Consider this to be the next step in Rutgers football's ascent to becoming a big time college football program.
Another part of Greg Schiano's vision when he became the head coach at Rutgers was achieved this preseason.
First he took the Knights to their highest ranking ever after their stunning upset win over No. 3 Louisville, who were at the time, Rutgers' highest ranking opponent ever beaten. Then he took them to their first ever bowl win.
If that wasn't enough, Rutgers has enjoyed four consecutive bowl victories.
There were even rumors about Rutgers getting an invite to join the prestigious Big 10 conference.
And while the Scarlet Knights are still chasing that elusive Big East Championship, another one of Coach Schiano and the program's "firsts" will be how Rutgers can finally join the BCS party.
That's because for the first time in school history, with only six starters returning, Rutgers' defense will reload instead of rebuild.
At each of the five positions vacated by former Rutgers stars, new players, the highly touted and/or experienced will slide easily into place.
Senior Jonathan Freeny will replace departed star George Johnson at defensive end. Last season, Freeny led the Scarlet Knights with nine and a half sacks. He also recorded 33 tackles and 12 tackles for loss.
And that was at backup.
It's no wonder that Freeny, who possesses a rare combination of strength and speed, has been compared to his first cousin, Colts all-pro defensive Dwight Freeney. He's also been named to the preseason watch list for the 2010 Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Award.
Middle linebacker Ryan D'imperio will be replaced by super sophomore Steve Beauharnais, who played outside linebacker last season. As a freshman last season, Beauharnais came on late and started the last three games, recording 36 tackles, five sacks, and a forced fumble.
Beauharnais has already embraced and excelled at the linebacker position. During Rutgers' spring game, he recorded 13 tackles and even picked off Rutgers' star quarterback Tom Savage.
In place of Damaso Munoz, former four star recruit Manny Abreu will be the starter at strong side linebacker. Abreu started seven games in 2008, but was replaced midseason by Munoz, who was moved from the middle to the outside.
2009 was supposed to be his year to start at linebacker but Abreu lost the starting job to current weakside linebacker Antonio Lowery due to problems with his work ethic.
Abreu is 6'4 and 245 pounds, and there is no questioning his physical skills. But the difference maker this year is his new found, improved work ethic.
"It’s a want-to now," Abreu said. "I feel so much more driven this spring."
Look for Abreu to be one of the most improved players on the defense this season.
At free safety, the hard hitting Zaire Kitchen graduated and must be replaced. Luckily, Khaseem Greene is there to replace him.
As a backup and part time starter replacing Kitchen last season, Greene recorded two interceptions and the defense hardly missed a beat without Kitchen.
Greene was named Rutgers' most improved defensive player this spring and for good reason. He's getting a reputation as a ball hawk and has drawn comparisons to former Rutgers turned Jacksonville Jaguars safety Courtney Greene (no relation).
Figuring out who will replace first round pick Devin McCourty at the starting cornerback spot is the most intriguing question on this defense.
It will be hard to replace Rutgers' team leader in tackles and owner of the Scarlet Knights' record for most blocked punts, but two players are in the middle of an intense battle for the starting job.
Senior Brandon Bing and redshirt freshman Logan Ryan have gone at it all spring and summer and neither seems to have let up.
Bing is the more experienced of the two, and at 5'11 and 180 pounds, has the size and speed to win the job. He started one game last season, but proved to be very inconsistent and was quickly replaced. This offseason, consistency was Bing's main focus.
"I'd be a liar to say that losing the starting job didn't drive me to work harder this off-season," Bing said.
Logan Ryan, a former four star recruit from South Jersey, doesn't plan on giving up his quest to win the starting spot from Bing.
"Me, Brandon, and David-all the corners are very close." Ryan said. "We all push each other."
As of now, Brandon Bing has the edge, but not by much. The starting corner opposite David Rowe won't be known till the start of the 2010 season, but what is known is that Rutgers has a great group of cornerbacks.
That can also be said about Rutgers’ entire defense, which should continue last season's status as the best defense in the Big East.
Now if the offense can perform well enough, there could be a BCS run brewing in Piscataway.
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