There's a lot of optimism around the Rutgers football program, which might be a surprise for a team that finished just 5-7 in 2003.
But the Scarlet Knights' record gave them the sixth-best improvement in the nation last year, and Rutgers returns 17 starters and 39 letter winners from that squad. Coach Greg Schiano spent the spring tightening things up and getting his team prepared for what he thinks will be a big season. Defensively, the team seems to be ahead of schedule, with the spring game finishing with just two touchdowns scored. Schiano is comfortable with junior quarterback Ryan Hart at the controls. In fact, Hart took the fewest snaps in the spring game because Schiano was merely looking to find a solid backup quarterback for the season. There is plenty of depth all over with experience at most positions, so Schiano spent much of spring practice time working on getting his team to become mentally tougher. "We've become a better fundamental football team," Schiano told the Trenton Times prior to the spring game. "We're not nearly where we need to be, but fortunately we don't open up tomorrow. You need to build mental toughness to be able to be at your best no matter what the situation. We created some opportunities this spring where we demanded that they be at their best in some bad situations."
NOTES AND QUOTES
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Receivers and running backs ranked third in Big East by Athlon. It's a sign of progress that Rutgers is ranked No. 59 nationally in Lindy's, No. 61 by Athlon.
KEY GAME: The Scarlet Knights open with three straight home games, but the most important one is probably the first, against Michigan State. The Spartans outgunned Rutgers last season in East Lansing, 44-28, and getting off to a good start this year will be key for the Knights. All of the optimism the team built up in the offseason could be threatened with a bad showing against MSU, so coach Greg Schiano is hoping for a big game against the Big Ten foe.
THE MINDSET: The Knights lost six of their last eight contests in 2003, but closed with a 24-7 rout of Syracuse. Despite the poor record, Rutgers was in a lot of games against tough opponents, and in Schiano's eyes, the experience of last season will pay dividends in 2004.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: DT Raheem Orr was considered one of the best pass-rushing ends in the country last year, and that kind of pressure will be hard to replace for the Knights. Freshman Jamaal Westerman won't step right into Orr's spot on the line, but he did have two sacks and a fumble recovery in the Rutgers spring game, leading some to believe he'll make an impact in 2004.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The pass rush and defensive line played well, which is encouraging. It's always interesting when you mix up the teams, because it gives you all kinds of different combinations." -- Head coach Greg Schiano on the biggest positive news from Rutgers' spring game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: Junior QB Ryan Hart got better and better as the season progressed in 2003, and he's looking like a possible star at the position in 2004. He'll look to junior WR Shawn Tucker often for big plays, as Tucker looks like he's ready to step up and become a go-to receiver for Rutgers.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: There are a lot of potential stars among the defensive front seven, including senior LB Maurice Hines and senior DL Piana Lukabu. Both players will be keys to Rutgers cutting down on its 29.5-ppg allowed in 2003.
INJURY IMPACT: The one area that was affected most by injuries during spring practice was the linebacking corps, which saw five different players miss various amounts of time.