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1. You talked to Charlie (Noonan) recently, and he really echoed one of the themes Coach Schiano has touched on again and again, being more physical, playing physical. Give us your impressions of how physical this team's play could be compared to a few of the last years' teams, especially 2006...
Being more physical has certainly been the theme throughout training camp, and I think it's evident not only on defense but on the offensive side of the ball as well. Remember, Rutgers' offense was anemic in short-yardage situations last year, and Schiano and Co. really challenged this year's O-line, as well as running back Joe Martinek, to convert those 3-and-1 situations this summer.
The second scrimmage certainly wasn't anything to brag about for the o-line, but they did convert both of the short-yardage, situational drills, which tells me that the o-line is getting closer to meeting the challenge of becoming more physical at least.
2. Will Rutgers win a Big East Championship during Savage's time on The Banks?
With all due respect to Ryan Hart and Mike Teel, both of whom got the most of their talents, Rutgers hasn't had a talent like Tom Savage at the quarterback position in the Schiano era. For as accomplished as he was in setting every major passing record Rutgers has, Teel never led his team to a come-from-behind victory in the final 2 minutes. Savage did that by his sixth start last year, which tells you something about his ability to lift this offense to greater heights.
Will Rutgers win the Big East before Savage departs? It's certainly possible, especially considering all the talent that may be too young to contend with now presumably will grow up together. But since you're asking -- and you know I've never been confused with being anything but a homer -- I'll say Rutgers will win the Big East within the next two years.
3. Given the lack of depth at QB, and given the progress of Carrezola, is there any scenario in which DC Jefferson finds himself behind center this year?
No chance. I was a bit skeptical of the move at first, fully aware that the 2010 backup QB situation could get dicey if Steve Shimko or a true freshman like Chas Dodd was the backup, but D.C. has found a home at tight end. He's every bit a 260-pound tight end now, meaning there's no chance he'll ever fit the QB position again.
And judging by the leap he's made this summer, I don't think anyone will want him to play anywhere but TE in the future. He's still a bit raw blocking-wise, but his pass-catching has improved tenfold since last season. It's really not a stretch to say he has NFL potential.
4. What will come first:
a. Rutgers playing in a BCS game?
b. Rutgers playing a Big Ten conference game?
What, 'C) Rutgers playing in the Pinstripe Bowl' isn't an option? Well, considering you already saw my prediction that Rutgers will win the Big East within the next two years, I'd have to say A. Although, from the people I talk to who I trust in the business, it's not a matter of if Rutgers gets invited to the Big Ten -- it's a matter of when. I'm fairly confident that talk of Rutgers joining the Big Ten will emerge again early in 2011
5. You got to spend a day with coach Schiano. What was that like, and what did you learn from it?
I learned coaches need to drink A LOT of caffeine to do what they do, except P.J. Fleck, who seems to have Red Bull running through his bloodstream. Seriously, I had heard stories about the long days coaches put in, but this was ridiculous. Schiano was obviously the major focus of the article, but I can see why he's said in the past that he really likes the makeup of his staff.
I came away thinking Kyle Flood is probably the most ready of all the coaches to run his own program. Bob Fraser is razor sharp in detail, the epitome of your old-school coach. Kirk Ciarrocca probably doesn't get enough credit for how he managed Savage last year, cutting half the field and making him more mistake-free than your typical freshman. And Fleck's personality and enthusiasm is infectious. Really, the whole staff has their individual strengths and they work well together.
I'll say one more thing about my experience in the coaches' meeting room: The depth chart is color-coded to illustrate how much eligibility each player has. Seniors have their names on white-background magnets ... players with four years of eligibility were on green-background magnets. And it was startling to see how green that board was. I've heard Schiano say that 75 percent of his roster has three or more years of eligibility remaining, and from the looks at that board, I'd say that's clear.
6. How does Rutgers' talent measure up against the other Big East teams?
I'll say this: Judging by the way sites like Scout.com have evaluated Rutgers' recruiting class compared to others in the Big East the past few years, they measure up reasonably well. On paper, you'd have to say Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati all have fewer questions than Rutgers right now.
But if talent at the QB position means anything, Rutgers has a clear edge on all but maybe South Florida and I'm not as big of a B.J. Daniels fan as others seem to be.
7. What area of this year's team do you think will be the best?
I went into training camp thinking the d-line was going to be a strength, and nothing that occurred this summer changed that opinion. What strikes me most is just how much Schiano and d-line coach Randy Melvin can do with this line.
You know how much they like going from a 4-3 base to nickel and dime packages, so at any point you could see a guy like Alex Silvestro rushing the QB at end, dropping back into coverage on a zone-blitz, or dipping inside to tackle. He's perfectly suited for the system Rutgers runs.
There's been a lot of talk about whether Jonathan Freeny can be an every-down end this season, but the thinking here is this fall he will topple the 9.5 sacks he totaled last season. If I was to pick one player as the MVP of Rutgers' training camp, it would have to be Scott Vallone from the way he's made his presence felt in the two scrimmages. And guys like Charlie Noonan, Justin Francis and Eric LeGrand are just solid players.
8. What is your biggest concern about this year's team?
Without a doubt, the offensive line is the area that presents the most concern heading into the opener and I'll say we won't really know how up to the task this unit is until sometime in the second half of the North Carolina game. But as I wrote in this week's paper, for as concerning as the O-line is, it's not as if last year's unit ever dominated despite returning all five starters from the year before. My point is, it's not as if this year's untested unit has a whole lot to live up to this fall.
9. Since 2006 Rutgers hasn't been really involved in the conference race. Is there concern the program has leveled off?
Well, the 2007 season could be classified a disappointment from the standpoint that Rutgers had six of its first seven games at home -- not to mention a 2,000-yard rusher in Ray Rice, a record-setting QB in Mike Teel and an All-American DT in Eric Foster -- and ended up 8-5 and in Toronto.
For as impressive of a job I think Schiano did ensuring his team didn't quit following its 1-5 start in 2008, the season was over in mid-September. And you could say the same thing about last season, considering they were out of the Big East race after losing to Pitt in mid-October.
That written, I don't think there are too many people who would ever classify 5 straight bowl trips, 4 consecutive bowl championships and a .683 winning percentage since 2005 as a disappointment.
10. Which freshman has impressed you the most during practice?
In my mind, Jordan Thomas was the story of training camp. I mean, this was a kid who was mentioned behind Jeremy Deering, Brandon Coleman and J.T. Tartacoff as the receivers who could play as true freshmen this season. Then, less than a week into camp, he moves to running back and really made a meteoric leap to No. 2 on the depth chart. He's been that good.
On the defensive side of the ball, I don't think anybody really expected David Milewski to bid for playing time right away. A well-respected Middlesex County coach, Old Bridge High's Bob DeMarco, told me before Milewski committed to Rutgers last October that this was the kind of linebacker who could be a three-year starter in the Big East. And Milewski hasn't done anything to dispel that assessment with his strong play this summer.