by Mike Fasano
I admit it. I lied.
Two years ago I went to the spring game. It was Schiano's first spring game.
I went to it. I saw it. I reported on it. I lied about it.
The horrible truth about it was that it was one of the most pitiful displays of football I had ever seen at any level.
It terrified me. They were worse than Terry Shea's teams. Not only would they not beat Big East teams, I didn't think that they could beat Div 1AA teams. In fact, I didn't see them beating Division two teams. They were absolutely horrific. They couldn't block, they couldn't tackle, they couldn't catch passes, run routes, execute plays. They couldn't do anything.
They were the sorriest excuse for a football team I had ever seen.
So I lied about it. Schiano had only been on the job a few months and there was a time honored tradition with new coaches. Their first couple of years they get a "free ride". I decided to honor tradition. I gave Schiano a free ride, a big free ride. In fact, after that game I gave Schiano enough frequent flyer miles to get him to the moon and back. I twisted the truth every way I possibly could to try to put a positive spin on what looked to be a football disaster.
Against all odds that team won two games - against Buffalo and Navy. They lost to Connecticut, a team that (at that time) didn't even know in which direction you would find Div 1A football.
Now it is two years later. Two spring games later and this is a different brand of Rutgers football.
I liked what I saw on Friday.
No lies about it.
Schiano's free ride is over.
I honestly liked what I saw.
Tre Timbers (left) and Sean Grevious will meet again when Rutgers plays Army later this year.
Here's a few notes I made about what I saw on Friday night.
Knights to Remember
Expect Rutgers to fling the ball. They should. They have a quarterback who can throw the pigskin. No one will mistake Ryan Hart's arm for that of Peyton Manning's but, arm strength aside, Hart can get the job done. Ryan is a smart player. He has good mechanics, makes good decisions, can handle pressure, reads defenses well and can get the ball to open wide outs on short and medium range passes. He can do that well. Ryan was good last year but his progression as a QB from last season is obvious. He is far and away the best of the QB's Rutgers has and is good enough to play QB at the Big East level. Ryan won't kill opponents "deep" but he'll hurt them "short" with his accurate arm and field savvy. That should be enough.
I love this kid. He might be RU's best wide out since Reggie Funderburke. He's fast, he's strong, he's gutsy and he has good hands. He was getting open all day. Early in the game he caught a pass from Ryan Hart which had been thrown through double coverage. Sean had to go up and get the ball in order to make the catch. Exposed to the Dbacks, he got clobbered as soon as the ball reached him. You had to wonder if Tucker would get up off the field after those hits, much less hold onto the ball. Tucker made the catch, dusted himself off and scooted back to the huddle. This kid is something special.
On a fake end around, pass play Brandon found himself a good ten yards behind his receiver with a pass floating towards that wideout for what looked to be a sure touchdown. It took Brandon about one second to close the gap, leap up and (not knock down the pass) but intercept it.
Brandon was sensational on pass coverage. On run support he was also exceptional. He breaks off coverage instantly when run support is needed and uses his foot speed to get himself in position for the tackle. Haw has always been fast but now he is reacting instantly and using that speed to get "done" whatever job has to get done.
He'll anchor the secondary.
Early in the game Nate Jones intercepted a pass Ted Trump had dumped out into the flat under intense pressure. A split second later Jones was in the end zone. You couldn't have caught him from behind with a bullet.
Jones can fly. Rutgers fans have always known that but this year there will be more. Nate will be able to break more tackles this season on his "run backs". Nate will never be mistaken for muscular but he is no longer the skinny kid with smoking sneakers. Nate has "bodied" out considerably. At both D back and on special teams the increased size will make a difference and there's a good chance that Nate Jones will become a real "difference maker" in the fall.
Harris has big shoes to fill, those of first round NFL draft pick, LJ Smith. The staff however raves about the 6-6 Harris. On Friday, Harris gave the fans some reason to rave about him also. Clark had 3 receptions for 62 yards (20 ypc). Craig ver Steeg's new offense seems to like the tight end. Harris will be a guy to keep your eye on next fall.
Things to feel good about
Execution was crisp. One of the problems with Schiano's first two teams was the amount of time it took for plays to develop. Plays developed so slowly (especially on plays that attacked the corner) that opposing defenses had way too much time to adjust. On Friday, the execution was crisp and fast. Work still needs to be done to hit the outside faster, but this team is executing much better than it has in the past.
The offensive line was not as bad as publicized. (but see below)
The talent that Schiano has brought in is starting to show up here and there on the field.
Things to worry about
The offensive line was getting beat outside on too many occasions. This was especially true as regards the linemen assigned to protect Ted Trump. People said Ted Trump had a bad game. Johnny Unitas would have had a bad game under that kind of pressure.
On long snaps the snapper thought the game being played was "bowling". No, you don't roll the ball on the ground to the punter. Do that next season and it will costs us points, it might cost us games.
Things to expect
Expect Jason Nugent to be moved to safety. As quick as Jason is, there is too much competition. Clarence Pittman and Marcus Jones can both play the game. Jones was especially impressive on his cut backs, Pittman impressed with his acceleration through the hole. Add to that the fact that Justise Hairston has now qualified and you get a log jam at tailback. The Knights need Nugent's speed, athleticism and aggressiveness at safety and the smart money says that is where he'll end up.
The honeymoon is over this year for Schiano. This team is three years into rebuilding and people are expecting some results.
You know what? They are entitled to them.
We're not talking Orange Bowl, mind you, but beating Army and Navy is a must. Beating Buffalo is a must. Playing like a competitive member of the Big East is a must. The Rutgers football team has to stop embarrassing its alumnae and put on some displays of (at least) decent division 1A football.
These are modest, but necessary, goals. Greg Schiano knows this. The question is: can Rutgers and Schiano meet those goals.
On Friday at Rutgers stadium, while the game was going on, Greg Schiano left the coaching to his assistants. Schiano, himself, was up in the stands mingling with the crowd and watching the game.
How did he look?
Schiano was relaxed. He was smiling.
Maybe this fall, Rutgers fans can do some smiling too.
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