KEEPING THE FAITH

Five years ago, Greg Schiano took New Jersey and Rutgers University by storm, proclaiming, "It's Time" and promising to lay the foundation for a program, "Built on Rock, not Sand." Schiano promised us that Rutgers would win championships and although no timetable was offered, the excitement generated by Schiano's fiery optimism and ability to recruit a top-50 recruiting class in a little over 30 days, sent fans into a frenzy.

Years two and three, reality set in as people began to realize that building a program takes time. Last season, however, most fans expected a breakout season and after an opening day win over Michigan State, the faithful considered a bowl game in 2004 a fait accompli. A week later an embarrassing loss to Division 1-A New Hampshire, set in motion the beginning of a disappointing 4-7 season. Now embarking on the fifth season of the Schiano era, most fans are cautiously optimistic with "cautious" being the operative word.

Will this be the year that the Scarlet Knights turn the corner? Will the faithful who gather on the Banks each fall, finally be rewarded to a bowl game? Here are five reasons to start blocking out vacation time for the last week in December and five reasons why you might want to start thinking about hiding the razor blades:

Experience
The Scarlet Knights will return nine projected starters on offense and eight on defense. In addition, several other returning players saw significant action last year. All of last year's playmakers are returning---Brian Leonard, Clark Harris, Tres Moses, Jeremy Ito, Ryan Neil and Ron Girault, in addition to the expected return of Shawn Tucker. One of the things that separates winning teams from average ones are playmakers and Rutgers will take the field next year with more than its share of them. On the offensive line, three of last year's starting offensive linemen will return next year and it is expected that Penn State transfer Dan Mazan will ably anchor the line at center. On defense, David Harley, Alfred Peterson and Gary Gibson were lost to graduation but there is both depth and experience on the line with Ryan Neil, Val Barnaby, Rameel Meekins, Piana Lukabu, Luis Rivas and Nate Robinson. Linebacking and the defensive backfield will both be experienced units in 2005.

Schedule
The schedule while more difficult than last year's favors Rutgers for a number of reasons. Home games against Villanova, South Florida, Navy and Cincinnati are all very winnable games. Rutgers should also win on the road against Buffalo and Connecticut, while Syracuse and Illinois are both toss-ups. Six victories are certainly attainable and if things break right, seven or eight wins is not out-of-the-question.

Depth
For the most part, the last two years have proven our starters can play with the opposition's starters. With the exception of the defensive line and wide receivers, however, there has been a noticeable drop-off in talent when the starters come off the field. This has hindered Schiano's ability to rotate fresh bodies in-and-out of the line-up. The gap between 1st and 2nd string for most of our opponents last year was far narrower, allowing teams to shuffle players, eventually wearing our starters down. Hopefully, this year, there will be little discernable drop-off at most positions.

Lack of Attrition
Five years of keeping academic/disciplinary casualties and transfers to a minimum and four years of red shirting key freshman should pay dividends on the field this year. Everybody who makes it on to the field will have been fully indoctrinated into the Schiano system. Unlike the Terry Shea era, very few of our best players will be playing their ball at junior college or asking if "you want fries with that?"

Jeremy Ito
Perhaps the single best weapon that Rutgers will put out on the field this fall, the sophomore should eclipse every Rutgers kicking record by the time he graduates. Last year, the true freshman hit 15-24 field goals (62.5%) but most impressively hit 6 of 9 from beyond the 40-yard line. While there were a few head scratches when Ito was sent out to attempt field goals beyond the 50, that experience should pay-off this year, as Ito is more than capable of hitting from beyond midfield.

On the other hand, here are five reasons to be concerned for 2005:

Punting Game
Football is largely a game of field position and the 2004 Scarlet Knights were plagued by an inconsistent punting game. Although Joe Radigan got off some boomers, his overall average was 38.4 yards on 52 punts. There were a number of punts that support the vast potential Radigan had coming out of high school is there. But the hallmark of punting is consistency and if the offense is to be successful, it must receive good field position on a consistent basis.

Coaching
"Yes he can recruit, but can he coach?" Initially a whisper a couple of years back, the whispers have grown into full-fledged yells. Taking over as defensive coordinator, the faithful will know soon enough if Paul Ferraro was the problem with last year's defense. Schiano, while being occupied primarily with the defense, should give Craig Ver Steeg greater latitude in calling the offense. If the belief by many that Schiano is a micro-manager is true, the added responsibility of running the defense will force him to rely more on his assistants, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Kyle Flood, the recently hired offensive line coach from Delaware will bear the responsibility of returning the offensive line to its level of performance in 2003 under Mario Cristobal.

QB Play
Ryan Hart while quietly accumulating many Rutgers all-time passing records has shown a frustrating propensity for throwing ill conceived passes at the most in-opportune times. There are also many who feel that Hart has yet to demonstrate that he can consistently throw the deep ball. The topic of incessant message board chatter, Hart will enter the 2005 season as the RU starter with a healed shoulder, an improved offensive line and numerous weapons at his disposal. Still, despite solidly in Hart's corner, Schiano won't hesitate to go to Terrence Shawell or Mike Teel if the offense sputters.

Defensive Backfield
The most maligned group during the Schiano era was not helped by a mid-season car accident that put starter Manny Collins, Dondre Asberry and Eddie Grimes out for the season. In addition, the defensive backfield was the most inexperienced group on the field last year, starting a true freshman and two sophomores. While freshman Ron Girault showed tremendous instinct and a nose for the ball, the unit suffered from a lack of depth and experience. Ron Girault and Jason Nugent will bring experience and athleticism to the field this year; still much will depend on the continued improvement of Joe Porter and Derrick Roberson. It will also be interesting to see if any of the freshmen: Glen Lee, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty or Davon Smart break the two-deep.

Learning How to Win
Last year after the Michigan State game, many believed Rutgers got that ever elusive "signature win" that would propel the team to a winning season. It didn't happen and that puts more pressure on the 2005 Scarlet Knights to finally turn the corner and start beating quality teams on a consistent basis. Unless there is a total collapse, the Scarlet Knights should be at least 2-1 going into the nationally televised game on September 30th at home against Pittsburgh. The next week is West Virginia at home followed by away games against Syracuse and Connecticut. It will be this four-week stretch that will largely dictate the 2005 season and whether we go "bowling" this year.

Mike and The Big Dog's LLC


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