The Greg Schiano Master Plan is in full gear in 2003. The Plan called for the construction of a stone foundation, one backbreaking block at a time. And the Plan has clearly moved forward. He has persuaded recruits to buy into his vision despite a 3-20 record in his first two years. His 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 in years. 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. Those numbers are evident at linebacker, a position that Rutgers has struggled to bolster the last few years.
The linebacking crew loses fireplug middle linebacker Gary Brackett, now with the Indianapolis Colts, but returns starters Brian Hohmann and Brian Bender plus a cadre of potential starters. Junior Ishmael Medley has been switched to fullback, but still Rutgers fields highly regarded talent at each of the three positions. Chiseled sophomore William Beckford, another player for whom coaches and fans alike have salivated, is starting at outside linebacker in camp. Rock-solid sophomore Wil Gilkison gained valuable experience last year and has moved into the starting role at middle linebacker. Gilkison has the size, talent, and instincts to make a big impact.
Sophomore Berkeley Hutchinson, a top 5 linebacker nationally two years ago, sat out a year for academics but enters summer camp with increased size and very high expectations. But that's not all. Former freshman phenomenon Brad Cunningham, who left the program for a year after a frightening neck injury, is prowling the two-deep looking for work. So add four very promising young players to a rotation that already has two returning starters. With both Bender and Hohmann fighting through injuries, Gilkison, Hutchinson, and Beckford are running as the first team. The two senior incumbents will have to work very hard to unseat them. It's likely that by mid-season Beckford, Gilkison, and Cunningham will be on the field as a unit.
The incumbents in the defensive secondary aren't likely to lose their jobs, but will be pressed by an impressive amount of talent. Brandon Haw and Nate Jones, a third team All-American kick returner, are locks at cornerback. But sophomore Dondre Asberry and junior Eddie Grimes are starting-quality backups, and Hackensack's Bryan Wilson should also push for a spot on the depth chart. Incoming freshman Charles Timbers of Ocean Township is struggling to overcome a hamstring pull, and can be forgiven for a level of frustration. Who wouldn't be with such talent in front of him? In all, Rutgers has six quality corners plus a handful of former walk-ons with game experience. Unless every opponent decides to run the Arena League spread offense, more than one talented player will be disappointed with his playing time.
Hard-hitting strong safety Jarvis Johnson is unlikely to lose his starting role, but three athletic and rangy players will vie to replace departed playmaker Shawn Seabrooks at free safety. Brian Durango, a former track star at Memorial High in West New York, Terry Bynes, a lightweight linebacker, and Canadian Jason Nugent, a converted running back with impressive skills, will battle for the job. Durango appeared to be struggling last week to assimilate the nuances of defensive back play, and Nugent, though raw, could land in the starting lineup.
Even without Nugent, the running back position boasts a number of quality backs. Although Schiano has been displeased with the ability of any single running back to claim the starting role, three returning backs have starting experience. Sophomore Markis Facyson and juniors Marcus Jones and Clarence Pittman all earned starting assignments last year. Pittman has made great progress from last year, but if none of the incumbents steps up in the fall, one of two incoming stars should claim the starting role. Jamar Brittingham, a former Penn State recruit who spent a year at prep school, who is working his way through the NCAA clearinghouse, is as highly rated a running back as Rutgers has ever recruited, and Justise Hairston is on campus at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, feature-back size for a team desperately in need of some. Hairston is truly a physical marvel, a college player in an NFL body. His biceps are roughly the size of his calves, his huge shoulders taper to a distinct "V" near his waist, and he carries himself like a veteran—going all-out when executing drills, but wasting no motion while waiting for another turn. Brian Leonard is likely to step into the starting fullback role. Leonard looks like a new player this summer—even bigger, stronger, and faster than last year. At a practice last week, he snatched a swing pass out of the air and streaked down the sidelines for a big gain—all 235 pounds of him. The thought of Hairston and Leonard teaming up in the backfield has Rutgers die-hards in a state of frenzy.
At a recent practice, a new group of stallions were on display as the wide receivers worked out. Every one knows Shawn Tucker, Tres Moses and Jerry Andre, but less know about Marcus Daniels, a talented freshman, or Chris Baker, a converted quarterback. Each needs to take his own big step forward this season: Moses from a season-ending injury, Baker from his dreams of being a signal-caller, Andre from a family tragedy, Tucker from the back seat, and Daniels from the high school prom. Anyone who underestimates their ability to do so risks being made a fool. This wide receiving corps has more raw potential than any in the last fifteen years. A casual observer would have trouble counting six dropped balls among the entire group during workouts. This is not game action, but if you can't catch it in practice you won't do it with a 215-pound safety bearing down on you. Junior college transfer Donnie Diaz, a 6-foot-6 possession receiver, will have to fight his way onto the two-deep.
The outlook isn't completely rosy. Quarterback Ryan Hart is still green around the edges and Ted Trump has yet to show the accuracy required to be a solid backup. The defensive line remains a major question mark, with more personnel comings and goings than a deactivated National Guard unit. The kicking game will be—as it is always—an exercise in nail-biting.
Sure, there are problems, just as in any other year for the Big Red Machine. But something is clearly different this time around. For the first time in a long time, all of Rutgers' preseason question marks might be able to fit on only one clipboard, instead of on the side of a New Jersey Transit bus. While it might not be Bobby Bowden sweating over which All-American wide receiver to play, or Nebraska trying to squeeze a truckload of talent into a crowded backfield, it is progress. Unless that measles epidemic rolls through town in late August, Rutgers fans will witness something few people would have thought possible three years ago: talented players will standing on the sidelines, desperate for work.
They're still stacking cement blocks in Piscataway this summer, but a solid foundation is taking shape.