No. 90: Rutgers
By Paul Myerberg // Jun 1, 2011
Rutgers was able to scale the mountaintop, but the program spent precious little time near its summit. I count mere weeks at the forefront of college football: that the Scarlet Knights got there at all is a testament to the jaw-dropping rebuilding job done by Greg Schiano, but it made last year’s slide – and an unimpressive nine-win 2009, if there is such a thing – painful for a fan base dreaming of planting their flag alongside the nation’s elite. That Rutgers has been lapped by several Big East foes – Connecticut went to the B.C.S. before the Scarlet Knights – stings worse, and even raises a once-unthinkable question: Is Greg Schiano just a builder, or can he get Rutgers to the next level?
New Brunswick, N.J.
15 (10 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 21
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
Army (at Yankee Stadium)
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
Road tilts against four of the best teams the Big East has to offer will prevent this team from taking the conference. I’m willing to go a little further: I think the Scarlet Knights are one year away from competing for a conference title. Not to say Rutgers is going to struggle, not to say this will be a rebuilding year; with this schedule, roughly seven wins is in the cards, as noted. Yet other Big East programs have fewer concerns. Without question, the Scarlet Knights are built for the long-term. The offense remains young. The offensive line may need to round into form in 2010, but all the meaningful pieces will return in 2011. The defense is very talented — Schiano continues to stockpile talent on this side of the ball — but I’m somewhat worried about how the new contributors will fare in the defensive backfield. Rutgers fans will take umbrage with No. 53 ranking, I’m sure. By my standards — and with this schedule — a seven-win regular season is deserving of this spot.
In a nutshell A hideous season. An unexpectedly hideous season. Rutgers won all of four games, though three came against some pretty good competition: Florida International, Connecticut and Army. But let’s be honest: Rutgers is at the point where it should always, always beat an F.I.U. or Army, where both are improved or not, and the Scarlet Knights weren’t too impressive in either victory. For example, a home loss to Tulane was far, far less impressive than those two wins were impressive: the Green Wave put the clamps down on the Rutgers’ offense, something if failed to do against the rest of their schedule, minus UTEP. It wasn’t just the offense that came up short for the Scarlet Knights; the defense was weak, continuing a trend towards second-tier status that began in 2007, a year after Rutgers broke through during an 11-2 season. It’s because of that season that the question marks surrounding this program are so magnified.
High point A 27-24 home win over Connecticut on Oct. 8. It was a nationally televised affair, one that pushed the Scarlet Knights to 3-2 and erased the foul taste of that loss to Tulane the previous Saturday. You could say at that point that Rutgers might have merely been looking ahead to the Huskies, but the rest of Big East play proved otherwise: Rutgers just wasn’t good.
Low point Six straight losses to end the year, all in conference play. One, South Florida, came by a single point; another, Syracuse, came by a field goal. Then there was Cincinnati, which came by 31 points – the Bearcats scored 69 points, for goodness’ sake. Over the final three weeks, Rutgers was outscored by Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia by a combined score of 144-65.
Tidbit Updating an old standby. Prior to last season, it seemed Schiano was on the verge of pushing his career winning percentage at Rutgers above the .500 mark. Unfortunately, the 4-8 finish dropped him to 59-63, leaving him needing a repeat of 2009′s 9-4 mark to get above .500. While the first four Rutgers coaches of the modern era — since 1936 — compiled winning records with the program, Schiano would be the first coach since the underrated Frank Burns (78-43-1 from 1973-83) to post a non-losing record with the Scarlet Knights. The trio of Dick Anderson (1984-89), Doug Graber (1990-95) and Terry Shea (1996-2000) posted records of 28-33-4, 29-36-1 and 12-43, respectively.
Tidbit (A.P.R. edition) Rutgers really slid down the N.C.A.A.’s Academic Progress Rankings… from first to second. Nationally. When it comes to just the Big East football rankings, it’s Rutgers coming in first with a bullet, and the rest far enough behind as to not even merit being mentioned in the same sentence. Say what you want about the football team, but Rutgers absolutely does a better job than 99 percent of the programs in the country when it comes to the academic side of being a student-athlete. If you can’t respect that just a little bit then your priorities are in the wrong place.
Former players in the N.F.L.
23 LB Gary Brackett (Indianapolis), WR Kenny Britt (Tennessee), TE Kevin Brock (Oakland), FB Ryan D’Imperio (Minnesota), OT Anthony Davis (San Francisco), DT Eric Foster (Indianapolis), DT Gary Gibson (St. Louis), S Courtney Greene (Jacksonville), TE Clark Harris (Cincinnati), OT Kevin Haslam (Jacksonville), DE George Johnson (Tampa Bay), CB Nate Jones (Denver), RB Brian Leonard (Cincinnati), LB Kevin Malast (Tennessee), CB Jason McCourty (Tennessee), CB Devin McCourty (New England), LS Ryan Neill (San Diego), C Shaun O’Hara (New York Giants), CB Joe Porter (Oakland), RB Ray Rice (Baltimore), WR Tiquan Underwood (Jacksonville), LB Jamal Westerman (New York Jets), OG Jeremy Zuttah (Tampa Bay).
Arbitrary top five list
Writers with a degree from Rutgers, with notable work
1. Robert Pinsky, “The Figured Wheel.”
2. Michael Shaara, “The Killer Angels.”
3. Junot Diaz, “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”
4. Joyce Kilmer, “Trees and Other Poems.”
5. James Blish, “A Case of Conscience.”
Greg Schiano (Bucknell ‘88), 59-63 after a decade with the Scarlet Knights. So, so close to breaking past the .500 mark; 55-55 heading into last fall, he has some work to do. If there is only one thing you need to know about what Schiano has done at Rutgers, it is this: prior to his arrival, the Scarlet Knights played in only one bowl game in 131 years of football. Though Schiano struggled early on in attempting to reverse the program’s losing culture, he rebounded from a 3-20 mark from 2001-2 to post 36 wins from 2006-9. Though Rutgers finished with a winning season – and bowl trip, the Insight Bowl vs. Arizona State – in 2005, the effort Schiano put into this rebuilding project paid off in a big way in 2006, when the Scarlet Knights were the feel-good story of the year in an 11-2, nationally-ranked finish. That fall earned Schiano well-deserved accolades as the Big East and National Coach of the Year. Prior to taking the Rutgers job, Schiano served as an apprentice both on the college (Miami from 1999-2000, Penn State 1990-95) and pro levels (Bears 1996-98). Part of the initial draw for Rutgers was his recruiting familiarity with the Miami region, an area that the Scarlet Knights have mined effectively under his watch while continuing to jostle with some of the region’s more established powers for premier recruits. The job he has done with Rutgers is nothing short of incredible, even with last season taken into account. Still, Schiano needs to return to his winning ways to reclaim some of his lost luster.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Count Rutgers among the schools who really benefited from Pittsburgh’s coaching change. Three former Dave Wannstedt assistants have joined the fold: Frank Cignetti as offensive coordinator, Brian Angelichio as tight ends coach and Jeff Hafley as the secondary coach — the same positions each held with the Panthers. The most notable addition is Cignetti, who becomes Rutgers’ third coordinator in as many years. His addition also spells a wholesale commitment to a pro-style offense, with an emphasis on a strong running game. Music to some fans’ ears, I know.
Players to watch
So let’s just go down the line, checking off what Mohamed Sanu can do. Pass? He hit on six of his nine attempts last fall for 160 yards and 3 scores. Run? He rushed for 309 yards while tying for the team lead with four touchdowns, leading the team at 5.2 yards per carry. Catch? His totals were down a bit in 2010, but he still managed 44 grabs for 418 yards; it was 51 for 639 in 2009. Punt? Oh, he will: Sanu is very much in line to be Rutgers’ punter come the fall should freshman Anthony DiPaula not prove up to the task. What can Sanu do for you? Whatever you want, and do it well. While question marks exist on offense, Sanu is certainly not one of them.
Neither is his receiving cohort Mark Harrison, a junior who burst onto the scene with a team-best 829 yards receiving and 8 scores a year ago. Truly out of nowhere: Harrison was lightly-used as a freshman, contributing only five grabs, so his ascension was one of the positive stories to issue out of Rutgers’ camp last fall. If you didn’t know who Harrison was before Cincinnati, you knew afterwards: 10 receptions, 240 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns. Tim Wright provides depth, as does Brandon Coleman, a youngster who flashed loads of potential during the spring. Depth here is good enough where Rutgers moved several players elsewhere on offense. There is absolutely no problem at all at receiver. D.C. Jefferson is a tight end who could flourish in Cignetti’s pro-style attack.
One of those converted receivers, Jeremy Deering, might very well end up being the team’s lead back. He’s currently entangled in a competition with Jawan Jamison and De’Antwan Williams. Only Williams has logged action in the backfield, rushing for 111 yards a year ago, but Deering has proved himself in the passing game. Clearly, Schiano and Cignetti think well enough about this threesome to feel comfortable moving starter Joe Martinek to fullback, where he’ll likely do much of the same duties Henry Hynoski did for Pittsburgh over the last two years.
Confession time. I wrote the following about Tom Savage last summer — I’m not proud of it, but this site is all about transparency and accountability, so here goes:
There’s plenty of national love for Andrew Luck, the rising sophomore quarterback at Stanford, and rightfully so: he was superb a year ago. What about Tom Savage, you might ask? I have him right alongside Luck as the best young quarterback in the country; even more so than Luck, Savage is a program-defining quarterback, one capable of lifting Rutgers to even greater heights.
I stand so, so corrected. The since-departed starter lasted all of three games before being replaced by sophomore Chas Dodd; the future now belongs to Dodd, not Savage, which is quite a one-year change. This team belongs to Dodd, for better or worse, and the youngster needs to be ready to carry that load on his shoulders. We heard in the fall that Dodd was impressing the staff, but little did we know that he’d take over so quickly. Is he ready? To be honest, I really don’t know. I do know that he’d better be, as the job is his and his alone, and if Rutgers is at all uncomfortable with that thought, Schiano should look at what’s behind him on the depth chart: nothing.
We saw a very pedestrian defense from Rutgers last fall. It was the worst of the new-look Rutgers, if we define that period as beginning with the first bowl trip under Schiano in 2005. One of the major issues? Getting to the quarterback: only 17 sacks all year, least in the Big East and a precipitous slide for a defense that over the previous four years had been defined by its ferocious pass rush. Looking for a cure for what ails you? Get to the quarterback.
Perhaps moving linebacker Manny Abreu (48 tackles, 5 for loss) down to end is a good start. One drawback from such a move is that Abreu might be too slight to stand up against the run, but if I’m Rutgers, I’m worrying less about that potential negative and more about the potential bonus Abreu lends to the pass rush. He’ll team with Justin Francis (21 tackles, 2 sacks). Scott Vallone (44 tackles, 6.5 for loss) is an all-conference caliber performer along the interior, but Rutgers needs to find a second solid starter to take some pressure off the junior. Michael Larrow, come on down.
The question at linebacker comes in the middle. The Scarlet Knights know what they’re going to get on the strong side with multiple-year starter Steve Beauharnais (79 tackles), who’s a better fit there than in the middle, where he spent 2009. And they hope that converted safety Khaseem Greene takes to the weak side. He should, I’d think, and has the athleticism needed to make plays in space. You wonder about how he’ll fare against pulling guards and the like, but I like the position change. The question at middle linebacker isn’t about who will start; all signs point to that job going to Ka’Lial Glaud. The question is whether Glaud can get it done.
As at receiver, there’s depth in the secondary. The difference is that the receiver corps returned largely intact, minus position moves, while three starters must be replaced in this defensive backfield. The lone returning starter is free safety David Rowe (38 tackles), and the race is on to supplant Joe Lefeged, his running mate. The job belongs to Duron Harmon as we head into the summer, and it’s hard to argue with that choice: Harmon made a start last fall, and even when a reserve was a key part of the rotation.
I like the fact that Schiano and his staff didn’t name two starting cornerbacks following the spring; the ongoing competition will draw the best out of all four primary applicants. And that’s a good thing, as I’m sure all four will factor heavily into this pass defense. Logan Ryan’s move into the starting lineup has been assumed for a year or two, so he’s probably the one player out of this quartet you can lock into a starting role. One of the nicest surprises during the spring was how quickly former receiver Mason Robinson took to his new role. He could make an impact at cornerback.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Rutgers allowed 61 sacks last fall, which is a crazy amount. As in hard to believe, especially given the fact that even had those sacks ended being passes instead, the Scarlet Knights would not have ranked in the top 50 nationally in attempts. Was the poor play due to several fresh faces thrust into starting roles? Yes, at least partly, but the scheme and the rookie quarterback also factor into the shockingly poor level of pass protection. So having four starters return in 2011 helps, though Rutgers really needs to do three things: identify starters; identify roles; locate depth. The first two go hand-in-hand. The most interesting occurrence up front during the spring was Desmond Stapleton’s from left to right tackle, away from the key role on Dodd’s blind side. That move allowed Rutgers to move former defensive lineman Andre Civil to left tackle, where he started one game last fall, with hopes that his athleticism serves him well at that all-important spot. Depth is fine at guard, where Desmond Wynn and Antway Lowery will start, Art Forsch and Benim Bujari backup, but the whole line could topple like dominoes should center David Osei go down to injury. That might force a guard to move inside, a reserve to step up and so on, and Rutgers can’t afford to put forth anything less than its five best linemen on a weekly basis. The line will be better, but these big boys couldn’t be any worse than they were a year ago.
Game(s) to watch
Four tough non-conference games, with N.C. Central the only clear win. Army should be a win, but the Cadets did take the Scarlet Knights to overtime last fall. Then there are four Big East road games, so Rutgers had better beat teams like U.S.F. and Cincinnati at home. Especially Cincinnati.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Here’s the logic of putting Rutgers at this spot: I think the Scarlet Knights are at the bottom of the Big East; I think the roster is dangerously thin at several key spots; and I think this non-conference schedule is tougher than it has been in years, far tougher than it was a season ago. The latter pairing is a dangerous confluence of events, one that might, should injuries not go Rutgers’ way, cause this team to take continue its slide down the conference standings. Now, I’m not saying that the Scarlet Knights aren’t talented. Nor am I suggesting that Schiano doesn’t remain the man for the job; I think Rutgers would rue the day it let him loose, if it comes to that. But while the potential is there for a better finish — perhaps as much as seven wins — an objective observer can’t sit here today and look at Rutgers and make that prediction. To say it’s safer to put the Scarlet Knights here would suggest a fear of being wrong, and we know that’s not the case in this space. It’s merely that there are too many question marks that need to be addressed. Strangely, there are places with so much depth — wide receiver and the secondary — that you wish Rutgers could move some guys around; it’s an impossibility, as wide receivers can’t play along the offensive line, but perhaps it says something about how Schiano has recruited well at some spots and not well at others. That’s another story for another day. For today, it looks like Rutgers has to prove itself all over again. Who knows? Schiano’s guys always played their best when overlooked and underestimated, so perhaps being discounted is all the Scarlet Knights need to return to their 2006-9 form.
Dream season With this non-conference schedule, a 9-3 finish would mark one of Schiano’s best coaching jobs.
Nightmare season Thanks in part to this non-conference schedule, Rutgers finishes 3-9, 1-6 in the Big East.
In case you were wondering
Where do Rutgers fans congregate? There’s plenty of coverage to be found at Scarlet Scuttlebutt, Keith Sargeant’s blog for the Home News Tribune, a central New Jersey paper. The best Rutgers blog is undoubtedly On the Banks; its mission statement — “Insomnia for the sleeping giant” — deserves our applause, as does its strong coverage of all university athletics, including men’s lacrosse. For recruiting coverage combined with healthy message board chatter, check out Scarlet Nation, Scarlet Report and State of Rutgers.
Through 31 teams 82,370.
Who is No. 89? The men’s and women’s basketball teams at tomorrow’s university combined to win as many games during this past season as the football program has won since Sept. 30, 1989.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Big East, Chas Dodd, Desmond Stapleton, Frank Cignetti, Greg Schiano, Manny Abreu, Mark Harrison, Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers, Tom Savage
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