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Rutgers Defensive Player to Watch: LB Olakunle Fatukasi

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Fatukasi is the reigning Big Ten leader in tackles, and he has showed no signs of slowing down in 2021.

Hopefully the announcers have practiced their pronunciation, because we will likely hear Fatukasi’s name with regularity on Saturday
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I have not researched the entire roster player by player, but it seems like the Rutgers football team is comprised entirely of fourth and fifth-year players (with a few sixth-year guys sprinkled in as well).

The extra year granted because of the pandemic certainly played a role in the Scarlet Knights having a bunch of experienced football players on their roster, and as a result, their two-deep looks much different than that of the Buckeyes. The only “juniors” listed as starters on Rutgers’ roster are actually fourth-year players essentially getting a do-over of 2020. Most of the players on this team have dealt with a lot of losing, and are hoping they stuck around just long enough for Greg Schiano to right the ship. The coach recently returned (2020) for a second stint, after building the program up during the early 2000s.

The Scarlet Knights have not exactly played a murderer’s row of opponents in 2021, but they did get off to a 3-0 start prior to losing a close one on the road this past Saturday. Schiano’s group trailed 20-3 at halftime, before shutting out TTUN in the second half. Their offense was unable to close the gap, but it was still a solid showing for a program that has struggled mightily in recent seasons.

Another former OSU assistant, Chris Ash, coached the team from 2016-2019 and compiled a sterling record of 8-32. Schiano was brought back last year, and four games in to his second run, it appears as if the team is chopping wood once again — and doing so in typical Schiano fashion: control the clock, run the ball, and play solid defense.

Although Rutgers put up 61 points against Temple and 45 against Delaware, this season’s calling card for the Scarlet Knights has been their defense. They are allowing 13.5 points per game and giving up just under 263 total yards per – good for seventh and 11th in the country, respectively.

It has been a collective effort by the defense, but linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi is their heart and soul. The fifth-year senior from Far Rockaway, NY will have Ohio State ball carriers in his crosshairs and is this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.

The two-time captain and 2020 All-Big Ten performer (101 tackles in only nine games) is a candidate for multiple national awards this season, and has already earned a Bernarik National Player of the Week nod for his Week 1 performance. Against Temple, he was credited with 9 tackles, 4 of those being for loss, 3 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. It was a dominant performance worthy of being named POTW. He is also coming off back-to-back 85+ tackle seasons and well on his way to the century mark in 2021. That sound you hear is Ohio State fans gently weeping…

While Fatukasi doesn’t fly sideline to sideline with 4.4 jets like Will Anderson of Alabama, he does possess more-than-adequate speed. He isn’t asked to rush the passer very often, but has done so more in recent years and already has 3.5 sacks this season. On top of being a well-rounded tacking machine, he diagnoses plays very well and closes ground quickly. His football IQ and improving skill set could have landed him a spot in the 2021 NFL draft after he led the Big Ten in tackles, but he chose to return for another season. Schiano went as far as to identify him as the “biggest recruit” Rutgers landed during the offseason.

At 6’-foot-2, 240, Fatukasi will inflict some pain if he squares a ball carrier up, and from what I’ve seen, he doesn’t miss very often. He is very decisive, and takes solid angles to the ball. Clips from his game against TTUN last year are all over the place, as Joe Milton (and Cade McNamara to an extent) tried and failed to put Fatukasi in a blender throughout the game.

Admittedly, I do not watch a lot of Rutgers and/or TTUN football, but I was in a dark football place and watched a lot of that game last November. Milton in particular — who is now a former Wolverine — is a load to bring down at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and the Rutgers linebacker more than held his own. He was credited with two sacks in that game, accounting for most of his season total.

Don’t let Fatukasi’s sack total deceive you though. He was not asked to rush the quarterback often under Ash, because his presence in the middle of the field was vital to the team’s success (eh, well, hopes for success).

However, under Schiano, he is being asked to do so with more regularity. After producing 0.5 sacks in 12 games as a true junior in 2019, the linebacker has accumulated 6.5 sacks in 13 games since — including 3.5 this season. Because the Buckeyes have so many weapons on the field, not to mention a strong offensive line, Fatukasi may not blitz once on Saturday — but if he does, he has at least shown an ability to get home.

Without a doubt, if Fatukasi threw on an Ohio State jersey, he would be the best linebacker on the team. His combination of leadership, experience, and skill is something that Buckeye fans would love to have, given the struggles of their own unit. He is likely a shoe-in for Big Ten honors and could make a run at national recognition as well. Fatukasi is currently on the Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, and Nagurski Trophy watch lists, and it would not be a surprise if he enters the All-American conversation.

Early NFL mock drafts have him going in the later rounds, with his age likely being a factor. As a fifth-year senior, there is legitimate concern that he has reached his ceiling. That being said, most NFL teams could use a plug-and-play linebacker or special teams player, so I bet we see him playing on Sundays sooner rather than later.

Schiano counts on Fatukasi as if he were a coach on the field, and the Buckeyes should expect him to be a menace all game. He will be in the right spots, fly to the ball, and provide sure tackling when he arrives.

For that reason, I think that we see a lot of running plays off-tackle or on the boundary, in order to make Fatukasi chase. In the passing game, he won’t be matched up against Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson, but any and all Buckeye pass catchers should be aware of him if they come across the middle.

Rutgers has taken advantage of some weaker opponents thus far, but Fatukasi doesn’t need inferior competition to stand out. He will be a presence that Ohio State absolutely has to deal with on Saturday.