Brian Sokolowski: Why Rutgers? Why Now?
Aug 16, 2011 | By: Random Blogger
Well, it is now official. Rutgers had a solid recruiting class. Rutgers had a solid spring. Rutgers has a lot of players coming back from injury to participate this season. Rutgers has begun it's annual grueling summer practices.
Summer camp is now upon us, but this camp has a distinctly different flavor to it. Is it because Rutgers is at the top of the charts in the polls? Nope. Is it because we have the freshman All-American QB coming back for his junior season? Nope. It is something entirely different.
After the Big East media extravaganza, Rutgers appears to officially be flying under the radar. How is it possible that a team from the New York and Philadelphia media hubs could be flying under the radar? It’s simple, those same media staff writers voted Rutgers to finish dead last in the Big East this year.
Now isn’t that a bad thing for RU to be picked dead last? Not necessarily. It actually may be a good thing for RU. Let me explain.
A REASON TO QUESTION
After last year’s horrid finish to a season, Rutgers stood on the cross roads, and is still standing on the cross roads, of the program potentially taking a nose dive. The team finished only 1-6 in the Big East and ended up having the freshman All-American Tom Savage take a flight to the desert after stepping aside for true freshman Chas Dodd. The offensive line was in absolute disarray and the defensive line was short on depth. Kyle Sullivan, Rutgers’ punter to end the season, ended up leaving the team and a few other players transferred. On top of that, Coach Greg Schiano ended up relieving a few coaches of their duties, moved others around, and hired three new faces.
All of that change in only a few months should have people scratching their heads and asking how Rutgers will turn it around this year. The answer to most, at this point, is that Rutgers simply won’t turn it around. So in turn all the media and coaching personnel from other Big East teams should just pencil in a win when they play Rutgers because no one can see how RU can fill all the voids they have on offense and defense and get used to new play calling. That means RU can quietly go about their business and have a summer camp with less pressure.
A SEASON OF POSITIVE, YET QUESTIONABLE, CHANGE
Not only was the program in a little bit of a funk, but the changes that Coach Schiano was trying to avoid making had to happen this year. He had to change something to return some excitement into the program. It’s clear that fans were not having this make shift version of a spread passing offense. It was clear that all the transfers that were leaving the Rutgers program were starting to hurt the image of the program and the depth.
The first positive change was changing the offense back to a more balanced pro-style offense with the hiring of Frank Cignetti. That was a change that was apparently in the works right as the season ended as Coach Schiano learned that Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstadt may be let go. Not only is Coach Cignetti a student of offensive principles of the pro game, he’s also a student of offense in general the way Coach Schiano is a student of defense. Adding him into the mix was an ingenious ploy to get the fans of the program interested after Rutgers fans viewed the Wild Knight as a central reason for the failure to generate offense (trust me…it was much more than the Wild Knight and that was probably the only thing called well by the offensive coaching staff).
Coach also moved current coaches around to areas of the field that were more suited towards their talents of coaching and hired other coaches, from Pitt, who could address the need to improve the development of the tight ends, corners, and defensive line. Those moves were all positive, but when you have so much change in staff, at times it’s hard to develop consistency within those people working together. The response to that is some of the coaches moved around have been working with Schiano for so long that they understand the moves and accept them as a positive and not a criticism.
Another positive change was Schiano let Tom Savage take his talents elsewhere. I say he “let” him because with Schiano and Cignetti refusing to just give Savage the job back without competition, which effectively made up his mind. While Savage came into the program with a ton of hype and potential, it was clear that he wasn’t the team player he was billed as when it all started. It was now clear after him competing for the starting job weekly with Chas Dodd and losing that he lost the confidence of the team around him. It was clear, to me especially, that Savage was starting to become a distraction and was better off moving on than staying at RU. I’m sure there will be plenty of people to question that because of the enormous potential Savage represented and that was a reason to be down on the program.
So the change within the program appears to be positive, yet both major changes cause Rutgers to be looked at as a team that’s rebuilding and not a team that’s reloading. That is keeping RU under the radar.
A RECRUITING CLASS WITH THE PO AND THE PRO
While on paper, Rutgers landed a very good recruiting class after the revitalization of recruiting with Cignetti and Coach Hafley, there were also distinct questions in the class to cause Rutgers to fly under the radar. Many of the quality players landed, who are more in line to compete to start, were in areas of the field already heavily manned. Rutgers already had 3 running backs and tons of receivers so the addition of Savon Huggins and Miles Shuler only further increased depth. That was a positive in developing future depth. It was also a huge positive to see RU land two of the top 5 recruits in the state of NJ and the state’s biggest prize in Huggins.
Likewise, Rutgers landed a few defensive linemen with a ton of potential while addressing the need to bring in DLs who had a lower center of gravity. It was a positive to see Al Page, Daryl Stephenson, and Ken Kirksey arrive at Rutgers and an even bigger positive to add Kirksey for the spring. The problem with this is Rutgers failed to land a JUCO lineman that could come in and make an immediate impact. Anthony LaLota was potentially going to be one of those assets, but since he was sitting out a year, no one knew what he would bring. So while the defensive line needs were addressed, they also didn’t provide any “instant depth” to a position of need.
Rutgers also failed to land another JUCO offensive line recruit after bringing in Dallas Hendrikson. While RU landed some pretty big names along the offensive line in Keith Lumpkin and Kaleb Johnson, both of those players were not really looked at as a player like Mike Fladell, Cam Stephenson, or Darnell Stapleton were back in the 2005-2006 time frame. That is really what Rutgers needed to land on the exterior of the line so that was missing from this class. Rutgers tried to lure in a few JUCO tackles, but none took the bait. So that instability is causing Rutgers to fly under the radar.
The class as a whole really did help to balance out the future experience and competition for the program, but didn’t really help with figuring out who will be doing what this year. It’s both a positive and a negative and is easy to see why the media and other coaches think it’s the ladder.
THE INJURY BUG
Rutgers was also hit by the injury bug in areas the team couldn’t really afford to be hit. After landing a much needed center for this year that can compete and play right away, that center then blew out his knee and was on crutches. It was definitely an injury that set Rutgers back a bit and forced other more inexperienced players to take the reins. Not having an accomplished and experienced center can really hurt a team and for a team that struggled on the OL last year, that wasn’t helpful.
There were also a bunch of players that had surgery and got injured during spring ball as well (and some before that). Mo Sanu, Desmond Wynn, and others injuries really hurt the development of the chemistry of the team, and more importantly the offense, after Coach Cignetti installed his new O. While the players were in the film room and getting their own visuals of what to expect, there’s nothing compared to being on the field and playing instead. That definitely didn’t help Rutgers gain any bonus points to be looked at as a team to beat.
Then, on top of it all, we have recently heard the depth at QB took a big hit with Steve Shimko (who performed well in the spring game) having to walk away after suffering another shoulder injury. That greatly hurt RU since Shimko would be the only QB on the roster that has taken a decent amount of snaps. Aaron Hayward also was retired after suffering another injury. Hayward was one of the centerpieces of the 2009 recruiting class and was supposed to be an option for RU on special teams and at RB or WR. While Hayward leaving the game doesn’t have a huge hurt on the offense, he was a key contributor on special teams and it could hurt there with the graduation of Brandon Bing and Joe Lefeged.
LONG ON LEADERSHIP
While there are a bunch of 5th (and 6th) year players on the team, it’s clear that Rutgers does not have many players to look to for leadership. The graduating senior class is in the teens after many of them transferred out or suffered career ending injuries. Rutgers now turns to a few players who start that are seniors to provide that leadership to a younger team.
While youth is great to have and balance is important on a team, you need that leadership to force the team through tough parts in the season. It does appear a lot of the younger players who are sophs and juniors have solid experience so they are trying to provide help there as well, but without a spark plug (like Eric Foster) Rutgers may have a tough time generating excitement other than making a big play.
WHY RUTGERS? WHY NOW?
Flying under the radar is exactly what Rutgers wants their opponents to think this year. They need that as motivation and fuel to the fire because last year, they were kicked while they were down. They were beat down and tired from a tumultuous year of football. They were beaten in Piscataway and beaten on the road, both handily. No team rolled over for RU after Eric LeGrand went down with injury and, while you shouldn’t expect anyone to, I’m sure the team learned that losing focus is not a way to close a season.
Contrary to media or coaching opinion in the polls, Rutgers is getting fans to buy up tickets. While it appears fans are not flocking to buy up season tickets, it is apparent that Rutgers is a UNC win away from generating a lot of buzz within the fan base. Rutgers has seen more a spike in selling North Carolina Central tickets because of the buzz around the fan base right now, a buzz and media and others in the coaching nation don’t share.
The way the schedule sets up, Rutgers could fly under the radar until the middle of the season since the first 5 games are against teams with issues. North Carolina has compliance issues and coaching overturn, Syracuse seems to have players on an arrest streak, and Pitt has had coaching turnover as well. Those three tougher games can all be looked at as winnable, yet games that have potential issues with the teams RU plays. Once Navy comes to Piscataway, then Rutgers will be looked at with a measuring stick to see how good the team really is, unless they are blown out in one of the other games.
We’ve heard a very positive response from the coaching staff, one that I have not heard from Coach Schiano in a while. Normally we hear about the areas RU needs to work on or the players who came in out of shape within the first few days of camp. This year we’ve heard that players came in meeting expectations that the coaching staff set up for them. We’ve heard that it’s clear this team is treating this as business and not as a right. We’ve heard they are physically imposing and more eager to prove the skeptics do not know what they are talking about. They are treating football as a 6 credit class with a lecture and a field recitation.
So the eternal question has to be asked….why not now? The potential is on the team. The work ethic is there. The coaching staff is in place. The distractions are gone. The plays are in place and have been for 6 months or so. All that’s left is football and playing the game they love.
When you put it like that, flying under the radar doesn’t appear to be so bad. When you look at the rankings, you begin to understand why college football is won on a field on Saturdays in the fall and not by the water coolers on Mondays in the summer!
Updated On: Aug 17, 2011 11:49 AM