SPRING PREVIEW – QUARTERBACKS
Rutgers spring football practiced opened a week ago. Basketball season ended just last night for Rutgers. The extension of the basketball season – and the resulting overlap with spring football – has put me way behind with my annual spring football preview. I'm not the only one who has been slammed. The Rutgers sports information department has been overwhelmed, too, as their spring preview and prospectus wasn't released until Monday. There ought to a constitutional amendment banning spring football until the end of the basketball season. Especially since it is the only real activity until summer camp begins in August. So, please bear with me while I try to get caught up. This article is the second of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The first article looked at the offensive line. Next up – the QBs. 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.
Last year, Head Coach Greg Schiano found a QB to lead his team. It only took three years, two offensive coordinators, three QB transfers, and three starting QBs to find the replacement for former Scarlet Knight and current Detroit Lion Mike McMahon. Schiano replaced former Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit with former Utah OC Craig Ver Steeg. Ver Steeg altered the Scarlet Knight offense, replacing Cubit's horizontal passing game with a short passing game that emphasized timing routes. Like Cubit's offense, Ver Steeg's passing game requires a high degree of accuracy to convert first downs and assemble long, clock-eating drives. With the aid of an improved running game, the redesigned passing game improved dramatically. The completion rate increased from 46% to 59%. Passing yardage jumped over 40% to 230 yards per game (from 162). An offense that had ranked statistically at the bottom of the Division I rankings moved solidly into the middle of the pack. Rutgers was ranked #45 (out of 117 Division IA teams) in passing offense (up from #97), #67 in total offense (up from dead last), and #55 in scoring offense (again, up from DFL). Now that the QB search has ended, the QB of the future must develop into a playmaker.
PLAYER LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
QB Ted Trump (11 GP, 3 of 5 for 18 yards) joined the program for the 2000 season as a sophomore walk-on but did not play. The transfers of two QBs vaulted Trump onto scholarship and into the backup QB job in 2001. Despite the plethora of blowouts and repeated poor performances by the starter, Trump saw only spot mop-up duty in six games in 2001. When the incumbent starter foundered in the season opener in 2002, Trump was still (and inexcusably) an unproven commodity. Four starts and a fifth game later, Schiano had the answer he should have known a year earlier – that Trump wasn't the answer at QB. Trump completed only 46% of his passes with nearly a 3:1 INT-to-TD ratio. Ted was not expected to maintain he backup job in spring camp last year but Anthony Cali and Chris Baker were unable to displace him. Therefore, Trump returned for his final year of eligibility. Ted was an insurance policy against injury to starting QB Ryan Hart. Schiano was unlikely to invest unnecessary game repetitions in a fifth-year player while his young starter needed experience. Since Hart remained healthy, Trump rarely played and the quality of depth at QB was not tested. Since Trump never proved himself to as a Division IA QB, his loss should be easily replaced.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Ryan Hart (12 GS, 234 of 398 for 2,714 yards, 15 TDs, and 19 INTs) arrived on the banks with little acclaim. Local QB Cali received much of the fanfare directed towards the incoming recruiting class. Hart flew low under the radar and worked hard at his craft. Hart beat Cali for the third team QB job, which sent Cali to the scout team. Expected to redshirt, Hart received an early baptism under fire when the starting QB suffered a potentially season-ending injury at Syracuse and Trump was ineffective yet again in relief. After closing the fourth quarter at Syracuse, Hart started the final four games of the season, including a starting debut against the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes. Hart cemented his grip on the starting job in spring camp after the heretofore "QB of the future" transferred after the 2002 season. Hart started every game last season but performed inconsistently in operating Ver Steeg's new offense. Hart proved capable of moving the offense but made too many mistakes – tying a school record for INTs. Nonetheless, Hart had a record-setting year (attempts, completions, and yardage). Ryan must focus upon improving his decision-making, reducing his INTs, finding his safety valve receivers, and throwing better deep balls.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS So QB Anthony Cali (DNP)
- RS Fr QB Terrence Shawell (redshirted)
Anthony Cali redshirted as a true freshman and practiced as the scout team QB in 2002. I expected Cali to pass Trump on the depth chart last year in spring camp but Cali never seriously threatened Trump's status as the backup QB. Cali did not play at all last year although he expressed a willingness to participate on special teams in order to contribute. The knock on Anthony is that his throwing mechanics are poor and he has trouble reading defenses. Cali has now had an entire year to work with Ver Steeg on his fundamentals. The departure of Trump has created an opening at backup QB. Cali will battle Shawell for the job. How much improvement will Cali show over last spring?
Terrence Shawell redshirted as a true freshman and practiced as the scout team QB last year. Observers were impressed with his athletic ability and his strong arm. With Trump departed, somebody must step into the backup QB role. And hopefully provide a more viable alternative than did Trump last year. Shawell will compete with Cali for the backup job. Many expect Shawell to emerge as the backup QB. His performance will be a focal point of spring camp. Not only relative to Cali, but relative to Hart, whom he (or Cali) may need to replace in the event of an injury to Hart.
The performance of the QB last season was helped tremendously by improved play along the OLine and at RB and receiver. The implementation of a new offensive system contributed to that improvement. However, the QB performance left room for improvement. Of particular interest in spring camp will be the following:
- Can the QBs complete at least 65% of their passes?
- Can the QBs throw half as many INTs as TDs?
- Can the QBs force fewer passes into tight coverage?
- Can the QBs find their safety valve receivers more often when pressured to throw away the ball?
- Can the QBs complete passes to receivers downfield?
- Will Anthony Cali or Terrence Shawell emerge as the backup QB?
Coming Next: Part 3 of my Spring Preview. The running game was a pleasant surprise last year. The finesse running game of Cubit was replaced with Ver Steeg's power running attack. Two big backs emerged, each demonstrating the ability to consistently gain yardage and monopolize the football. Rutgers now has healthy competition among productive RBs.
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