SPRING PREVIEW – THE BIG PICTURE
This article is the last of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The first seven parts of this series reviewed each of the three defensive and four offensive units on the team. The last part ties it all together and takes a big picture look at key issues that are my focus during spring camp. This preview is based upon information released prior to the opening of spring camp. My thoughts likewise share the same perspective. The article identifies issues that need to be addressed in spring practice and can be observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages.
Although the defense was improved last season, it was still substandard. Opponents moved the ball on and scored against the Rutgers defense too easily and the defense was still notable for its lack of playmaking ability. Maturation of young players will be the catalyst for continued improvement of the defense. However, that maturation cannot be measured by the performance of the defense in spring camp against an offense that arguably was the worst in Division IA last season. While strong performances against a weak offense will not necessarily be an indicator of improvement, poor performances will be a bad sign. A very bad sign. With so many young players maturing and gaining experience, the defense should outplay the offense this spring. Anything less will be very disappointing. Here are a few big picture issues:
- Who will assume Gary Brackett's leadership role?
- Will Jarvis Johnson start at SS or FS?
- How many second year players seize starting jobs? At what positions?
- How does the open-field tackling look? Especially by the CBs? Is the first defender making the tackle?
- Does J'Vonne Parker look like a contributor at DT?
The evolution of the depth chart will be the most telling development of spring camp. Defenders can be judged better against peers at the same positions rather than their counterparts on offense. The displacement of mediocre veterans with younger, more talented players will be a prime indicator. Of particular on the defense will be the following:
- Who will replace Gary Brackett as the starting MLB?
- Who wins the starting DE job opposite of Raheem Orr – Alfred Peterson or Val Barnaby?
- Will Jason Grant hold off a challenge from Terry Bynes for the starting SS job?
- Will seniors Brian Bender and Brian Hohmann fend off challenges from second year players for their starting jobs?
- Will Brandon Haw parry a push from Eddie Grimes for a starting CB job?
- Can Gary Gibson maintain his starting DT job?
- Will Luis Rivas win the open starting DT job alongside Gibson?
- Who will be the fourth safety on the two-deep?
Last season, the offensive was statistically the worst in Division IA football. Rutgers was ranked #116 (out of 117 Division IA teams) in rushing offense (52 yards per game), #117 in total offense (214 yards per game), and #117 in scoring offense (14 points per game). The passing game was the least unproductive element of the offense, ranking #97 nationally (162 yards per game). The offense was a comedy of errors. Other than a glimmering half here and there, the offense was a mess. The total failure in every aspect of the offense resulted in the departure of Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit, the hiring of former Utah OC Craig Ver Steeg as the new OC, the demotion of OLine Coach Joe Susan, and the promotion of former TE Coach Mario Cristobal to OLine Coach.
Rutgers has been a pass-oriented team during the previous seven seasons. The replacement of Cubit with 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. New staff and new players face the challenge of reanimating a lifeless offense. Here a few big picture issues:
- New OC Craig Ver Steeg has promised a timing passing game to complement a power running game. What will the new offense look like and how will it differ from the horizontal passing game and finesse running game that was so ineffective under former OC Bill Cubit?
- Nagging injuries and ineffective play prompted Head Coach Greg Schiano to use seven different starting lineups on the OLine last season. None worked. How healthy is the OLine? The health of Rich McManis and Randy Boxill particularly will be something to watch. Can the OLine provide better protection for the QBs and open holes for the RBs?
- Two years ago, Schiano inherited a team without an experienced QB. After losing to transfers three QBs in two years, he enters his third spring camp back where he started. Does the QB situation look improved? Can the QBs complete at least 50% of their passes? Can the QBs throw fewer INTs than TDs? Can the QBs complete passes to receivers downfield?
- 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. There isn't a single senior on the receiving corps. No returning player has started more than six games. The receivers are now all 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? Can the WRs and TEs start making plays?
- How will the power running style of TB Jason Nugent fair in contrast with more finesse styles of TBs Clarence Pittman and Markis Facyson?
- The FB did not pose a threat that defenses were forced to honor. How will Ver Steeg use the FB?
- Blitz protection by the TBs was still a problem last season and will be an interesting topic for observation during spring camp.
- Can Chris Baker bring another viable dimension to the offense at QB?
- Lack of quality depth on the OLine was another tremendous problem last season. Again. Questionable talent in the 2000 and 2001 recruiting classes compounded an inherited lack of depth. Schiano relied primarily upon an 8-man rotation. It will be interesting to observe the OL rotations in spring ball. How will the entire second team perform relative to the first team?
The evolution of the depth chart will be the most telling development of spring camp. Most opponents manhandled our offense – disrupting the running game with penetration into the backfield, quickly pressuring the QB, confusing the RBs with blitzes, and blanketing the WRs. Maturation of young players will contribute towards improvement. So, will an infusion of new talent that will play right away. Improvement will be incumbent upon the displacement of non-performing starters with more talented players. The offense can be better judged against peers at the same positions rather than their counterparts on defense. Of particular on the offense will be the following:
- The OT jobs are both open. Will newcomers seize both of these crucial jobs?
- With Brian Duffy unavailable, the OG jobs are also wide open. Who among Sameeh McDonald, Clint Dato, Randy Boxill, or Mike Williamson will emerge as the starting OGs?
- With four young TBs competing for the starting job, who will emerge as the first and second team TBs?
- Lack of quality depth at receiver, relative to the performance of the first team, was a major problem last season and likely won't be resolved until the arrival of some highly touted new recruits in summer camp.
- Will Anthony Cali pass Ted Trump on the depth chart?
- How many third and fourth year players will contribute meaningfully on the depth chart?
Coming Next: Basketball Review. Gary Waters entered the 2002-2003 riding a rising tide of expectations after a startling inaugural season on the Banks. However, his ship quickly ran aground and was wracked with internal dissention that culminated in an embarrassing 12-16 (4-12 Big East) record. A team whose goal was to play for the Big East Tournament championship did not even qualify for the tournament. The RAC, so invincible last season, became a sanctuary for visiting opponents. I'll look back at the season that never-should-have-been.
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