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Rutgers Players Battle For Middle Linebacker Spot

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Khaseem Greene, left, and Steve Beauharnais were two of the best players on Rutgers' defense last year. Replacing them in the starting lineup is one of the biggest story lines entering fall. Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images.
Khaseem Greene, left, and Steve Beauharnais were two of the best players on Rutgers' defense last year. Replacing them in the starting lineup is one of the biggest story lines entering fall. Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images.

One reason for spring practice: find out who's ready to step into a starting job in the fall. This spring, four players are auditioning for the task of replacing Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers' three-year starting middle linebacker.

Entering the spring, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Dave Cohen had three guys battling to be the "Mike" (middle linebacker): redshirt freshman Quanzell Lambert, freshman Lester Liston (an early enrollee) and redshirt senior Nick DePaola. None of those three are now the favorite, though, since redshirt freshman Steve Longa moved from the "Will" (weakside linebacker) to Mike. Longa began the spring as the backup Will, but his move to the middle puts him in position to take first-team reps and seize that job.

Beauharnais quarterbacked the Scarlet Knights' defense for three years, which leaves a big leadership gap at the heart of Cohen's unit. DePaola knows the defense, but has played sparingly in his career, which leaves the young guns at the forefront of the competition. Longa, Lambert or Liston will have to grow up quickly on the job, but they will have the luxury of relying on a veteran line to help lead the defense.

Longa was slated to back up junior Kevin Snyder on the weakside, but the combination of his talent and the uncertainty in the middle led the coaching staff to shift him. Lambert also showed promise last year before suffering an ankle sprain that derailed his season, so he should be able to push Longa for first-team reps throughout spring and summer practice.

Longa's slide to the middle was possible because of the emergence of Snyder, who has the biggest shoes to fill replacing two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene. Snyder picked up some experience on the strong side last year, splitting reps with starter Jamal Merrell, who returns for his redshirt senior season.

The competition this spring and summer will be good for a defense that enters its first season under the guidance of Cohen and its last season in the Big East.