SPRING PREVIEW –RECEIVING CORPS
First, basketball season. Then, tax season. We now return to our regularly scheduled feature. Spring football camp. This article is the fourth of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The first three segments previewed the offensive line, quarterbacks, and running backs. The last offensive unit to address is the receiving corps. 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, scrimmages, and the spring game.
The receiving corps was a major question mark entering last season as the top three receivers had departed and the receiving corps lacked any seniors. If one of the nation's worst passing offenses was going to improve, Head Coach Greg Schiano's recruits would have to produce. New Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg replaced former OC Bill Cubit's flying circus with a run-oriented west coast offense. The passing game was predicated upon short timing routes. Schiano's young receiving corps grew up last year. Playmaking – so infrequent in recent years – became a regular occurrence. Two receivers – not including FB Brain Leonard – tallied at least 50 receptions. Yards per catch averages increased as the offense became less horizontal under Ver Steeg. Yards after catch became a reality rather than a theory. A still young but now experienced core of receivers returns to build upon last season's success. While depth chart battles will be a source of interest, the bigger issue is the ability of the offense to stretch the field vertically to create more space in which to work underneath.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
All players return from the two-deep.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning from the two-deep include:
- RS Sr TE Ray Pilch (10 GS, 11 GP, 8 receptions for 161 yards)
- RS Jr WR Tres Moses (11 GS, 52 receptions for 536 yards, and 5 TDs)
- Jr WR Shawn Tucker (11 GS, 12 GP, 50 receptions for 726 yards, and 2 TDs)
- Sr WR Jerry Andre (2 GS, 9 GP, 14 receptions for 182 yards, and 1 TD)
- RS So TE Clark Harris (1 GS, 12 GP, and 18 receptions for 213 yards)
- So WR Marcus Daniels (1 GS, 11 GP, and 15 receptions for 157 yards)
Ray Pilch walked on to the team as a sophomore in 2001. Pilch played in 9 games at both TE and FB, where he started two games. Schiano switched Pilch to FB in spring camp in 2002. Pilch was primarily a blocking back although he actually caught a few passes. With an increased emphasis on power running and a desire to get more talent on the field at FB, Schiano switched Pilch back to TE in spring camp last year. Older and more physically mature than his underclass competition at TE, Pilch laid claim to the open starting TE job and kept it. Primarily a blocking TE, Pilch had fewer receptions than his backup. Despite the sudden glut of young talent at TE, Schiano invited Pilch back for a fourth season. Pilch is still expected to play the role of the blocking TE but likely will increasingly lose snaps to the younger players behind him.
Tres Moses was one of four true freshmen to make an impact in 2001. Moses won the first team 3WR job. Moses saw many snaps on the field in multiple WR formations and finished fourth in receptions (13) and receiving yardage (159). After an unimpressive effort in spring camp, Moses never got untracked in 2002. First, a hamstring injury sidelined him in summer camp and then a bruised knee suffered in Game 3 ended his season. The year was not entirely wasted because Moses qualified for a medical redshirt. Moses had yet another unimpressive spring camp last year, lowering expectations entering summer camp. That changed with a punt return TD in the season opener. Moses became the playmaker he promised to be as a freshman, leading the receiving corps in receptions and TDs. He was also a reliable 3rd down receiver, demonstrating a knack for picking up tough yards after the catch to move the chains. Moses is a lock for a starting job. His competition can be found in Boston, Morgantown, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Moses should be a preseason All Big East selection.
Shawn Tucker emerged as a starting WR as a true freshman in 2002 after injuries sidelined the two starters (Tres Moses and Chris Baker). Tucker finished fourth in receptions (21) and receiving yards (195). He was the only WR who performed impressively during spring camp last year and easily retained his starting job. Though only a sophomore, Tucker was the leading returning receiver and was the most experienced WR last season. He bore the burden well, leading the team in receiving yardage. As with Moses, Tucker is a lock for a starting job and will be judged not against his fellow teammates but against his peers in the Big East. Tucker will miss spring camp with a groin injury but is expected to be ready for summer camp.
Jerry Andre earned the second team 3WR job as a true freshman in 2001. As the sixth receiver in a 3WR rotation, Andre saw fewer snaps than his fellow backups and his contributions were minor. After an uneventful spring camp in 2002, Andre emerged as a starter in Game 1 in 2002 after injuries to the prospective starters created opportunities in summer camp. The eventual return of the incumbent starters relegated Andre to a backup job and other players soon passed Jerry on the depth chart. Andre had an unimpressive spring camp last year but nonetheless emerged as the 3WR, primarily due to a lack of competition. He opened the season as the 3WR but the emergence of Marcus Daniels eventually relegated Jerry to the second backup role. Will Andre be able to maintain his spot on the depth chart this spring?
Clark Harris redshirted in 2002. He was the surprise star of spring camp last year, including an especially impressive performance in the Spring Game. Harris was expected to emerge from summer camp as the starting TE but Schiano instead selected Ray Pilch, the better blocker. Nonetheless, Harris received plenty of playing time as the primary receiving TE and also in 2TE formations. Harris was the fourth leading receiver in both catches and yardage – first among TEs. Harris is expected to push Pilch for the starting job this spring. Harris' performance in a blocking role will likely dictate the amount of playing time he receives because he is a better receiver than is Pilch.
Marcus Daniels was a highly touted recruit out of Florida. He was expected to push the incumbents – both backups and starters – for playing time immediately. Daniels cracked the two-deep in summer camp and eventually beat Jerry Andre for the 3WR job. Marcus showed the potential that both Moses and Tucker did as freshmen. While not expected to threaten either Moses or Tucker for a starting job, Daniels will push each for playing time. He also gives Ver Steeg a more dangerous 3WR formation. How much action will Daniels see this spring as the 3WR as opposed to a second team WR?
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- Sr TE Chris Loomis (9 GP, 3 receptions for 38 yards, and 1 TD)
- Sr WR Chris Baker (DNP)
- Sr WR Donny Diaz (DNP)
- Jr WR Corey Barnes (6 GP)
- So TE Sam Johnson (2 GS, 10 GP, 4 receptions for 40 yards, and 1 TD)
- So WR Willie Foster (8 GP and 3 receptions for 40 yards)
- RS Fr TE Brad Listorti (redshirted)
Chris Loomis was only one of four Terry Shea recruits to whom Schiano offered a scholarship in 2001. He played in six games as a backup TE in 2001. Loomis shared the backup TE job in 2002 and started 4 games (one as the 2TE). Loomis was the receiving TE. Loomis did not perform impressively in spring camp last season with the starting TE job up for grabs and was fortunate to be listed as the backup TE at the end of camp. A broken ankle suffered during summer conditioning cost Loomis summer camp the first month of the season. Rather than redshirt, Loomis returned in Game 4 and made a circus TD catch. However, he never fully recovered from the ankle injury and was limited to a backup role. Given the depth at the TE with the emergence of Clark Harris and Sam Johnson, Loomis may have been better off taking a medical redshirt last year. Competition at TE is expected to be among the most heated in spring camp. As with Harris, Loomis' blocking ability may dictate his playing time.
Chris Baker was academically ineligible as a true freshman in 2001 but he practiced as the scout team QB. Schiano switched Baker to WR in spring camp in 2002 after Baker failed to crack the two-deep at QB. Baker's height and athleticism offered him a better chance to contribute at WR. Hamstring injuries to the expected starter in summer camp in 2002 created a further opportunity that Baker seized. Baker was a starting WR for the first five games before a stress fracture in his foot ended his season prematurely. Expected to be in a three-way battle for two available starting WR jobs in spring camp last year, Baker instead requested from Schiano another opportunity to compete for the vacant starting QB job. Schiano consented. However, Baker could not even unseat the incumbent for the backup QB job. Baker returned to WR in summer camp but the lost repetitions in summer camp and a nagging hamstring injury put him behind and he never caught up. Expected to be a contributor, Baker did not play. Will Baker be able to break the two-deep in spring camp? Or has he been lapped on the depth chart?
Donny Diaz was a JUCO transfer from Itasca Community College in Minnesota, an area not known for producing JUCO talent. Schiano signed Diaz to add some experience to a receiving corps desperately lacking experience. However, Diaz never cracked the two-deep and did not play. Unconfirmed reports emerged that Diaz was injured and redshirted last season. But JUCOs are brought in to address immediate needs. Not to redshirt. Diaz is not expected to contribute next season. If Diaz can't crack the two-deep next year, Schiano likely will not invite him back for a third year.
Corey Barnes saw spot duty as a backup WR as a true freshman in 2001. Barnes was the seventh WR on a depth chart that frequently employed a 3WR. The arrival of Ver Steeg last spring fundamentally altered the offensive philosophy. With an emphasis on power running, fewer WR slots were available. A lack of depth at WR last spring gave Barnes a backup WR job by default. However, the arrival of reinforcements in summer camp last year meant that Barnes had to earn his place on the depth chart. He couldn't and was pushed down to the sixth WR. He did not catch a pass last year and only saw limited duty on special teams. He is not expected to contribute this season except on special teams.
Sam Johnson arrived last year as one of Schiano's more highly touted New Jersey recruits. An injury to Chris Loomis created an opening on the depth chart in summer camp and Johnson capitalized on the opportunity. He caught a TD pass in Game 2. His skills as both a blocker and receiver earned him playing time in 2TE formations. While not expected to earn a starting job, Johnson is expected to push for playing time in spring camp.
Willie Foster, a high school teammate of fellow WR Marcus Daniels, was not expected to play last season. The arrival of the more highly touted Daniels and the return of former starting WR Chris Baker to WR were expected to remedy depth concerns at WR. However, Foster capitalized upon Baker's slow start in summer camp and earned the fifth WR slot. While not guaranteeing regular playing time, it was enough to get some experience. Foster will compete with Jerry Andre and Baker for a slot on the two-deep.
Brad Listorti was a high school teammate of TB Justise Hairston. Listorti redshirted last season at the crowded TE position. With four players ahead of him on the depth chart, Listorti is not expected to contribute next season, except on special teams. He likely will get his opportunity next spring.
As noted above, with the receiving corps returning intact, depth chart issues are secondary to the performance of the receivers in stretching the field vertically. While spring camp will offer some insight into Ver Steeg's commitment to stretching the field vertical (i.e., how often the offense throws deep), spring camp won't offer much insight into the success of such a strategy. Why? It's simple. Because Schiano lost his starting CBs from a secondary that had a propensity to give up big pass plays last season. Until the Rutgers secondary proves it can deny big pass plays, it will not serve as a good barometer with which to measure the performance of the Rutgers receivers. Of most interest in this regard will be the TEs. Ver Steeg tended to keep his TEs short last season, which allowed opposing LBs to take short drops and sit on the underneath routes. Will the TEs run more vertical routes to stretch the middle of the field?
Now that Schiano has addressed the depth issues that afflicted his receiving corps a year ago, the competition for playing time will be intense this spring. Of particular interest in spring camp will be the following:
- Can Ray Pilch hang on to his starting TE job? If not, who among Clark Harris, Chris Loomis, or Sam Johnson will take it from him? How will the pecking order sort itself out at TE?
- Will Ver Steeg use 3WR formations more frequently than last season?
- How does Marcus Daniels look compared to Tres Moses and Shawn Tucker?
- Who among Jerry Andre, Willie Foster, and Chris Baker will emerge as the second backup WR?
Coming Next: I've finished with the offense. Now, it's time to punt and look at the defense. As with the offense, I'll up start up front with the foot soldiers – the defensive line.
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