SUMMER CAMP PREVIEW – PERFORMANCE ISSUES
When Head Coach Greg Schiano arrived at Rutgers four years ago, he said it might get worse before it got better. He was right. And many fans were shocked. They really should not have been surprised when one considers how poor former Head Coach Terry Shea's recruiting was, especially his final class. Schiano won only three games in his first two seasons on the Banks. But he restocked the team through recruiting that belied his record. And Schiano developed his players with improved academic retention and strength & conditioning. The progress was evident last season. After two years of waving at opposition well beyond his grasp, Schiano closed the gap last season with a 5-7 (2-5 Big East) record. This article is the last of a three-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters summer camp. The first article reviewed new faces on the roster and the second article identified significant depth chart battles. This last article reviews performance issues.
A 24-7 season-ending victory over Syracuse gave the Scarlet Knights their first five-win regular season – and two-win Big East season – since 1998. The win also gave Rutgers momentum heading into 2004. However, the Scarlet Knights twice blew late leads and lost opportunities for a seven-win season and bowl eligibility. Rutgers made tremendous strides in 2003. The offense, among the nation's worst in 2002, became respectable. The defense, so porous in previous years, showed progress. But the young team struggled to learn how to close out games. Or stay in games. The Scarlet Knights were mistake-prone and often were their own worst enemy. The following performance issues that must be addressed if Rutgers is going to continue improving:
- Interceptions: Rutgers matched Big East co-champ West Virgnia in total offense at 369 yards per game and bettered the Mountaineer defense by 11 at 380 total yards per game. Yet West Virginia was far superior in scoring offense and scoring defense. The most obvious reason? Turnovers. West Virginia ranked #4 nationally in TO margin at plus 1.23 per game while Rutgers ranked #94 at minus 0.5 per game. For the Scarlet Knights, fumbles were not the problem as Rutgers ranked #37 in fumbles lost and #35 in fumbles recovered. The problem was INTs. On both sides of the football. Jr QB Ryan Hart's 19 INTs ranked Rutgers #102 nationally. Meanwhile, the defense, whose pass coverage weaknesses will be discussed below in more detail, ranked #89 with only 10 INTs. Hart must lower his INT total to about 10, which should give him at least a 2:1 TD-to-INT ratio. And the defense must intercept at least a few more passes. Dropped INTs, as occurred with Sr CB Eddie Grimes versus Boston College, are essentially TOs because the missed opportunities allow the opponent to retain possession.
- Big Plays Allowed: The big play was the Achilles heel of the defense last year. The defense allowed 20 runs and 39 passes of at least 30 yards. This big play vulnerability allowed opponents to score at a disproportionately greater rate than which they gained yardage. Maturation of a young, inexperienced LB corps should held solve the problem because experienced players should be better able to read and make plays. As would better coverage by the CBs, as discussed below. Next is the safeties, who were too often missing in action. From their role as the last line of defense, the safeties – especially the FS – can't sell out in run support and get beaten deep. The final link in the chain is the pass rush – from the DLine, LBs, and safeties. Too often last season, poor rush techniques or missed tackles allowed opposing passers to complete big plays downfield. Blitzers must use better judgment to pressure the QB and the pass rush must finish plays.
- Free Thinking: The infamous punt block fiasco against West Virginia illustrates the biggest criticism of the Schiano regime. Namely, Schiano is a control freak who stifles independent thought. Players and coaches follow orders rather than think for themselves. How else does one explain 11 players on the field, the coaches in the booth, and the coaches on the sideline failing to call a timeout when West Virginia employed its spread offense – rather than its punt team – against Rutgers' punt block team on 4th down in the closing seconds of the first half? How else does one explain the total failure of the team to adjust to this formation and simply cover the eligible receivers? Or the PR rushing towards the LOS of scrimmage rather than playing deep safety? This was just one of many examples of a team that couldn't think for itself.
Legendary former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said his job was essentially finished with the opening tipoff because his team should already be prepared for the opponent they faced. While a bit of an understatement because it ignores in-game adjustments, it does make a point about preparation and the ability to act independently. A unit that can act independently is far more adaptable and flexible than a unit rigidly following instructions. Schiano needs to let go. Let his coaches do their jobs and allow the players to do their jobs. No more chinese fire drills in the secondary. No more 12-man punt return teams. No more indecision fielding punts. No more forcing a bad play because it was called from the sideline. No more stubbornily refusing to change defensive schemes that don't work. A coach's job is to teach his players how to think for themselves. Improvement in this area should reduce a lot of the stupid mistakes that cost Rutgers opportunities last year.
- Deep Passing: Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg augmented the playbook in spring camp with an increased emphasis on deep passing. The offense threw deep with increased frequency but without significant success. The offense likely will continue to work on the deep passing game through summer camp. It should be a priority because Michigan State will likely try to smother the short passing game with press coverage in the season opener, much as the Spartans did last year in East Lansing. The ability to connect on long balls will force the Spartans to loosen their coverage, which in turn will create room underneath for short passes. But the QBs must complete the deep balls.
- CB Coverage: Under former Defensive Backs Coach Scott Lakatos, coverage by Scarlet Knight CBs was generally lackluster regardless of the scheme. In the base Cover 1 man-to-man scheme, the CBs typically offered generous cushions that allowed opponents to take, at will, 10 yard gains on curl, hitch, or out routes. If the CBs applied press coverage, they were beaten deep or committed pass interference. In the Cover 2 dime zone under scheme, the CBs again gave soft cushions and the resulting easy gains. In spring camp, the coverage fundamentals showed improvement under new DB Coach Chris Demarest. The two new starters and two inexperienced backups must continue that improvement in summer camp. They must tighten the cushions on opposing WRs and force opponents to deep to beat them, rather than simply conceding short passes. The CBs also must find incoming passes and make plays – breakups or INTs. Lastly, their open field tackling must improve. Big cushions and poor tackling equals big gains.
- Running Outside: The Scarlet Knights rarely ran outside last season – few pitches and an occasional run off-tackle. The OLine, which lacked foot speed, focused on power running up the middle – Power G (pulling OG and FB leading the TB between the OT and TE), lead draw, and iso. This tendency allowed opponents to load up the middle to stop the run. A common tactic was to pinch the DEs hard inside with the goal of penetrating the backfield and disrupting the play. Ver Steeg must be able to run outside and force the run defense to guard the entire width of the field. Off-tackle and stretch plays are most likely to be the plays used to achieve this diversity.
The counter-pitch could be an effective play against man-to-man defenses. This play was the hot new play in college football in 2000. I first saw Schiano's Miami Hurricanes use it at Washington. Other teams quickly adopted it. Rutgers fans saw it, too, when Miami used it against Rutgers for a big gain, undressing former Scarlet Knight OLB Wes Robertson in the process. Here's how it works. Motion the WR to the other WR's side of the field (bringing the CB with him). Fake the dive to RS So FB Brian Leonard (a viable threat). The TB takes a counter step towards the dive, reverses direction, and sprints to the now open side of the field. The QB reverse pivots and option pitches (the pitch is not optional, think shovel pass) to the TB. If the DE bites on the FB fake, the TB is one-on-one with the safety 10 yards downfield. The variant below shows the WR cracking back on the DE rather than bringing the CB to the opposite side of the field.
- Pass Rush: Rutgers nearly doubled its sack total last season but relied heavily upon blitzing to create that pressure. Blitzing has a price – reduced zone coverage underneath in the secondary and a greater emphasis on man-to-man coverage. Schiano's defenses at Miami didn't have to blitz because the DLine could generate sufficient pressure. Rutgers obviously lacks the talent of Miami. However, improved talent and depth should reduce the reliance upon blitzing. Defensive Coordinator Paul Ferraro has a DLine that is nearly three deep. Ferraro can rotate his players to keep them fresh. Fresh legs should rush and pursue more effectively, especially as the game progresses and the OLine fatigues. The DLine must provide an adequate four-man pass rush, which will allow the LBs and safeties to concentrate on pass coverage. A reliable pass rush by the DLine will also allow Ferraro to blitz less predictably and, thus, more effectively. If opposing QBs and WRs aren't expecting the blitz, they won't be as ready to make adjustments to throw to the hot receiver on the hot route and burn the blitz.
- Dime Package: Ferraro employs a 3-2 Cover 2 dime scheme in obvious passing situations. He has typically used four safeties and two CBs in the dime – two deep safeties, two hybrid S/OLBs (giving the defense a "3-4" look), and two CBs on the outside. Ferraro typically plays zone coverage underneath when not blitzing from the dime. However, Ferraro blitzes frequently and heavily from the dime, leaving man-to-man coverage underneath. Last year, Ferraro used four CBs and two safeties in his dime defense. Sr Eddie Grimes, a big CB, played one OLB position. Starting CB Nate Jones moved back to deep safety while the WS moved up to OLB. So Derrick Roberson played Jones' vacated CB spot. Roberson struggled as the dime CB and was the weak link that opposing QBs exploited. Worse yet, the best CB – Jones – was playing deep safety while Roberson was being victimized. Ferraro played a not-ready-for-prime-time true freshman (the #4 CB) ahead of three backup safeties – Jr Dondre Asberry, Jr Jason Nugent, and RS Sr Jason Grant. With two experienced CBs departed in Brandon Haw and Jones, will Ferraro resume using four experienced safeties in the dime or will inexperienced CBs again be exposed?
- Pass Distribution: Last season, three players caught more than 50 passes but no other player caught more than 18 passes. So TB Justise Hairston was the feature back for half a season yet caught only one pass. Leonard caught 53 passes but his backup FBs combined for only two receptions. The WRs combined for 134 receptions but the TEs only caught 33 passes. Jr QB Ryan Hart must more evenly distribute his passes among his receivers. By focusing primarily on just a few targets, he allows opponents to cheat off unlikely targets and tighten the coverage on his favorite targets. He must also stop forcing throws into tight coverage and instead find his safety valve receivers.
- Punting: Punts were feast or famine last year as RS So P Joe Radigan was very inconsistent. He would boom one punt50 yards with terrific hang time but then follow with a 30-yard punt. The field position battle is crucial to a ball control offense such as Rutgers employs. As the offense minimizes the opponents possessions, good punting maximizes the distance the opposition must cover. Conversely, poor punting gives the opponent short fields to navigate and forces the Rutgers offense to play at a faster tempo not necessarily suited to the unit. Radigan must improve the consistency of his punts. No more 30-yard kicks. Get the average up over 40 yards and keep the low end deviation small.
Coming Next: Part 1 of my Big East Preview. I'll begin my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at defending co-champion West Virginia. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and the season schedule.
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