everyone has to do their part to make it work.”
Hamilton did what he could a year ago, recording a team-leading 11.5 tackles for loss while totaling 48 tackles. He’s convinced the depth of the defensive line will lead to significant improvement on defense this year, even in the face of a schedule that starts with pass-happy Washington State and features run-dominated Navy in the fourth game.
The Cougars led the nation with 756 pass attempts last season, averaging 57.7 passes per game. The Midshipmen led the country with 775 rushing attempts, with an average of 59.6 running plays per game.
“You’ve got to take that week by week,” said Hamilton. “As (defensive line) coach (Jim) Panagos always says `coaches and players make football hard.’ At the end of the day it’s the same game you’ve been playing since you were a kid. You can’t over-think it.”