Spring Preview - Summary

This article is the last of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. Spring camp opened spring camp nearly a month ago, on March 27th. Fifteen practices later, spring camp will end today with the annual Scarlet-White game at 7 pm. The first seven parts of this series reviewed each of the four offensive and three defensive units on the team. The last part ties it all together and takes a big picture look at key issues that are my focus during spring camp.

SPRING PREVIEW – THE BIG PICTURE


Spring camp opened spring camp nearly a month ago, on March 27th.  Fifteen practices later, spring camp will end today with the annual Scarlet-White game at 7 pm.  This article is the last of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp.  The first seven parts of this series reviewed each of the four offensive and three defensive units on the team.  The last part ties it all together and takes a big picture look at key issues that are my focus during spring camp.  This preview is based upon information released prior to the opening of spring camp.  My thoughts likewise share the same perspective.  The article summarizes the some of the biggest issues that need to be addressed in spring practice.  Fans attending the Scarlet-White game can focus on some of these issues and judge for themselves how the young team is progressing. 


OFFENSE

Last season, Head Coach Greg Schiano overhauled his offense. Schiano replaced former Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit with former Utah OC Craig Ver Steeg.  Ver Steeg replaced Cubit's flying circus with a run-oriented west coast offense.  Schiano also demoted OLine Coach Joe Susan and promoted former TE Coach Mario Cristobal to OLine Coach.  Cristobal fused new talent with the remnants of a formerly hapless unit to forge an effective OLine.  The running game improved behind the reconstructed OLine with the aid of two big, young backs.  The redesigned passing game also improved dramatically.  The passing game was predicated upon short timing routes.  Ver Steeg's passing game achieved a high degree of accuracy needed to convert first downs and assemble long, clock-eating drives. 

Rutgers was ranked #45 (out of 117 Division IA teams) in passing offense (up from #97), #69 in rushing offense (up from #116), #67 in total offense (up from dead last), and #55 in scoring offense (again, up from DFL).  Rushing yardage almost tripled to 139 yard per game (from 52).  Rushing attempts averaged 3.3 yards per carry, over double of the pathetic 1.5 yards per carry gained in 2002.  The OLine yielded only 23 sacks, less than half of the 2002 total (51).  The completion rate increased from 46% to 59%.  Passing yardage jumped over 40% to 230 yards per game (from 162). 

The offense experienced a metamorphosis last year.  A tough, ball control philosophy replaced a cutesy-cutesy finesse system.  Though running the west coast offense, the punishing ground attack definitely had a Jersey flavor to it.  The offense has found an identity that is a source of pride.  However, the offense is still a work in progress as Ver Steeg reportedly implemented only 80% of his offense last season.  An offense that primarily ran between the tackles or threw short has room to grow.  In its quest for continued development, the offense must carry on without Cristobal, who returned to his alma mater (Miami) and WR Coach Darrell Hazell, who moved up to Ohio State.  Former Western Illinois OLine Coach Ron Holder, another Miami alum, has replaced Cristobal while former Dallas Cowboy WR Coach John McNulty has replaced Hazell.  Here a few big picture issues:

  • Can the offense stretch the field vertically to create more space in which to work underneath? 
  • Last season, the running game existed almost exclusively between the tackles.  Rutgers occasionally ran off-tackle and rarely pitched wide.  Inheriting an OLine in total disarray, Ver Steeg apparently wanted to develop the running game inside-out – get proficient at running between the tackles before running outside the tackles.  Rutgers accomplished that first step last year.  What kind of focus on outside running will we see this spring? 
  • 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.  Are the QBs making fewer mistakes and more big plays? 
  • The biggest issue facing the OLine this spring is the transition from Cristobal to Holder.  Holder must imprint his stamp on the unit without reversing its development.  Rutgers became a smash-mouth offensive football team last year.  Holder must keep them busting jaws. 
  • 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? 
  • Will Ver Steeg use 3WR formations more frequently than last season?
  • Lack of quality depth on the OLine has been an ongoing problem since Schiano arrived in 2001.  For the first time in four years, the starting OLine is relatively set.  In spring camp last year, the dropoff in production between the first and second team OLines was precipitous.  Can second team close that gap this year even though the first team has raised the bar? 
  • For the first time in four years, the health of the OLine is not a concern.  The entire two-deep is healthy going into spring camp.  That ought improve the quality of competition and, thus, practice.  Schiano also must get production out of his third and fourth year OL. 


Unlike previous years, the evolution of the depth chart will be of secondary importance during spring camp as a very young unit matures.  Now that Schiano has talent in place at most positions, he needs to build quality depth.  In terms of the depth chart, here are the most interesting developments to observe:

  • Three qualified players are competing for two starting OT jobs.  Who among Ron Green, Sameeh McDonald, and Clint Dato will emerge as starters?  What happens with the odd man out?  
  • 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? 
  • Will Anthony Cali or Terrence Shawell emerge as the backup QB?
  • With Brian Duffy's eligibility still uncertain, who will practice at LG with the first team and who is the contingency plan? 
  • How will the pecking order sort itself out at TE?
  • What is the composition of the second team OLine? 
  • Who among Jerry Andre, Willie Foster, and Chris Baker will emerge as the second backup WR?
  • Have younger, more talented players lapped Clarence Pittman and Marcus Jones on the depth chart? 


The competition for playing time will be intense and should push players to get even better.  The development and progress of the following players will be interesting to observe:

  • Can Ryan Hart complete at least 65% of his passes?
  • Can Hart throw half as many INTs as TDs?
  • Can Hart force fewer passes into tight coverage?
  • Can Hart find his safety valve receivers more often when pressured to throw away the ball?
  • Can Hart complete passes to receivers downfield?
  • How does Marcus Daniels look compared to Tres Moses? 
  • Will any fourth year OL will contribute meaningfully on the depth chart?
  • Schiano signed two promising young OL in his 2003 recruiting class.  Do they look ready to play, even in a backup capacity? 


DEFENSE

The defense, the strength of Schiano's first two Scarlet Knight teams, took a step backward last year.  A maturing DLine demonstrated further improvement.  A young and inexperienced linebacking corps was decimated with injuries but possessed the depth to compensate.  Previously the strength of Schiano's defense, the secondary lacked both experience and depth at safety.  This deficiency was compounded by mediocre play from the veteran CBs. 

Rutgers was ranked #52 (out of 117 Division IA teams) in passing defense (down from #37), #68 in rushing defense (up from #106), and #61 in total defense (up from #88).  The rush defense improved noticeably.  Rushing yards allowed decreased over 20% to 163 yard per game (from 207).  The rushing defense further improved its yield per carry from a generous 4.7 yards per carry to a more respectable 4.2 yards per carry.  The improved play of the front seven took pressure off the DBs to provide run support.  Despite the reduced burden, the secondary could not pull its weight.  Although the sack total increased from 15 to 27, passing yardage increased from 198 yards per game to 230 yards per game.  The defense also yielded points disproportionately worse to the yardage it yielded, ranking #80 in scoring defense (again, up from #95).  The big play was the nemesis of the defense as it yielded 20 runs and 39 passes of at least 30 yards.  Again, the secondary bore the brunt of the blame. 

Schiano's defense has transformed in three years.  A young DLine that played early has matured into the strength of the defense.  A linebacking corps that lacked speed and depth is now bristles over two deep with athletes and playmakers.  A deep and experienced secondary that was the backbone of the defense has become young and inexperienced with questionable depth.  The transformations haven't been limited to the roster, either.  LB Coach Mark D'Onofrio moved up to Virginia to take an assignment as the special teams coach.  Schiano promoted former Graduate Assistant Phil Galiano to replace D'Onofrio.  Schiano also dismissed DB Coach Scott Lakatos, a move that many anticipated after the secondary regressed last year, and hired former North Carolina State DB Coach Chris Demarest to replace Lakatos.  Here a few big picture issues:

  • The secondary will be the most critical emphasis of spring camp.  Schiano and Demarest must improve the weak link of a defense that lost its two most experienced CBs.  Whereas, in years past, comparisons of the defense against the offense were meaningless since each unit was terrible, the secondary will be tested by a deeper, more talented, and more experienced receiving corps.  How will the secondary compare?  And fare? 
  • The days where the performance of the DLine cannot be judged against that of the OLine, because each is so terrible, are history.  The OLine improved dramatically last season, demonstrating the ability to control the line of scrimmage.  Similarly, the DLine also improved last season and no longer offered opponents the past of least resistance.  While the DLine proved better stopping the run, its pass rush was still lacking.  The battles along the LOS should be the most heated, if not entertaining of spring camp. 
  • A rash of injuries has knocked most of the LB two-deep out of spring camp.  Schiano will use spring camp to build depth at LB as his young third team – no longer comprised of cast-offs – gets lots of practice repetitions.  While player development and potential depth chart implications can be evaluated, the absence of five LBs makes it impossible to take a broader look at the LB corps. 
  • Who will replace Raheem Orr as the dominant playmaker?  Who else is making plays behind the LOS? 
  • How do the CBs look against the WRs?  Are they giving up generous cushions and conceding the underneath routes?  If they tighten their coverage, are they getting beat over the top? 
  • Schiano employed a Cover 2 zone underneath coverage scheme as his base package last year.  The dime defense employed a similar look with DBs playing the OLB roles.  What kind of the coverage schemes is the defense using?  What DBs make up the dime package?
  • How do the CBs and safeties look in man-to-man coverage? 
  • Are the DBs looking back for the football to break-up or intercept passes? 
  • Can the DLine generate an effective four-man pass rush? 


In years past, the evolution of the depth chart was the best indicator of progress.  Since both the offense and defense were terrible, each provided a poor frame of reference from which to judge the relative performance of the other.  The displacement of non-performing veterans with younger, more talented players was a prime focus.  Not so any more.  Now that both the offense and defense have improved to a level of respectability, Schiano can focus upon building quality depth.  From this standpoint, here are the most interesting developments to observe on the depth chart:

  • Who will replace Orr as a starting DE opposite Piana Lukabu?  And who will be the backup DEs? 
  • Who emerges as the starting WS opposite FS Jarvis Johnson?  And who is the backup WS? 
  • Who among Derrick Roberson, Joe Porter, and Tre Timbers emerges as the starting CB opposite Eddie Grimes?  Who emerges as the nickel CB? 
  • Who will seize the temporarily open starting DT jobs in place of the injured Gary Gibson and Luis Rivas? 


The competition for playing time will be intense and should push players to get even better.  The development and progress of the following players will be interesting to observe:

  • How does Ryan Neill look 18 months removed from major reconstructive knee surgery? 
  • How much has Nate Robinson improved over last season? 
  • Will Terry Bynes assert himself as the dominant LB in the absence of five other players from the linebacking two-deep?
  • Do J'Vonne Parker and Rashawn Ricks look like contributors? 
  • How do the inexperienced LBs acquit themselves?  Which LBs among the 2003 recruiting class stand out?


Coming Next:  10 Thoughts on the NIT Final.  I will be waiting to view a tape of the Scarlet-White game.  In the meantime, nearly a month has lapsed since Rutgers reached the finals of the National Invitation Tournament before losing to Tommy Hamaker's Michigan Wolverines.  The start of spring camp several days earlier quickly changed the focus of Rutgers fans from basketball to football.  More so Rutgers sports writers not even prepared for spring camp to start.  With spring camp completed, it's time to look back at the basketball season so recently concluded.  I'll pull out my recording of the NIT Final, review the game, and share my thoughts on the game. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board. 


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