SPRING PREVIEW –RECEIVING CORPS
This article is the seventh of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The first three segments previewed the defense. The next three looked at the offensive line, quarterbacks, and running backs. The last unit to address is the receiving corps. This preview is based upon information released only prior to the opening of spring camp. My thoughts likewise share the same perspective. The article reviews roster changes and injuries prior to spring camp. The article also identifies issues that need to be addressed in spring practice and can be observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages.
Rutgers has been a pass-oriented team during the previous seven seasons. The replacement of former OC Bill Cubit with Craig Ver Steeg likely will alter that philosophy. Ver Steeg has stated that he wants to build the offense around a power running game and a timing passing game. Rutgers fans are less likely to see 3WR and 4WR formations, which is a shrewd move given the lack of talent the Scarlet Knights can employ at WR. The three leading receivers have departed. There isn't a single senior on the receiving corps. No returning player has started more than six games. The receivers are now all Head Coach Greg Schiano's recruits – the first such position to bear that distinction. They will be competing for fewer positions, fewer snaps, and fewer throws. How will they adapt to the new offensive philosophy?
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep, comprising both pro sets and 2TE formations, include:
- TE LJ Smith (10 GS, 11 GP, 32 receptions for 384 yards, and 3 TDs)
- WR Aaron Martin (9 GS, 10 GP, 30 receptions for 284 yards, and 3 TDs)
- WR Josh Hobbs (12 GP and 27 receptions for 324 yards)
- TE Bryan Boehrer (1 GS, 11 GP, and 1 reception for 6 yards)
Sports writer Mike Lupica once said of former New York Met Daryl Strawberry, "Ever get the feeling that we'll still be talking about Daryl's potential when he is entering the Hall of Fame?" Well, the same could be said of LJ Smith. LJ Smith was academically ineligible as a freshman in 1998 and did not practice with the team. He made a tremendous splash in 1999, when he started 10 games, finished third in receptions (26) and receiving yardage (418), and led the team with 3 receiving TDs. As a pre-season 2nd team All-Big East selection in 2001, Smith started 10 games and was the featured receiver but finished only second in receptions (34) and third in receiving yardage (374) while is effort and commitment were repeatedly questioned. Smith rededicated himself with the arrival of Schiano. Former OC Bill Cubit rarely used Smith on seam routes to stretch the middle of the field, instead using Smith on horizontal crossing and curl routes. Opponents constantly double-teamed Smith and limited his offensive output. In 2001, Smith led the team in receptions (30) and receiving TDs (3) while finishing second in receiving yardage (282) yards. Smith regained his lost year of eligibility and returned for a fourth season in 2002. However, a nagging hamstring injury slowed Smith early in the season and an ankle injury slowed him midseason. Nonetheless, Smith led the team in receptions, receiving yardage, and receiving TDs. Smith never realized his tantalizing potential as he never received post-season All-Big East honors. Nonetheless, his consistent production will be missed on an offense that has lacked consistent producers.
Aaron Martin played in every game (2 starts) as a true freshman in 1999 and caught 8 passes for 112 yards. Martin was still a backup WR in 2000 and caught only 13 passes for 244 yards (fourth on the team). Martin earned a starting WR job in 2001 and led the team in receiving yardage (523) and TDs (3) while finishing second in receptions (25). As with Smith, a hamstring hobbled Martin early last season and Martin did not return to the starting lineup until Game 4. Martin again was a favorite target of the QB, regardless of who took the snaps. He finished first in receiving TDs, second in receptions, and third in receiving yardage. While Martin could dominate against weaker opposition, he was not a playmaker against Big East caliber competition. His replacement must perform better.
Josh Hobbs arrived as the least promising of a group of four freshmen WRs in 1999. Briefly switched to safety in summer camp in response to a rash of season-ending injuries, Hobbs returned to WR for the season but only saw action in 8 games and caught only 3 passes for 41 yards. Hobbs played in 10 games (starting at least 5) as the 3WR in 2000 and caught 17 passes for 235 yards. The head coaching change didn't appreciably change the offense – a 3WR scheme was still a primary feature. However, Hobbs lost his starting job at 3WR. As a backup WR, Hobbs barely contributed before injuring his knee late in the 2001 season. Hobbs wasn't expected to contribute much last season behind a slew of first and second year players. However, injuries thinned the ranks and Hobbs earned the first team 3WR job. Hobbs outplayed all the younger WRs who were supposed to render him surplus. As with Martin, Hobbs replacement must perform better.
Bryan Boehrer transferred to Rutgers from junior college and joined the program in July 2001. A JUCO TE, Boehrer earned the starting C job and started the first 8 games before a broken ankle ended his season. Boehrer was manhandled at C because he was undersized and inexperienced. At his request, Schiano switched Boehrer back to TE in spring camp last year. Boehrer shared the backup TE job as the power TE with Chris Loomis, who was the better receiver. Boehrer started one game as the 2TE. He may have found more opportunity for playing time in Ver Steeg's power running game than in former OC Bill Cubit's finesse, horizontal passing offense.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning from the standard pro-set and 2TE two-deep include:
- So WR Shawn Tucker (6 GS, 12 GP, 21 receptions for 195 yards, and 1 TD)
- RS So WR Tres Moses (3 GP and 1 reception for 13 yards)
- Jr TE Chris Loomis (4 GS, 12 GP, 11 receptions for 110 yards, and 1 TD)
- Sr TE Eddie Jordan (1 GP)
Shawn Tucker emerged as a starting WR after injuries sidelined Tres Moses and Chris Baker. While finishing fourth in receptions and receiving yards last season, Tucker is the leading returning player among WRs. With six career starts, Tucker arguably is the most experienced WR on a very young depth chart. With the switch of Chris Baker back to QB for spring camp, Tucker is a lock for a starting job at WR. At least until summer camp starts.
Tres Moses was one of the four true freshmen to make an impact in 2001. Moses won the first team 3WR job. Since former OC Bill Cubit used multiple WR formations frequently, Moses saw many snaps on the field and finished fourth in receptions (13) and receiving yardage (159). Moses never got untracked last season. A hamstring injury sidelined him in summer camp and a bruised knee suffered in Game 3 ended his season. Moses qualified for a medical redshirt and is healthy entering spring camp. He is expected to start opposite of Shawn Tucker at WR. He will face more competition in summer camp from several highly touted recruits.
Chris Loomis played in six games as a backup TE in 2001. Loomis shared the backup TE job with Bryan Boehrer last season and started 4 games (one as the 2TE). Loomis was the receiver; Boehrer was the blocker. Loomis is expected to earn the open starting job at TE. He has some big shoes to fill in replacing LJ Smith.
Eddie Jordan was a second team WOLB as a true freshman. A knee injury limited him to 7 games, in which he recorded 4 tackles. Schiano switched Jordan to TE in 2001 spring camp but a ruptured intestine sidelined him through summer camp. Jordan returned for Game 3 but provided zero production from his backup TE position. Jordan missed spring camp last season with a knee injury that lingered into the season. Jordan never recovered from the lost practice time and was buried on the depth chart. Jordan is not expected to contribute this season.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- Jr WR Jerry Andre (3 GS, 11 GP and 8 receptions for 137 yards)
- So WR Corey Barnes (12 GP and 3 receptions for 31 yards)
- RS Jr TE Ray Pilch (10 GS, 12 GP, 16 receptions for 135 yards)
- RS So Bryan Wilson (11 GP and 6 tackles)
- RS Fr Clark Harris (redshirted)
- Sr WR Jereme Baker (1 GP)
Jerry Andre arrived at summer camp in 2001 competing for one open space on the 3WR two-deep. When summer camp closed, Andre landed the second team 3WR job. As the sixth receiver in a 3WR rotation, Andre saw fewer snaps than his fellow backups and his contributions were minor (2 receptions for 27 yards). Injuries created opportunities in summer camp last season and Andre emerged as a starting WR in an opening day lineup that severely lacked experience at receiver. The eventual return of Aaron Martin relegated Andre to a backup job. After subsequent injuries to Tres Moses and Chris Baker, Shawn Tucker and Josh Hobbs passed Andre on the depth chart. Andre suffered a personal tragedy in the midst of the season that may very likely have inhibited his performance on the field. The departure of Martin and Hobbs has created two openings on the depth chart, including one starting job. Andre has not contributed much in two years despite plenty of opportunities. While he is guaranteed a spot on the two-deep in spring camp, if he can't maintain that position in summer camp, he likely won't contribute much next season.
Corey Barnes saw spot duty as a backup WR last season as a true freshman. Barnes was the seventh WR on a depth chart that frequently employed a 3WR. With the switch to an offense focused more on power running, fewer WR slots are available. The switches of Chris Baker to QB for spring camp and of Bryan Wilson to DB have given Barnes a backup WR job by default. Will he be able to hold that position on the depth chart once summer camp starts?
Ray Pilch walked on to the team as a freshman in 2001. Pilch played in 9 games at both TE and FB, where he started two games. Schiano switched Pilch to FB in spring camp last year. Pilch was primarily a blocking back although he actually received a few touches. With an increased emphasis on power running and a desire to get more talent on the field at FB, Schiano has switched Pilch back to TE for spring camp. Pilch likely will be the 2TE in a power running formation, much as Bryan Boehrer was last season.
Bryan Wilson was redshirted in 2001 while fellow true freshmen Moses and Andre played. Wilson was unable to crack the two-deep last season and played primarily on special teams. The switch away from a multiple receiver offense under new OC Ver Steeg has created a glut of WRs. As a result, Schiano switched Wilson to DB prior to spring camp.
Clark Harris redshirted in 2002. He is expected to be the third TE on the depth chart. If new OC Ver Steeg uses 2TE formations, Harris should have an opportunity to contribute next season.
Jereme Baker was another special teams player as a freshman in 2000. He did not play at all in 2001. Schiano switched Baker to TB in spring camp last season when Schiano had only two other TBs on the roster. With the arrival of two freshman TBs, Baker was quickly switched to WR in summer camp, where he practiced on the scout team. He is not expected to play next season.
The receiving corps again was notable last season for its inability to make plays. The WRs lacked the athleticism needed to execute former OC Bill Cubit's horizontal passing game. Only one receiver averaged more than 12 yards per reception (Corey Barnes – and he caught only three passes). Injuries to veterans also put the burden of production upon inexperienced players. It is now time to put that experience to use. The Rutgers DBs have consistently struggled with open-field tackling. If the WRs and TEs can't start making plays against their own DBs, against whom will they make plays?
Lack of quality depth at receiver, relative to the performance of the first team, was a major problem last season. The depth issue likely won't be resolved until the arrival of some highly touted new recruits in summer camp.
New OC Craig Ver Steeg has promised a timing passing game to complement a power running game. What will the new passing game look like and how will it differ from the horizontal passing game that was so ineffective under former OC Bill Cubit?
Coming Next: Final Part of my Spring Preview. The first seven parts of this series reviewed each of three defensive and four offensive units on the team. The last part will tie it all together and take a big picture look at key issues that are my focus during spring camp.
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