SPRING PREVIEW – THE BIG PICTURE
Spring camp opened spring camp nearly a month ago, on March 26th. Fifteen practices later, spring camp ended April 23rd with the annual Spring Game. 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 were 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 needed to be addressed in spring practice. Fans who attended the Spring Game – or subsequently viewed any of its several delayed broadcasts – could focus on some of these issues and judge for themselves how the young team is progressing.
Last season, Head Coach Greg Schiano replaced two offensive assistant coaches who left Rutgers for greener pastures. Schiano retained the services of former Dallas Cowboys WR Coach John McNulty to fill the hole left by the departure of WR Darrell Hazell for Ohio State. Schiano also hired former Western Illinois OLine Coach Rod Holder to succeed former OLine Coach Mario Cristobal, who returned to his alma mater – Miami. While the WRs progressed under McNulty's supervision, Holder was unable to build upon the foundation that Cristobal had laid. Worse, Holder damaged the morale of the unit, which played uninspired. An OLine that was beginning to dominate games reverted to its soft, pliant ways of the past. As went the OLine, so went the offense. Right down the tubes.
Although Rutgers ranked #6 (out of 117 Division IA teams) in passing offense (up from #45) and #40 in total offense (up from #69), the scoring offense was not commensurate at a ranking of #66 in scoring offense (down from #55) because the rushing offense ranked #113 (down from #69) and the Scarlet Knights ranked #116 in TOs (down from #93). Rushing yardage decreased 40% to 83 yard per game (from 139). Rushing attempts averaged a paltry 2.5 yards per carry, 25% less than the yield 3.3 yards per carry in 2003. The OLine yielded only 20 sacks, improving upon the impressive 2002 total of 23. The completion rate increased from 59% to 65%, ideally where it belongs for the west coast offense. Passing yardage jumped 35% to 311 yards per game (from 230). However, the QB threw 19 INTs for the second consecutive year.
The offense regressed last year. The running attack sputtered and denied balance to the offense. Though the passing game put up prolific statistics, it was not enough to carry a one-dimensional offense. Further, the passing game couldn't stretch the field vertically, allowing opponents to crowd the line of scrimmage and defend a short field. Turnovers repeatedly sabotaged possessions. The offensive staff witnessed more turnover this winter as Schiano dismissed Holder and replaced him with former Delaware OLine Coach Kyle Flood. Schiano also reassigned former RB Coach Darren Rizzi to LB Coach and hired former Illinois WR Coach Robert Jackson to replace Rizzi. Here a few big picture issues facing the offense:
- Holder wrecked the OLine in one year. Flood inherits a unit lacking depth, experience, and attitude. Flood must imprint his stamp on the unit and restore a smash-mouth mind-set.
- The OLine suffered frequent breakdowns at the point of attack, regardless of location, that blew up plays before they started. The power running game lacked power. Rutgers must rediscover its power running game. However, the progress will be difficult to measure against a defense that has suffered heavy losses at DT. If the running game struggles against a depleted DLine, that will be a tremendous cause for concern.
- Despite prolific passing statistics, the passing attack was flawed. The QBs made few big plays and committed too many TOs. Are the QBs making fewer mistakes and more big plays?
- Schiano has spent four years searching for a feature TB and has yet to find one. He has played an average of 4.5 players at TB each season. Schiano's impatient handling has shuttled players through the TB position without allowing them to get comfortable carrying the ball. There are still plenty of questions at the RB positions. With two TBs out with injuries, will any TB emerge and allow RS Jr Brian Leonard to play his natural FB position.
- Rutgers was not able to stretch the field vertically last year, allowing opponents to compress the Scarlet Knight passing game into the short zone. Are the receivers in stretching the field vertically? Are the QBs completing the throws?
- The TEs were ineffective in blocking the opposing DEs last season on the bread-n-butter Power G (pulling OG and FB leading the TB off-tackle). How effective is the run blocking by the TEs?
- Last season, the running game again existed almost exclusively between the tackles. Rutgers ran outside even less frequently and less successfully than in 2003. Limited athleticism on the OLine impeded efforts to seal the edge on outside runs. Will Flood's unit be able to demonstrate the ability to open seams on the outside in spring camp?
- Can the big backs run outside? Can the small backs run inside?
- Will the FB become a running threat? Will all of the FBs be used as receivers?
- Will Ver Steeg use 2TE formations as frequently with only two proven TEs?
- A series of nagging injuries on the OLine confirmed that Schiano has yet to address the ongoing depth problem that has plagued his OLine for four years. A true freshman (So Jeremy Zuttah) served as the utility backup and played every position except center. No other backup saw routine action other than emergency situations. Schiano has lost contributors on the OLine faster than he has recruited them. And he wasn't blessed with a surplus of talent when he arrived. And his early recruits have not contributed significantly. There are aren't enough healthy OLine to fill the two-deep. So, there won't be much opportunity to compare backups against starters or the second team against the first team.
Schiano needs to build quality depth. However, injuries will cloud the evolution of the depth chart. Spring camp will provide reserves with extra practice repetitions. In terms of the depth chart, here are the most interesting developments to observe:
- Who replaces Ray Pilch at center with RS Jr William Vogt and RS Fr Dan Mazan out with shoulder injuries? Who will practice at center with the first team and who is the contingency plan?
- Will Leonard play FB, where he belongs, or TB for lack of other viable options?
- Zuttah is a lock for one of three available starting jobs. The only question is, which one?
- What will the depth chart look like at RB?
- Who will emerge as the change of pace back if Schiano starts a big back?
- Does RS Sr Sameeh McDonald get switched to LT or does he stay at RT?
- Will RS So Terrence Shawell or RS Fr Mike Teel emerge as the backup QB? Will the backup challenge incumbent starter Sr Ryan Hart?
- What is the composition of the second OLine unit? With three candidates for starting jobs out with injuries, the spring depth chart is tentative. Will the second team offer any insights into likely backups next year?
- Will Jr Justise Hairston return to TB or will he stay at FB?
- Who among RS So Brad Listorti and RS Jr Anthony Cali emerges as the third TE?
- Has RS Sr Clarence Pittman been lapped on the depth chart by younger, more talented players?
The development and progress of the following players will be interesting to observe:
- Is Hart making better decisions?
- Can Hart complete passes to receivers downfield?
- Can Hart throw half as many INTs as TDs?
- Is RS So LT Pedro Sosa ready for prime time?
- How much has RS Jr TE Clark Harris' run blocking improved? Jr Sam Johnson's?
- In the absence of RS Jr WR Shawn Tucker and Jr WR Marcus Daniels, how effectively does RS Sr WR Chris Baker compliment RS Sr WR Tres Moses?
- If at TB, is Hairston running to the correct hole?
- How do the backup QBs perform? Can the backup QBs move the offense? Complete at least 60% of their passes? Do they force passes into tight coverage? Do they find their safety valve receivers more often when pressured to throw away the ball?
- Will So Jean Beljour contribute at FB?
- Following three hollow recruiting classes, Schiano's third and fourth classes must step forward early and fill the breach. Are RS So OG Mike Fladell, RS Fr OL Mike Gilmartin, and/or Fr C Dave McClain ready to contribute?
- Will Listorti or Cali contribute this year?
- Does RS Fr WR Keith Taylor look like a contributor this year?
Last season, Head Coach Greg Schiano also replaced two defensive assistant coaches. Schiano hired former North Carolina State DB Coach Chris Demarest to supplant dismissed former DB Coach Scott Lakatos, who later joined the Connecticut staff in the same capacity. Schiano also promoted former graduate assistant Phil Galiano to replace former LB Coach Mark D'Onofrio, who accepted a position with Virginia as the Special Teams/Recruiting Coordinator. The defense took yet another step backward last year. An experienced DLine was repeatedly blown off the ball. A deep and experienced linebacking corps was often missing in action at the point of attack and was confused in pass coverage. The secondary lacked both experience and depth at CB. This deficiency was compounded by mediocre play from the veteran safeties.
Rutgers was ranked #97 (out of 117 Division IA teams) in passing defense (down from #52), #80 in rushing defense (down from #68), and #104 in total defense (down from #61). While not as poor as the total defense, the scoring defense was ranked in the bottom quartile at #88 (down from #80). The rush defense weakened. Rushing yards allowed increased almost 10% to 178 yard per game (from 163). The rushing defense worsened its yield per carry from a soft 4.2 yards per carry to a softer 4.3 yards per carry. The pass defense was worse. Although the sack total increased from 27 to 31, passing yardage allowed increased from 230 yards per game to 251 yards per game. The big play again was the nemesis of the defense as it yielded 26 runs and 42 passes of at least 20 yards (versus 20 runs and 41 passes last year in a 12-game season). The secondary again bore the brunt of the blame.
Schiano's defense is full of holes. Depth at DT is suddenly tenuous. The DEs too easily lose backside containment. The LBs are a puzzle. The CBs get burned deep. And the safeties are often out of position for run support or pass coverage. The staff also had holes that needed to be plugged. Schiano demoted Galiano and switched former RB Coach Darren Rizzi to LB Coach. Schiano also replaced departed DLine Coach Randy Melvin, who initially joined Ron Zook's staff at Illinois before accepting a job with the Cleveland Browns, with former Arizona Cardinals DLine Coach Cary Godette. Here a few big picture issues facing the defense:
- The young secondary will be matched against a talented and experienced passing attack. How will the secondary fare in pass defense?
- How effective are the LBs in pass coverage on the underneath routes – either zone or man-to-man?
- Do the DEs keep backside containment?
- Are the safeties keeping opposing receivers in front of them?
- Are the DBs and LBs being more physical in pass coverage?
- Are the DBs looking back for the football to break-up or intercept passes?
- 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? Or are they jamming WRs at the line of scrimmage and disrupting their routes?
- In a Cover 2 zone underneath coverage scheme, are the CBs physically funneling the WRs inside towards the safeties? The dime defense employed a similar look with DBs playing the OLB roles. Are the dime OLBs also funneling WRs inside?
- With the OLine and TB position thinned by injuries, the improvement of the LB corps in defending the run won't be accurately measurable in spring camp.
- The performance of the DLine as a unit can't be gauged in spring camp because the DLine and OLine were each terrible last season. The DLine lost four players off the two deep. The losses were heaviest at DT, including both starters and a backup. Will a rebuilt DLine that couldn't stop the opposing rushing attack last year show improvement? That question can't be answered in spring camp. Not against a rebuilt OLine that couldn't open holes for its running backs last year. No, the level of improvement by DLine the won't be measurable until September.
Positions across the depth chart will be hotly contested in spring camp. Departures, injuries, and potential position changes could put all but three positions up for grabs. Here are the most interesting developments to observe on the depth chart:
- Who will start alongside Sr DT Luis Rivas?
- Who replaces Jarvis Johnson as the starting FS? If it's So Ron Girault, who replaces him as the starting WS?
- Does Sr William Beckford or So Quintero Frierson earn the starting WLB job? Are they both practicing at WLB?
- Who fills in for Sr Terry Bynes as the first team SLB? If its either Beckford or Frierson, they likely will battle Bynes for the staring job in summer camp.
- Can Jr Derrick Roberson maintain his starting CB job or will So Anthony Miller displace him?
- Where does RS Sr Brad Cunningham play – SLB or WLB? If it's at WLB, then Bynes' job is definitely up for grabs.
- Will Sr Val Barnaby remain at DE or be moved to DT? If Barnaby is moved inside, who will replace him in the starting lineup – RS Sr Piana Lukabu or RS So Eric Foster?
- Will any second year DL break into the two-deep?
- Who will be the backup safeties and CBs during camp with only an experienced one-deep available?
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:
- Has Roberson's pass coverage improved? Is he being more physical?
- Is Sr S Jason Nugent finding the football or is he still lost?
- Will Jr DT Nate Robinson contribute significantly?
- Does Beckford look fully recovered from his knee injury?
- Does RS Jr DT Cameron Stephenson look like a contributor this year?
- What leadership will Rivas provide at DT? Can he be a playmaker?
- Is Lukabu overpursuing and losing backside containment?
- Do RS Fr DTs Carl Howard and Joe Salinardi look like contributors?
- Will RS Fr S Robert Baham and/or RS Fr CB Chazz Lynn contribute?
- Does RS So LB Kenny Gillespie show any signs of contributing this year?
Coming Next: Spring Game Review. I will review the rosters of each team, recap the game, offer some thoughts on the game, and hand out my game balls for the Scarlet-White game.
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