KINGSTON, R.I. – One of the encouraging signs for the Rhode Island defense thus far in camp has been the daily presence of junior linebacker Justin Hogan.
Though he technically played in six games last season, Hogan truly contributed in just four games last season. He was knocked out of the game at Harvard early with an injury. A week later, he was essentially lost for the season when he was hurt again at Villanova, though he did return for a handful of snaps in the season finale against Towson.
In the four games Hogan saw significant action, he recorded 35 tackles and one interception. He opened the season with 23 tackles in the first two games, recording a career-best 17 stops against Albany. This was on the heels of back-to-back 12-tackle performances in the final two games of his freshman season in 2015.
Hogan provides a high-impact presence in the middle of the defense.
"It feels great to be back," said Hogan, who has lined up with the first defense every day in camp. "At first it was a little frustrating mentally trying to get back in the groove of things. I feel like I am getting back mentally and physically to where I was, so that is exciting."
It hasn't always been easy. Hogan had never dealt with any significant injuries in his career before last season, so he was not used to being on the sidelines.
"On the field, you are always in the moment," Hogan said. "I wouldn't say it's good when you can't be out there, because you always want to be playing and available. But having to watch the game gave me a different view. I was seeing things from outside the helmet that helped me understand the game a little better. It was frustrating, but I worked to make that time as productive as possible."
Working closely with linebackers coach Troy Gilmer, Hogan studied the game and kept himself as prepared as possible. Gilmer has been with the program for four years, spending three seasons as a defensive assistant before being promoted to linebackers coach in the offseason.
"We love Coach Gilmer," Hogan said. "He's been here since we all got here, so it's not as if some new guy just got here and we have to learn what he's about. We know what type of guy he is, and we know what type of coaching he gives us."
For the most part, Hogan has been flanked by senior Ezra Holmes and fifth-year senior Khilyni Kennedy. Junior college transfer Miles Gardea has also mixed in with the first group. Former safeties Shawn Antoine II and Nas Jones add experience to the middle level of the defense.
"The linebackers feel strong. Ezra and Khilyni have plenty of the experience, and the transfer, Miles Gardea, is a pretty good player as well," Hogan said. "What helps us too is knowing that behind us we have two really good safeties in D.J. Stewart and Myles Ross. Their presence makes us as linebackers feel more comfortable."
For much of camp, the Rams have had their first unit intact, giving a sense of continuity for the defense.
"Everyone is clicking more as a unit this year. The experience that a lot of guys gained last year is carrying over to this season," Hogan said. "Coach (Jim) Fleming always stresses to us, 'Know your personnel.' Because we have so many guys back and we've been able to get a lot of work in together, we know who is out there for us. That's important for any defense."