Team preview: Rutgers
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
In the grand scheme of the college football universe, playing Arizona State in the Insight Bowl is hardly reason for any kind of extraordinary mention. Face it, when just about half of the I-A teams are participating in some sort of postseason "classic" or another, a late-December berth against a disappointing Pac-10 team doesn't stand out.
Unless you're Rutgers, and you haven't played beyond the regular season in 27 years -- and then only in the ill-fated, short-lived Garden State Bowl, not exactly the Granddaddy of Them All.
It's a good thing Greg Schiano spent a good chunk of his career coaching at Miami, or he might be carried away by the accomplishment and start thinking Rutgers is poised to become a regular BCS qualifier and a top-10 team. Thanks to his time with a real powerhouse down in Coral Gables, Schiano understands what seven wins and a minor bowl invite actually represent. So, he'll continue to keep the program moving forward while maintaining the proper perspective in terms of Rutgers' relative status within the I-A hierarchy.
"It's a little taste of what things can be like around here," he said. "The players like it."
Of course they do. Rutgers had won a total of 15 games the previous five years before the '05 breakthrough. When lists were made of coaches most likely to be led to the guillotine after One More Bad Year, Schiano trailed closely behind Kentucky's Rich Brooks. After arriving to huzzahs and making positive proclamations about what the program could be, Schiano fell short of the mark, more a representation of the program's lowly status, historical ineptitude and poor base of talent than any sideline shortcomings of the confident coach.
Give Rutgers athletic director Robert Mulcahy credit for sticking with Schiano for a fifth season, after a combined 12-34 record his first four campaigns.
And don't forget to slap Schiano on the back for persevering, long after most everyone stopped thinking he could get it done. Rutgers football was Rutgers football, no matter how much internal enthusiasm was mustered or how many cool commercials featuring James Gandolfini were produced.
"I didn't pay attention to any of [the talk of being fired]," Schiano said. "I couldn't do any more than I was doing. I've been fired before, and I've been hired before. If I wasn't doing everything I could, then I would have been worried. But if I kept pounding away, I knew it would pay off."
It did, handsomely. Given its recent history, seven wins and a bowl berth are to Rutgers what an undefeated season and national championship are to many schools. That's how low the Scarlet Knights were. They were national punch-lines, disrespected in their own state and considered eternal victims of mightier programs. What Schiano did was create a base of talent that grew each year and surround it with the resources necessary to let it thrive.
Again, 2005 wasn't a major breakthrough in terms of the Big Boys, but it was a resounding statement that Rutgers has a chance to be something. As such, Schiano admits that "the next couple years are crucial for the program."
He's right. If Rutgers follows up '05 with another seven wins and a postseason berth, then Schiano can claim momentum. If it happens again in '07 and '08, he can pronounce sustained success. Pretty soon, all those Jersey kids who have been looking at other places won't have to do anything more than sign with the home team.
"We have built what we've built so far with a vision that has been expressed clearly," Schiano said. "The school and other people have been willing to stand behind the program. This is the first time we have a chance at sustained success in a while. The first four years, we didn't end up in a bowl game, and last year was critical. We had to show the people who put a stake in this in the program that we could win.
"Now that we've had a little success, here comes the hard part."
Schiano isn't afraid of the hard work. He signed a seven-year deal after '05 to keep it going. And though no one knows whether he'll fly away should an attractive offer present itself in the wake of further success, he seems sincere about building something to last, rather than bolstering his resume and then stepping out. That allows him to sell the remaining players on the need to work even harder, all the while pitching recruits on the vision of future prosperity.
And for the first time in a while, the prospects are listening. The good prospects. New Jersey has plenty of them, but they usually go somewhere else. Imagine how happy Schiano would be if Myron Rolle traveled a half-hour from The Hun School to Rutgers, rather than choosing Florida State. That dream may be a while off, but progress is being made.
"By the time the ['05] season and the bowl game were over, a lot of the ['06] recruiting was in place," Schiano said. "But we were able to hang in there with some kids and actually sign them. In the past, we would hang in there because of our relationships with them, and they would sign somewhere else."
Both the short- and long-run forecasts for Rutgers look pretty bright. This year's team will feature a dynamic ground game and more speed than the program has ever had. And because 58 of the 85 scholarship players this season have three or four years of eligibility remaining, there is reason to believe success is possible down the line, too. But Schiano is cautious not to celebrate '05 too much.
"One year does not a program make," he says. "But players are saying, 'Hmmmm.' They're not saying, 'Hmmm, they're just selling a vision. They've accomplished something.'"
And they want more.
If sophomore Mike Teel (6-4, 220) did indeed learn a little something this spring about the value of not trying to force throws into impossible situations, then he has taken a necessary step forward in his development. Last year's 10 percent interception rate is no way for a quarterback to behave. Teel's ability to take care of the ball will go a long way toward his growth into a full-time starting quarterback.
In '05, he attempted 101 passes in nine games of work behind Ryan Hart, completing 51 and throwing two touchdown passes to go with his 10 picks. Teel started three times, with the high-water mark a 203-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 31-19 win over Syracuse. He's big and strong, has a good pedigree (two-time all-state pick) and can make all the throws. Now, he must become a reliable quarterback who can manage an offense and lead productive drives. "I thought he had a good spring," Schiano said. "The biggest thing he did was learn when to let plays go and throw it away. But he has tremendous ability."
The Scarlet Knights are in an interesting situation with Teel's backup, redshirt freshman Jabulani Lovelace (6-2, 200). He's far more mobile than Teel and capable of different things within the offense.
"He's a more athletic guy who can work the gun-run game," Schiano said, referring to the shotgun, running attack favored by Texas last year. "We won't have to change much if he plays, just call a few different plays."
Redshirt freshman Andrew DePaola (6-2, 190), who was an accurate quarterback at Hereford (Md.) High School, finished the spring running third. Freshman Tom Lang (6-3, 205), who threw for 2,558 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior at Middlesex (Mass.) School, will likely redshirt.
If you're going to get excited about Rutgers football, this is the logical place to start. The Scarlet Knights averaged 162.2 yards on the ground per game last year, managed 4.4 yards per carry, scored 16 touchdowns and unveiled a two-headed thunder-and-lightning attack that was among the best in the nation. Fullback Brian Leonard's decision to return for his senior season, rather than join the NFL, was a big moment for Schiano, who applauds Leonard's commitment to the program and ability to work with sophomore tailback Ray Rice (5-9, 195), whose emergence last year took away some of Leonard's carries.
"I am very, very happy with the talent we have at running back," Schiano said. "And we've got a kid coming in [Kordell Young] who is very, very talented."
Leonard (6-2, 235) gained 740 yards last year ands scored 11 times. He also led the Knights with 55 receptions and hit the end zone on six occasions as a receiver. Leonard is a selfless player whose blocking helped Rice excel, and he has the potential to be a valuable part of an NFL offense. First, he'll be a main cog in the RU attack.
"If anybody had a question about his commitment to the program, he answered it by not going out," Schiano said. "His coming back was huge for us. Having the top player on our football team coming back says we have a chance to do special things."
Leonard rushed for more than 100 yards twice last year and finished the season with 144 all-purpose yards against Arizona State, including 98 in the passing game, a career high.
Rice was a heralded recruit last year, but nobody could have forecasted the kind of debut he had. Rice finished fourth in the Big East with 1,120 yards, scored five times and averaged a huge 5.7 yards per carry. He tormented Connecticut with 217 yards, put up 195 on Cincinnati, 158 against USF and 115 versus Pitt. Rice has great speed, the ability to break tackles and a growing understanding of the game.
"He had a great spring," Schiano said. "We certainly pushed him to be an even better back. He's a mature guy who has good balance and vision. He has great patience for a guy that young. He doesn't just jam it up in there. He waits for breaks. I think he's a special back."
Young (5-9, 185) has the same potential. He was rated the seventh-best all-purpose back in the nation by Rivals.com after averaging a jaw-dropping 10.8 yards per carry for his career at Westville (N.J.) High School. Young gained 1,898 yards last year. He has blazing speed and the ability to shine in the return game. Young may not get the chance to show everything this season, but he has tremendous potential.
Sophomore Dimitri Linton (5-9, 195), who missed all of last year with an injury, should get some carries at halfback, as well. Leonard will be backed up by junior Jean Beljour (6-0, 218), a special-teams regular last season.
If Teel is to mature into a strong starter, he's going to need some help from a receiving corps that loses top producer Tres Moses (45 catches, five TDs). Schiano is confident there is talent there that will translate into production.
First up is senior Shawn Tucker (6-2, 200), who rebounded well from an injury-plagued 2004 season by catching 32 passes. Schiano is hoping Tucker more resembles the player who caught 50 balls in '03. No matter which receiver shows up, Tucker needs to find the end zone more; he scored just once last year and two times in 2003. "He's a proven guy," Schiano said.
The other starter is likely to be senior Willie Foster (5-10, 170), who caught just eight passes last season but averaged an impressive 16.1 yards per reception. He was the Special Teams Player of the Year in the Big East after scoring twice on returns and averaging 24.5 yards per kick return and 10.9 bringing back punts. He has speed, and now he must translate that into consistency catching passes.
The two most likely understudies are sophomore Tiquan Underwood (6-2, 175) and senior Marcus Daniels (6-2, 200), who caught five passes in '05 and scored once. Redshirt freshman Dennis Campbell (5-9, 185), a fast, athletic performer, will also get a shot.
Nobody in that receiving corps should feel too comfortable, because the Knights welcome four freshmen who could shake things up. Kenny Britt (6-4, 205) was rated the 22nd best receiver in the country by Rivals.com at Bayonne (N.J.) High School, while Shamar Graves (6-3, 200) was 34th best, according to Rivals.com, at Woodbridge (N.J.) High School. Tim Brown (5-8, 150) is a blazer from Miami's Northwestern High School. Rounding out the crop is Julian Hayes (6-1, 205), who was an option quarterback last year but has great athletic potential.
The tight end spot is set with the return of senior Clark Harris (6-6, 255). Harris caught 38 passes and scored four times last year. He averaged 15.4 yards per reception, huge for a tight end. He ought to be a good security blanket for Teel. He'll be backed up by senior Sam Johnson (6-3, 250), who caught nine passes last year and scored three times.
Even though Rutgers loses two starters, including stalwart guard John Glass Jr., the line has the makings of a cohesive, powerful group. The tackles are in tact and will be called upon to excel, after coming to Rutgers with good pedigrees. Pedro Sosa (6-5, 300) and Jeremy Zuttah (6-4, 290) are both juniors who started last year.
"They were big recruits, and now they're juniors," Schiano said. "They're at the point where they can be among the best in the league." Their backups will be young. Redshirt freshman Kevin Haslam (6-7, 290) and sophomore Carl Howard (6-4, 300) have potential. Howard missed most of last year with a foot injury after making the switch from the defensive line.
The middle belongs to senior Darnell Stapleton (6-3, 305), whom Schiano expects to have a big year. The former junior college honorable mention All-American started all 12 games last year and should be a stalwart.
"He is really coming on," Schiano said.
He'll be backed up by redshirt freshman Dave McClain (6-4, 290).
Junior Mike Fladell (6-8, 318) is huge for a guard, but Schiano thinks he has the potential to be "pretty good."
Fladell made three starts last year on the left side and should be a fixture there this season. He'll be spelled by sophomore Corey Hyman (6-4, 290), who was stalled by injuries last year.
The other guard spot belongs to senior Cameron Stephenson (6-5, 305), who was a defensive tackle last year but has made a tremendous transition to the other side of the ball.
"He had a great spring and is an explosive guy," Schiano said.
His primary backup will be sophomore Mike Gilmartin (6-6, 285) who started once last year.
There's nothing but good news here, thanks to the return of junior Jeremy Ito (5-11, 180), who made 20-of-27 field goals last year, including 8-of-12 from 40 and beyond. Ito was also perfect on both of his tries from beyond 50.
"I think he's got to be one of the top five kickers in the country," Schiano said. "He's accurate and has a strong leg."
We'll see how strong this season, when he takes over kickoff chores.
The Scarlet Knights led the nation in sacks during the regular season and finished the year with 47. If they're going to repeat that performance, they must find a way to replace a pair of big producers in that area, Ryan Neill and Val Barnaby, each of whom had 10 sacks last year.
One person Schiano will be counting on heavily is junior tackle Eric Foster, who tore his ACL in the second game and missed the rest of the year. Before getting hurt, Foster had already made eight tackles, including 2.5 for loss. He didn't practice in the spring, but is expected back in August.
"If he returns healthy, it will be huge," Schiano said. "He's a dominant guy and so athletic. He came in here a linebacker, moved to end and kept going. He moved inside and showed how athletic he was."
The other tackle is senior Ramel Meekins (6-0, 280), who had nine sacks among his 15 tackles behind the line in '05. Like Foster, Meekins didn't practice in the spring (ankle), but he should be fine by summer camp.
Backing them up will be junior George Eshareturi (6-3, 284) and sophomore Chris Dirksz. Eshareturi is an Iowa transfer who played in five games two years ago for the Hawkeyes, while Dirksz is a hard worker who played twice last year.
This summer, junior college newcomer Eric Wilson (6-2, 300) inserts himself into the mix. He has good strength and the ability to get into the backfield.
One end spot belongs to sophomore Jamaal Westerman (6-3, 252), who made 28 tackles, including 6.5 behind the line, last year. He has the potential to be dominant down the line, thanks to a good size/speed combination. Speaking of speed, senior William Beckford (6-1, 222) has plenty of it. He just needs to stay clear of the injuries (knee, ankle) that have plagued him during his career and continue his acclimation to the end spot, to which he moved before the last game of '05.
Depth on the outside comes from sophomores Pete Tverdov (6-4, 235) and Gary Watts (6-3, 240), both of whom have the quickness necessary to get off the edge in a hurry. Sophomore Chenry Lewis (6-3, 235), who made 35 tackles last year as an outside linebacker, has been moved to end.
"He's super athletic," Schiano said.
All three had better be ready for a fight from incoming freshman Markus White (6-4, 235), who is quick and athletic, and redshirt freshman Jonathan Pierre-Etienne (6-3, 260), who sat out last year rehabbing an injury, who is strong and fast.
Schiano is happy with this contingent, but that doesn't mean he isn't trying to upgrade.
"We signed seven linebackers this year," Schiano said. "It's going to be a young, young group."
It's not comprised completely of youngsters; a pair of seniors anchor the unit. Last season Devraun Thompson (5-11, 220) was second on the team in tackles with 97, had eight stops behind line and intercepted four passes. He's a stalwart in the middle.
Quintero Frierson (6-1, 235) had 46 stops last year from the outside. He started six of the last seven games and established himself as someone who could get into opposing backfields.
Those two spots are set. With Lewis' move to the end position, it looks like junior Brandon Renkart (6-3, 225) will handle the other outside spot. He's a former safety and special teams standout who must prove himself quickly.
Expect to see sophomore Kevin Malast (6-2, 220) backing up Thompson, while another sophomore, Chris Quaye (6-0, 230) is a reserve outside man who saw time on special teams last year.
Then there are those freshmen. Among the more heralded are middle man Sorie Bayoh (6-2, 225), who made 102 tackles last year at Gulliver Prep in Miami, inside linebacker Ryan D'Imperio (6-2, 230), whose play at Washington Township (N.J.) High School earned him Rivals.com's 28th spot among those at his position, and swift Antonio Lowery (6-1, 210), from Miami's Christopher Columbus High School. He was rated the 28th best outside linebacker in the country by Scouts Inc.
The Scarlet Knights were able to pile up the sacks last year, but they intercepted only six enemy passes. While Schiano says that statistic is misleading, because many picks occur when harried quarterbacks make bad decisions, and Rutgers was sacking a lot of those harried quarterbacks, the fact remains that six is not enough.
In pursuit of that goal, RU has an experienced group of defensive backs, beginning with safeties Ron Girault (5-11, 195), a junior, and sophomore Courtney Greene (6-1, 180). Greene was a freshman All-American last year after leading the team with 116 tackles from his strong side position, while Girault is a steady two-year starter.
There is plenty of depth, with sophomores Robert Baham (6-0, 195) and Glen Lee (6-2, 195) the top candidates for work. Lee made 18 tackles as a true freshman last year, while Baham hopes to be clear of a hip injury that has sidelined him two straight years. Schiano wants to see senior corner Joe Porter (6-0, 200) rebound from a sub par '05 campaign.
"He had a real good sophomore year, but he didn't perform well last year," Schiano said. "He lost his starting spot, but recommitted himself. He's a tremendous athlete who won the 200 meters in the ['06] Big East meet. He has refocused himself, and he needs to play well for us, because he's a six-foot corner who can fly."
The other corner spot should belong to senior Derrick Robertson (5-10, 180), who has gotten stronger and should be more physical at the line of scrimmage and capable of winning one-on-one battles. Expect to see senior Manny Collins (5-10, 180) and sophomore Leslie Jackman (5-11, 175) in the corner picture, along with sophomore Anthony Miller (6-0, 170), who left the team last year to deal with personal issues. He showed promise at the end of the '04 season and has good size for the position.
A couple of freshmen could squeeze their way into the rotation. Kevin Holloway (5-9, 175) is a fast cover man from Hollywood, Fla., and Zaire Kitchen (6-1, 215) established himself as a big hitter at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy.
Schiano certainly thinks senior Joe Radigan (6-5, 220) has the leg to be a big-time punter.
"He has a bomb for a leg," Schiano said.
As for consistency, well, that's another story. Radigan averaged a pedestrian 39.3 yards per punt last year, and while he did put 17 of his 60 boots inside opposing 20-yard lines, only eight were fair-caught. He must make use of that leg better and get the ball in the air longer.
Rutgers has good news and bad news here. Willie Foster is the good news. He averaged 10.9 yards and scored once bringing back punts and gained 24.5 yards each time he took in a kick and also scored once. That's about as good as it gets in the return game.
The coverage side wasn't so stellar. Opponents averaged 12.2 yards on punt returns (and scored once) and 23.8 taking back kicks. "We've been better here," Schiano said.
He also wants to see more kicks blocked. Rutgers blocked a punt against Louisville, but that was it for the year. Expect to see a pile of youngsters get the chance to earn time trying to improve coverage and kick-blocking in '06.
If you're looking for a team on the rise, this is it. Rutgers took a huge step last year, and while a similar jump is unlikely, don't be surprised if the Knights are playing in another bowl this year -- and next. Schiano and his staff have assembled a young, athletic team with plenty of options. If it comes together just right, Rutgers could win eight or nine.
A big key is the play of Teel. While it's good to have Lovelace in reserve, the Knights need Teel to be the kind of down-the-field passer that can open up things for Rice and Leonard. Of course, a lot of that depends on the receivers, but there are enough candidates to find three or four who can contribute. If that happens, Rice and Leonard could each gain a thousand yards.
The defense is young, maybe too young to be dominant yet. Up front, there is plenty of potential, but the reliance on so many young players at end and outside linebacker could lead to some breakdowns. The safeties are strong, but Porter has to improve at the one corner spot to provide an anchor.
Rutgers has gone from a laughingstock to a bowl participant, and that's great. But Schiano wants more. He has laid the foundation for success with his recruiting, and if he and his staff can put together the right combination on the field and support it with young, hungry reserves, Rutgers will be tough. By next season, it might just be competing for a league title.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).