SUMMER CAMP PREVIEW – DEPTH CHART
Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano opens his fifth summer camp on the Banks this week. After a 4-7 season (1-5 in the Big East) in a year expected to deliver the long awaited bowl berth, doubts exist as to whether the Scarlet Knights will ever realize their potential under Schiano. The talent level on the roster may be peaking this year, at least for the next few years as Schiano's recruiting momentum peaked last year and continues to suffer from failed expectations. Recruits are no longer buying hope and vision. They are weighing results. And the results through four years have raised questions about Schiano's prospects for success. The 2005 season may be do or die for Schiano. Another losing season may not mean his dismissal – after all, this is Rutgers where Bob Mulcahy reinforces failure rather than pursues excellence – but Greg's recruiting will continue to suffer. If Schiano cannot win with more talent against easy schedules, how will win with less talent? This article is the second of a three-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters summer camp. The first article reviewed new faces on the roster. The second article will review the most significant competition on the depth chart.
Rutgers no longer resembles a Division I-AA program. The players are lean, strong, and athletic. The entire roster consists of players that Schiano has recruited, trained, and developed. Impressive depth has been developed at many positions. For the second year in a row, Schiano returns 16 of 22 starters (plus both kickers); 31 players return off the two-deep. Rutgers now possesses one of the most veteran teams in the Big East. Although the roster is three or four deep at some positions, other positions have unproven starters and no experienced depth. Specifically, along the OLine and at DT. At least 26 players missed all or some of spring camp with injuries. Therefore, many positions on the depth chart are still up for grabs. The following positions on the depth chart, in order of descending importance, will likely see the most competition this summer:
- Starting Center – For the second year in a row, all eyes will be on the center position, which has been in turmoil since the departure of two-year starter Marty P'zmuka two years ago. The center calls the blocking assignments for the OLine. Along with the LT, the center must be the best athlete on the OLine. The center position again is a giant question mark to which spring camp provided no sure answers. The top two candidates missed spring camp with injuries and the third candidate won't join the team until summer camp (except for voluntary summer workouts). Spring camp saw walk-on RS Jr Joe Giacobbe split repetitions with spring enrollee true freshman Dave McClain. Giacobbe held the first team job at the end of camp but there are obvious concerns with a walk-on starting on the OLine. The answer may yet be Giacobbe, who nonetheless performed better than any other OL in the Spring Game. McClain is not ready to contribute; he needs a redshirt to refine his fundamentals. Whether versatile So OL Jeremy Zuttah saw any repetitions at center is unknown; he did not play center in the Spring Game.
RS So Dan Mazan, was the favorite to sew up the starting center job. But he has been plagued with shoulder problems since his days at Penn State; he missed spring camp while recovering from surgery. Mazan is an unknown commodity at this time. That uncertainty has been alleviated by his switch to RG. The uncertainty at center remains. RS Jr Will Vogt has been the incumbent backup for two years yet seemingly is not considered a viable candidate for the starting job. The knock on Vogt is that he isn't athletic enough. I'll be shocked if Vogt emerges from summer camp as the starter. Many Rutgers fans are pinning their hopes on JUCO transfer Darnell Stapleton. I would urge caution. First, Stapleton won't officially join the team until summer camp. So nobody has seen him play against Division I-A caliber competition. Second, his physical conditioning is unknown but, as a JUCO, should be suspect. Third, Hudson Valley CC, though Northeast Football Conference champions, is not a JUCO hotbed. The quality of his past competition is suspect. He wasn't playing in the Kansas, Texas, or California JUCO leagues. I will be very concerned if Stapleton is the most qualified candidate for the job.
- Starting DT – Schiano lost four of his top five DTs, including his top three. Sr Luis Rivas is the only DT with starting experience (8 career starts). He has one starting job sewn up, barring injury(he missed some of spring camp with a foot injury. Former walk-on Jr Rameel Meekins is the only other experienced DT on the roster He has been a third team DT each of the past two years and has seen some playing time. His experience made him an early favorite but he may lost that edge after missing some of spring camp with an unspecified injury. RS Jr Cameron Stephenson was a JUCO recruit whom Schiano switched to RT last season because of a glut of DTs and a shortage of OTs. Cam was recruited as a DT and returned there in spring camp. He played well in the Spring Game against the LG Zuttah and RS Sr RG John Glass. RS Fr Carl Howard did not play last year while sitting out the season per NCAA transfer requirements. He likely would not have cracked the six-man DT rotation anyway. Howard was expected to get playing time as a third team DT this year. However, the dismissal of Nate Robinson pushed up Howard's development plan. Howard played well in the spring game against the more experienced Zuttah and Glass. Howard should now play on the two-deep and will compete with Meekins and Stephenson for a starting job.
- Starting/Backup TB – RS Jr Brian Leonard was the staring TB last year by default because no other viable candidate emerged. But He averaged a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry. Brian belongs at FB, not TB. But Schiano must find a TB to outproduce Leonard. Jr Justise Hairston spent the month of September running into the wrong holes and up the backs of his OL. He capped a poor month with two fumbles at Syracuse in Leonard's absence and that ended Justise's season at TB. Sr Markis Facyson suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener and struggled thereafter. His running style was described as "looking for a place to fall down." He also played poorly at Syracuse and was seldom used thereafter. If he can regain his form from 2003, when he averaged nearly 5 yards per carry, he will find a spot in the rotation as a change of pace TB and the single RB in 3WR formations.
RS Sr Clarence Pittman was the forgotten man last year. He sat while wrong-way Hairston and a true freshman played ahead of him. Pittman saw the bulk of his action against Vanderbilt and Temple. He otherwise played very little. Given his lack of production in 2003, it was surprising to see Clarence invited back for a fifth year. Nonetheless, he returned and was the only TB to survive spring camp healthy. Pittman ran well in the Spring Game as the only available TB. He has earned a chance to play this year. Truly play. Not a few carries here and there behind a true freshman who should be carrying the bags for seniors. Will Pittman get that playing time? So Dimitri Linton saw the bulk of his action against Syracuse and Connecticut, otherwise playing sparingly (e.g., KOR). His carries were primarily on outside runs. Dimitri would have been better served by redshirting. Fr Raymell Rice was recruited by the former Syracuse coaching staff, which had a pretty good eye for talent at TB. I would prefer to see Rice redshirt and polish his skills, especially pass blocking and blitz protection, which the Rutgers west coast offense requires of the TB. However, given the lack of proven options at TB, the starting and backup jobs are up for grabs and Rice could see significant playing time.
- Starting/Backup FB – With Leonard spending so much time at TB last year, RS Sr Ishmael Medley moved into the starting lineup at FB. Medley is used almost exclusively as a pure blocker as he has only six touches in two years at FB. Brian Leonard is more suited to the FB position. He is a bigger threat as a receiver, which he can accomplish just as easily as a FB. And in the process provide an outside "running" threat because OLBs will be forced to honor their outside contain responsibilities on FB drag routes and won't simply pinch inside to snuff out the inside running game, upon which Rutgers relies so heavily. After getting banished to Fumble Island in early October, Justise Hairston re-emerged as a FB in November. More athletic than Medley or the departed Cedric Brown, Justise was a more viable threat as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught 17 passes for 105 yards, mostly as a FB. Since Hairston missed the Spring Game with an ankle injury, his position – FB or TB – is as yet unknown. Rutgers needs another strong TB to complement Leonard. Schiano must make a choice between TB and FB for Hairston – and stick with it. So Jean Beljour played primarily on special teams last year. A season that would have been better spent redshirting. He principally saw action at FB against Syracuse, when Leonard was injured. Beljour may offer the best combination of size, strength, and athleticism at FB. Don't' be surprised to see Jean emerge as the starter and produce ala Leonard (as a FB). Beljour at FB would free Leonard to play TB with less attention and would give Rutgers a very big backfield with which to wear down opponents.
- Starting LG – Jeremy Zuttah was the primary backup at LG last year. Jeremy played every OL position except center. Zuttah was the 1st team LG in spring camp but he struggled in the Spring Game against comparably inexperienced competition. He is considered to be the most talented and athletic young OL in the program. He will start at LG. Unless he is starting somewhere else. So Corey Hyman also took snaps at LG last year. He was the 7th player in the OL rotation, which really didn't rotate except for injuries. Hyman missed spring camp while recovering from shoulder surgery. He supposedly is healthy. He likely will start at LG if Zuttah starts elsewhere.
- Starting LT – RS Fr Pedro Sosa was the designated backup LT last year but utility reserve Zuttah played ahead of Pedro. Sosa was the first team LT in spring camp. Pedro played better than did Zuttah in the Spring Game. Pedro's biggest problem was blocking the outside speed rush by the DE. Something he must remedy in summer camp since he is protecting Sr QB Ryan Hart's blind side. Jeremy Zuttah started at LT the only game that departed starter Ron Green did not open. Zuttah was the starting LG in the Spring Game but also played backup LT. The plan seems to be for Sosa to play LT and Zuttah to play LG, giving Rutgers a young and inexperienced but more athletic left side. If Sosa falters at LT, expect Zuttah to replace him.
- Starting CB – Jr Joe Porter is a lock for one starting CB job. The other job is up for grabs. Jr Derrick Roberson began the 2004 season as the third CB in a three-man rotation. Roberson quickly displaced starter Eddie Grimes, who struggled badly in September. However, Roberson was a weak link in the pass defense. He struggled in both zone and man-to-man coverage. He was often victimized on double moves, leaving the opposing WRs WAFO. Roberson's play did improve as the season progressed. But it wasn't so good as to ensure a starting job in 2004. So Anthony Miller missed the early season while awaiting resolution of eligibility issues with the NCAA Clearninghouse. He was cleared to play in mid-season. Recruited as a WR, he was switched to CB to fill the ranks depleted by the auto accident following the Temple game, which ended the seasons for two backup CBs. Miller played as the third CB over the last half of the season. His performance was impressive considering he was thrown into the fray without the benefit of training camp. Anthony was expected to push Roberson for the starting job in spring camp but a groin injury to Roberson postponed that clash. Don't be surprised to see Anthony win the starting job outright in summer camp or displace Roberson during the season.
Rumors have persisted that Miller may transfer. Miller was a no-show for summer camp. Schiano stuck by Miller after Anthony had a brush with the law last year. At a time when Rutgers football already was getting too much bad publicity from the police blotter. If Miller walks out on Schiano after Greg went out on a limb for Anthony, don't let the door hit Miller's ass on the way out. If Miller leaves, one would think that Roberson would win the job by default. Sr CB Corey Barnes was converted from WR to CB last year after the car accident depleted the depth in the defensive backfield. He was primarily a special teams player before converting to defense. He played well in the Spring Game but was not seriously tested. Corey was expected to compete for the fourth CB job. However, Barnes is currently listed ahead of Roberson on the depth chart. That is shocking, considering that Roberson has two years more experience at the position.
- Starting/Backup WLB – Jr Quintero Frierson opened the 2004 season as the starting WLB but a high ankle sprain in the season opener shelved him for several weeks and relegated him to backup duty when he returned. Frierson was expected to compete for the starting job in spring camp but the competition may have been decided against Frierson, who played at SLB in the Spring Game. Frierson is now back at backup WLB. Sr William "Papa" Beckford was the staring WLB in 2003 until a knee injury ended his season. He was still recovering last year and it reflected in his play, which was not strong. Beckford could not get off blocks and make plays. Papa nonetheless replaced Frierson in the starting lineup. Beckford was the starting WLB in the Spring Game, implying that he has beaten Frierson for the starting WLB job. Whether his play warrants this honor remains to be seen. RS Sr Brad Cunningham was Beckford's backup early last year but arguably played better. Inexplicably, Brad remained the backup. He missed spring camp with knee injury that will sideline him at least until mid-season. Meanwhile, RS Fr Chenry Lewis played in the Spring Game at WLB in Cunningham's absence. Lewis had the best game of any LB, recording 12 tackles. He showed a nose for the football that is sorely lacking in the LB corps. Lewis should replace Cunningham although he is currently listed at SLB, not WLB.
- Starting SLB – Sr Terry Bynes emerged from summer camp last year as the surprise starter ahead of the more heralded Berkeley Hutchinson. Bynes held the job throughout the season and finished second among LBs in tackles. He missed spring camp with a groin injury. He was expected to be challenged for his job by loser of the contest between Beckford and Frierson for the starting WLB job. That challenge was postponed until summer camp. Bynes is the best candidate for the SLB job. We'll see if he maintains his grip on the position. Quintero Frierson played SLB in the Spring Game, implying that he will vie for the starting job in summer camp. However, Frierson did not play well in the Spring Game, as he was MIA at the point of attack a few times, allowing long runs. Now, Frierson is listed back at WLB, behind Beckford. Why didn't he play WLB in the Spring Game? Brad Cunningham displaced the departed Berkeley Hutchinson as the backup SLB last year as Hutchinson slid down the depth chart. Cunningham has been a utility reserve the past two seasons, playing both SLB and WLB. As mentioned above, Brad missed spring camp with an injury and will not return until midseason, if at all. Chenry Lewis, after playing WLB in the Spring Game, is now listed as the backup SLB. Again, why the switch after spring camp?
- Starting/Backup Safeties – Although Schiano lost three experienced safeties, he returns three experienced players. So Ron Girault is lock for one starting safety job. Last year, as a lightly recruited true freshman, he progressed quickly from special teams to backup WS to starting WS by mid-season. Sr Jason Nugent opened the 2004 season as the staring WS but was demoted by midseason for non-performance. The second year in a row that he lost his starting job for cause. Nugent is the obvious choice to replace departed starter Jarvis Johnson in the starting lineup The only question is whether it will be at FS or at WS (with incumbent starter Girault sliding over to FS). The big knock on Nugent has been his inability to find the football. Not a glowing qualification for the FS job, which is often all that stands between the ballcarrier and the end zone. I would prefer to see Girault at FS – he is a ball hawk. Nugent is better suited for WS, who often plays at LB depth in an eight-man front. RS Jr Bryan Durango opened the 2003 season as the starting WS but missed much of the past two seasons with knee injuries. He has also missed spring camp each of the past two years. The injuries have stunted his development. He is the only experienced backup safety. He likely will backup the WS. He will also likely play OLB in the dime package, which typically employs safeties as OLBs. RS Fr Robert Baham practiced with the scout team last year. He missed the Spring Game with a hamstring injury. He is expected to win one of the backup safety jobs by default, probably at FS opposite Durango. His only competition will be true freshmen Courtney Greene and Davon Smart.
- Backup OL – Four players are battling for the starting center job – Joe Giacobbe, William Vogt, Darnell Stapleton, and Dave McClain. The backup will emerge from this pool. I expect Stapleton to be the backup. Corey Hyman appears to be the top backup OL. He may be used as a utility reserve, much as Zuttah was last year. Corey is currently listed as the backup LT. Jeremy Zuttah will likely backup Sosa, with Hyman sliding into Zuttah's place at LG. RS So Mike Fladell played backup RT in spring camp. However, he lacks the athleticism to play at OT. He likely will be the designated backup RT but don't be surprised to see Zuttah backing up RS Sr RT Sameeh McDonald (with Hyman again filling in at LG). Dan Mazan, who missed spring camp after undergoing shoulder surgery, has been switched to RG. He likely will be the fourth OG behind Hyman. RS Fr Mike Gilmartin was the designated backup LT but suffered a knee injury in spring camp. He is currently listed as the backup LG, but is not expected to contribute, as shuffling likely will put him well down the playing rotation. RS Jr Randy Boxill was a utility reserve in the Spring Game – he played RT, RG, and LG. Boxill performed reasonably well but apparently is on the outside looking in at the two-deep.
- Backup DL – The dismissal of DE Piana Lukabu after spring camp cost the DLine one of its best playmakers and its most experienced backup. RS So Eric Foster was the fifth DE last year and saw early action filling in for suspended players. He should play often a two-deep rotation. RS Fr Jamaal Westerman, a spring 2004 enrollee, played well in each of the past two spring games. He should be the fourth DE and may be more of a pass rush specialist, ala Lukabu. Cameron Stephenson and Carl Howard will battle for the remaining starting DT job. The loser will see heavy action as the third DT. Rameel Meekins will round out the two-deep, if he doesn't outright beat Stephenson and Howard for the starting job. True freshman Jonathan Pierre-Etienne is a spring enrollee originally recruited as a DE. However, attrition prompted Schiano to switch JPE to DT in the Spring Game. Jon played surprisingly well against more experienced OL. However, he underwent hip surgery after spring camp to address an old high school injury. He is expected to redshirt this season while rehabilitating his injured hip. Foster played at DT in the Spring Game. However, further attrition at DE may force Foster back to DE. Both Foster and starting DE Val Barnaby could be used as pass rushing DTs on obvious passing downs. True freshmen DT Chris Dirksz and DE Gary Watts are two of the most highly touted recruits of the 2005 signing class. Both could play in a three-deep rotation. Or Dirskz, recruited as a DE but moved to DT, could even crack the two-deep given the lack of proven depth.
- Backup CBs – Anthony Miller, Derrick Roberson, and Corey Barnes will battle for the second starting CB job. I will be shocked if Miller does not eventually emerge on top. The runner-up of this competition will be the third CB and the nickel CB. The loser will have the edge for the fourth CB job. RS Jr Leslie Collins had worked his way into the nickel CB job last year before the car accident prematurely ended his season. The extent of his injuries have not been reported. Schiano has indicated that Leslie should return. However, Collins missed spring camp. We shall see if he returns for summer camp. Collins has a lot to overcome to regain the two-deep, much less his nickel CB role. RS Fr Chazz Lynn missed spring camp with a shoulder injury. He likely will be limited to special teams this year.
- Backup WR – Jr Willie Foster will likely backup RS Sr Tres Moses at FL. RS Sr Chris Baker and Jr Marcus Daniels will compete for the backup snaps behind RS Jr Shawn Tucker. Or the starting job if Tucker cannot stay healthy. Daniels is the more athletic receiver. But he's the softer of the two. Both will play even if Tucker is healthy. The team will be better served is Daniels beats Baker for the backup job.
Coming Next: Part 3 of my Summer Camp Preview. Last year, Rutgers possessed the talent to win seven games and earn the much anticipated owl bid. It didn't happen, primarily as a result of the faulty application of that talent. I'll look at the performance issues that must be addressed to reach a bowl game. And, as might be expected after such a disappointing season, there are a whole bunch of them.
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