Rutgers Football: An Embarrassment of Riches?
Maybe not, but the Scarlet Knights are Clearly Deeper for 2003
(Part 1 of 2)
When third year Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano scans the practice fields adjacent to Rutgers Stadium, you'll have to forgive him for wearing a self-satisfied grin. The satisfaction stems from the progress made on the Schiano Master Plan. The Plan called for the construction of a stone foundation, one backbreaking block at a time. And the Plan has clearly moved forward. It may not have been evident from the devastating losses to Buffalo and Connecticut, or from the 1-11 record last year, but it was evident. It showed in the jolts given to Miami and Tennessee, two college football stalwarts who stood on the tracks staring so intently at the next station that they were nearly run over by the Little Scarlet Express.
Schiano has been responsible for it all. The highs and lows, the embarrassments and brief bouts with euphoria, and he wouldn't have it any other way. It's on me, he seems to say to anyone who will listen. If the program fails, it won't be because someone convinced him to do it their way. Hell, Greg Schiano practically hauled every backbreaking rock himself. Sleeping on office couches. Persisting with recruits when every prideful bone in his body must have been screaming,
"Enough!" Go wherever you want. I'm done chasing you."
But they bought into his vision; a vision with nothing behind it but the passion of one man. They bought into his fire and passion, his single-minded belief that good things are just around the next couple of bends. Despite a 3-20 record in his first two years, Schiano has been able to maintain strong momentum on the recruiting front, a pied piper in scarlet leading a succession of talented classes to the north bank of the Raritan River. And he shows no signs of slowing down, recent events notwithstanding. Despite the pending withdrawal of marquee Big East Conference members Miami and Virginia Tech, Schiano landed Mike Teel, New Jersey's premier high school quarterback from Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey. Four other players have agreed to accompany Teel—five strong commitments before playing a down this year.
A few weeks ago came the real shocker: Nate Robinson, the All-Everything defensive tackle from Irvington, the top high school defensive tackle in the country last year, left Miami in the lurch under still-curious circumstances and landed on Schiano's doorstep. Not only did he land on Rutgers' front porch, but he walked straight from Gate 16 at Newark Liberty International Airport into this year's two-deep rotation in time for summer practice. The resulting euphoria stretched the bandwidth of Rutgers recruiting websites to its limit. Add Big Nate to the ranks of fine young men in scarlet. All of this recruiting prowess begs a question: If Schiano is able to upgrade the talent to this extent without so much as a Big East win, who will he bring in when the results begin to show up on the field?
We'll soon find out, because the efforts to upgrade the talent level at the struggling program are about to pay off, with easily the deepest, most athletic, and most talented group to show up at two-a-days in ten years. The strength and conditioning program has worked wonders. Gone is most of the baby fat, the lumpy bodies that struggled to carry extra flab instead of muscle and more importantly, gone is the slowness of foot that has plagued the Knights for nearly a decade. In their place is a group of chiseled, athletic young men that have breathed newfound excitement into the preseason. Not the Same Old Rutgers. Not a chance.
There are a host of Big East-caliber players on the summer roster who have a realistic shot of seeing playing time, if not earning a starting role. Several incumbents may find themselves reduced to understudies as raw talent begins to win out over experience. This trend may be no clearer than along the offensive front.
There will be several empty spots on the offensive line, but no matter how many contortions the Rutgers coaching staff puts the depth chart through, they won't be able to get everyone onto the field this fall. And this, in a nutshell, is the first major sign that the program is indeed being built on a strong foundation. Coaches of successful programs have painstaking decisions to make each fall—who starts, who bides their time, and who leads the scout team. For too long, the Rutgers coaching staff didn't have to worry about offending anyone who missed out on a starting job: they were lucky to scrape together a starting lineup.
This fall, Schiano will be disappointing a lot of offensive linemen. He has two highly rated incoming freshmen in Mike Fladell, a monstrous young man from New York, and heralded Pedro Sosa of Union City, but those two decisions are easy: barring a measles epidemic in August that decimates the entire offensive line, the two high school stars will redshirt. Brian Duffy, Rich McManis, Mike Williamson, and Marty Pyszczymuka have more to worry about, though, than a couple of redshirt candidates. Mike Clancy and Mark Segaloff, Schiano's first offensive line recruits, have benefited from several years in Rutgers revamped strength and conditioning program and will be pushing for further playing time. Sameeh McDonald, a 6-5, 300 pound tackle from Newark who chose Rutgers over a last minute push from Syracuse, logged starting time last year and is in line for a starting job this year. Sophomore center William Vogt won't unseat Pyszczymuka, but he continues to improve.
Other fresh faces pose even more of a challenge. Sophomore Randy Boxill, a talented lineman who was originally a Miami recruit, has overcome last year's disastrous knee injury, and John Glass, a former Syracuse signee, impressed on the practice field last year and is ready to start. It could be a pair of junior college transfers, though, who make the biggest—and earliest—splash. The long-awaited Ron Green, a Linden native, is in camp appears to be eligible and it would be a monumental surprise if Green did not assume a starting tackle role. Green is a mountain if a man—6-foot-6 and at least 320 pounds—and a Junior College All-American. Clint Dato, a fiery transfer from Cerritos Community College in California, arrived in Piscataway with no intention of settling for a backup role but will need to shake off a summer camp leg injury. In all, eleven linemen will battle for five spots in the sweltering late summer sun, and Schiano will face the first in a series of difficult decisions in anointing the starters. Regardless of who starts, Rutgers will field its deepest offensive line in a decade.
(Part Two will be posted at a later date)