THE BIG PICTURE
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 three defensive and four offensive 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 only prior to the opening of spring camp. My thoughts likewise share the same perspective. The article identifies issues that needed to be addressed in spring practice and were observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages. This belated preview still offers some useful insights into spring camp because it allows the reader, with a post-camp perspective, to answer questions developed before camp opened.
The defense was better relative to the offense last season. But one can't truthfully use degrees of "good" to describe either unit. The offense was among the worst in Division IA, setting a Big East record for fewest points scored. While the defense appears improved, performance in spring camp against a suspect offense can hardly be used as a barometer of quality. Strong performances against a suspect offense will not necessarily be an indicator of improvement but weak performances will be a bad sign. A very bad sign. With so many young player gaining strength and experience, will the defense outplay the offense this spring? Anything less will be very disappointing. Here are a few big picture issues:
The evolution of the depth chart will be the most telling development of spring camp. Most opponents moved the ball on and scored at will against our defense. Maturation of young starters will contribute towards improvement. So, will the displacement of non-performing veterans with younger, better players. Defenders can be judged better against peers at the same positions rather than their counterparts on offense. Of particular interest on the defense will be the following:
- The battle between Nate Jones and DeWayne Thompson for Tony Berry's former starting CB job will likely be one of the most closely contested of the spring. Who will win the contest?
- Backup Brian Hohmann has started more games at SLB than has incumbent starter Brian Bender. Who wins the starting job?
- Can Greg P'zmuka hold off Gary Gibson and maintain his starting DT job?
- Backup Brad Cunningham has started more games at LB than has incumbent starter Nate Leonard. Who gets the starting nod?
- Where will Rob Burnett play and where will he fit on the depth chart?
- Brandon Haw reports to spring camp fully recovered from a knee injury. Will he win back his starting job?
- Tony Berry reportedly will be switched to safety this spring, meaning a likely demotion to the 2nd team behind two solidly entrenched starters. Where will he play and where will he fit on the two-deep?
- Jarvis Johnson enters spring camp as the front-runner for one of two backup safety jobs. Will he be the primary backup for both positions? If not, which does he play?
- Will Mitch Davis continue his role as utility reserve or will a younger player displace him from the two-deep?
- With the reported switch of Tony Berry from CB to safety, Eddie Grimes is the front-runner for the one vacant CB slot on the 2nd team. Will Grimes sew up a backup job? Can he crack the starting lineup?
- How will Cedric Brown fare while competing with Burnett and Jenerette for a place on the 2nd team?
- Can Ron Jenerette crack the two-deep this spring?
- With the switch of Ron Simone from DE to FB, will Piana Lukabu have any competition for the backup DE job this spring?
- Will Steve Berson, Jeremy Campbell, and/or Ishmael Medley earn any of the openings on the two-deep?
- Will Jereme Baker, Vaughn Calhoun, Anthony Frazier, or Jason Grant position themselves to contribute or will they be an afterthought? In order to do so, they'll he'll have to beat two players who saw more action in the secondary last year – FS Jarvis Johnson and CB Eddie Grimes.
The development and progress of the following players will be interesting to observe:
- Rob Burnett's participation in spring camp is uncertain because he supposedly is recovering from a second operation on his injured knee. Burnett's progress will be the most interesting development story this spring. His size and experience should enable him to regain a position on the two-deep, but how far back will he come?
- Nate Leonard is still rehabilitating his knee and is poised to miss his third consecutive spring camp. Schiano has raised the possibility that Leonard may never return. And may never play with his younger brother, Brian.
- Can Raheem Orr stay healthy throughout spring camp and reclaim his perceived status as the best player on the defense?
- How effective will Alfred Peterson and Orr be as bookends? Given our weakness at OT, Peterson and Orr should dominate spring ball.
- Can Brad Cunningham shed the nagging injuries that plagued all season last year? Will Cunningham to entrench himself as the starting WLB?
- How does Davon Clark look and perform after a year of strength and conditioning? Can Clark establish himself as our top DT?
- Brian Bender now has fewer career starts than does his supposed backup. How does Bender look coming off of a shoulder injury?
- While Shawn Seabrooks was the biggest hitter on the team last season, he nonetheless needs to improve his tackling by finishing his hits. Seabrooks is a lock for the starting SS job. And has been mentioned in some pre-season All-Big East rosters.
- Has Ryan Neil has added some meat to his frame?
- Gary Brackett is a lock for the starting MLB job.
- Nate Colon is a lock for the starting FS job.
Although the defense was better relative to the offense last season, one can't truthfully use degrees of "good" to describe either unit. Rutgers ranked last in the Big East in scoring defense (36 points per game, or #104 nationally), total defense (420 yards per game, or #89 nationally), and rushing defense (231 yards per game, or #109 nationally). And while Rutgers ranked 27th nationally passing defense (190 yards per game), a porous rushing defense and a schedule loaded with rush-oriented opponents conspired to provide an illusion of performance where there simply was the path of less futile resistance. While the offense appears improved, performance in spring camp against a still questionable defense can hardly be used as a barometer of quality. While I would expect the defense to outperform the offense, total domination by the defense will be a bad sign. A very bad sign. Because our defense is still likely to be in the lower half of the conference. Here are a few big picture issues:
- With three seniors lost off the depth chart, Clarence Pittman will battle Marcus Jones for the starting TB job. The battle between Pittman and Jones for the starting TB job may be the most interesting contest in spring camp. Who will emerge on top?
- Rich McManis's return last season nearly coincided with the loss of Bryan Boehrer. That opened a starting slot for McManis. Before spring camp opened, Schiano announced that Brian Duffy would be switched to his natural position at OG this spring. Who among Greg P'zmuka, Mike Esposito, Duffy, and McManis will emerge as the starting OGs?
- Trohn Carswell and Howard Blackwood will resume the battle for the starting LT job. Who earns the nod? The loser will likely keep the RT seat warm until OT Ron Green arrives in the summer.
- Will Bryan Boehrer, an undersized converted JUCO TE, withstand challenges for his starting center job?
- Who among Josh Hobbs, Sean Carty, and Jerry Andre will win the 3WR starting job? Will any emerge as viable receiving threats?
- Who among Chris Loomis and Eddie Jordan will win the 2TE starting job?
- Ryan Cubit's performance last season did not exactly cement his hold on the starting QB job. In my eyes, the starting QB is still open for competition. Will Ted Trump get significant repetitions with the 1st team offense?
- Converted TE Ray Pilch enters spring camp competing with backup Troy Marion for the starting FB job. Will Pilch beat Marion for the job? Will Marion at the very least establish himself on the two-deep in spring?
- Will Randy Boxill to crack the two-deep during spring camp?
- Can third-year players Mike Williamson and Rob Dinsmore hold off second-year players Mike Clancy, Mark Segaloff, and Sameeh McDonald and maintain their slots on the two-deep? Spring camp opened with only one slot on the two-deep open to second-year players. If more than one second-year player is to break the two-deep, they likely would have to displace Williamson and/or Dinsmore.
- Considering that only one returning WR averaged more than 2 receptions per game, will Bryan Wilson capitalize upon an opportunity to make a big jump up the depth chart in spring camp?
- FB Ron Simone is at his fourth position in four years. What are the chances of him seeing significant playing time given the opportunities he has had previously?
- Will Jacob Garner contribute or will younger players lap Garner on the depth chart?
The development and progress of the following players will be interesting to observe:
- The performance of Ryan Cubit last season was adversely impacted by poor play along the OLine and at RB and WR. However, Cubit contributed his fair share of mistakes. How will QBit fare in his areas of responsibility? How will he read coverages? Will he lock onto their primary receiver? When receivers aren't open, will he throw the ball away to avoid sacks? Will he continue to force throws into heavy coverage? And will he hit open receivers?
- Tres Moses is also a lock for a starting job opposite Martin. Last season, Moses showed glimpses of brilliance while running after the catch with his ability to make tacklers miss. Can he make the next steps to "go to" receiver and playmaker?
- How does Brian Duffy perform at OG?
- With a year to mature physically and a year of experience under his belt as an OL, how will Marty P'zmuka perform this spring?
- Has C Bryan Boehrer recovered from a broken ankle? With a year of seasoning as well as strength and conditioning behind him, how much improvement will Boehrer show this spring?
- Mike Esposito is the leader of the OLine but his health is a concern. How will he hold up during spring ball?
- Ryan Cubit took a physical pounding last season. He needed offseason surgery on both his wrist and his elbow. How healthy will he look this spring?
- With Cubit's performance hardly worthy of job security, Ted Trump enters spring camp looking to unseat the incumbent, but handicapped by an inexcusable lack of experience. How will Trump look while primarily getting 2nd team repetitions in spring ball?
- Howard Blackwood must answer concerns about his health this spring. Can he provide adequate pass protection on the outside?
- Rich McManis needs to make up for lost practice time. Can he stay healthy enough to do so?
- Chris Baker is the most mobile QB in the program. His mobility offers a potential weapon considering the questionable OLine. How will Baker perform at QB this spring? Can he pose a sufficient passing threat to get on the field at QB? Or will he be switched to WR, a rumored possibility?
- LJ Smith is the biggest lock for the starting lineup. His competition lies with the top TEs in the Big East.
- Aaron Martin is a lock for a starting job at WR. Can he step up against better competition?
- Will QB Chris Baker, scheduled to get reps at WR, be a factor on the depth chart?
Coming Next: Spring Preview, Part 1. Since spring camp ended before I published my spring preview, I will segue into a review of spring ball. With the vantage of hindsight, I'll take a look at developments on the defensive side of the ball.
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