The Rutgers football team has regressed on offense over the past two years. The Scarlet Knights ranked 39th in total offense under former coordinator John McNulty's pro style attack in 2008. After McNulty left following the season for a job with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, Greg Schiano promoted position coaches Kirk Ciarrocca and Kyle Flood to share offensive coordinator duties. Ciarrocca, who had previously mentored Joe Flacco at Delaware, shifted from coaching receivers to quarterbacks, and received primary play-calling duties.
In the midst of personnel losses and the transition to more of a spread, the Rutgers offense fell to 97th in 2009. RU was terrible at consistently putting together drives, but those struggles were masked (they were 52nd in scoring offense) by a soft schedule, and an increased reliance on big plays and trickery. If that wasn't bad enough, the offense cratered to 114th in 2010. They allowed more sacks than any other bowl subdivision team in 2010, and were rarely able to run the ball outside of the Wildcat formation.
As of now, it is unclear as to what, if any staffing changes are on the horizon, although they are clearly needed. Greg Schiano in his post-season press conference defended Flood, who built up a reserve of goodwill with his past track record. There is apparently no such buffer for Ciarrocca, who is the speculative scapegoat for the past two seasons. Ciarrocca may just be the victim of bad circumstances (e.g., Bill Cubit eventually rebuilt his reputation after burning out as Schiano's first OC), but Rutgers needs to change courses after this year's offensive disaster. Keith Sargeant and Kristian Dyer have hinted at forthcoming changes, but no concrete information has leaked out of the athletic department at this time.
I do not think anything will come out until if and when the changes are made. The Rutgers athletic department exercises a very tight control over the flow of information coming out for the most part. They had to give up those crumbs to stave off fan criticism, but all indications are that the relevant decision-makers will work off their own internal timetable. Nevertheless, changes clearly need to be made. I think it behooves the football program to work sooner rather than later. Any hits they would take from a lack of continuity are outweighed by the possibility of missing out on available candidates. For the time being, save the criticism until the dominoes actually start falling.
If Rutgers makes a change on offense, what could they possibly do? I am working off two preconceptions that may end up being wildly off base.
1. Rutgers needs to switch back to an offense similar to John McNulty's pro style attack. There's a sense of familiarity and comfort with an approach that worked well in the past, and this wouldn't be a hard transition for existing roster personnel. Many of them were originally recruited to play that style. The idea being that switching back would help Tom Savage and the running game. While it's hard to separate cause and effect, Kyle Flood's offensive lines tanked almost immediately after Rutgers started using more Shotgun and multi-WR sets. Rutgers needs balance, and they would be hard-pressed to take another unproven risk at coordinator.
This is not to say that one approach is necessarily superior to any other. Clearly, the spread (in all of its assorted varieties) has been effective at many programs, with many of the top up-and-coming coordinators increasingly opting to mix it up. In fact, I think that transitioning to a purer spread (albeit, with more of an emphasis on short passes) would be great for Chas Dodd, who ran the system almost exclusively in high school. RU has recruited a surplus of receivers over the past few recruiting classes, who numbers-wise would be better off working out of a base set with 3 or 4 WRs. If you really want to get creative, there's always the option of biting the bullet and installing Mohamed Sanu as a spread-option QB.
2. Any list of candidates will need some kind of realistic filter. No, Rutgers is unlikely to land any of the current hot assistant names like Gus Malzahn or Dana Holgorsen, who will either be head coaches or coordinating at traditional powers next year. They cannot compete with the NFL, and do not have an unlimited budget (however, with what's at stake, spending some more money would be a good idea.) Rutgers should fare better than Syracuse did a year ago though, where Doug Marrone struck out on Joe Lombardi and Bill O'Brien from the NFL before settling on Nate Hackett.
Semi-reaches are fine, but for the most part my list will tend towards the realistic. Rutgers might have a shot at a NFL position coach, or a top college coordinator that is momentarily out of work. Having a geographic tie to the Northeast will be a draw, and there's always the chance that Coach Schiano will tap an existing friendship or networking relationship. He previously worked for the Chicago Bears, Penn State, and the University of Miami. If leads or references are a problem Greg can always phone coaching heavyweight friends like Bill Belichick, Urban Meyer, or Mark Richt.
So, who should Rutgers look at? Here are a handful of names that come to mind, although it's daunting trying to anticipate who could come on the market. The criteria were derived from past hires Bill Cubit (let go when Missouri changed coaches), Craig Ver Steeg (Bears asst with Schiano, let go when Utah changed coaches), John McNulty (Tom Coughlin assistant who got on Bill Parcells's bad side), and Ciarrocca (regional FCS prodigy who apprenticed for a year as WR coach).
Mark Whipple - UMass coach 1998-2003, Steelers QB coach 2004-2006, Eagles offensive assistant (basically as a 2nd QB coach, that's a recommended read btw) 2008, Miami OC 2009-2010. Whipple is a native of Westchester County, NY, who was also previously a head coach at New Haven (preceding Tony Sparano and Darren Rizzi), and Brown. He was actually one of (then-AD) Bob Mulcahy's early candidates in 2000 for the Rutgers job that eventually went to Greg Schiano. One rumor was that Boston College almost hired him in 2007 (before turning to Jeff Jagodzinski), because Whipple did not want their athletic director picking his assistant coaches.
Whipple's built his mythology as a "quarterback whisperer" by tutoring a rookie Ben Roethlisberger to the Super Bowl. He reportedly favors an aggressive, pass-happy scheme called the "Whiplash" offense, which has been compared more to the West Coast offense than a spread. Whipple would not only be a vast upgrade for Rutgers, but his track record with McNabb, Roethlisberger, and Jacory Harris (who did regress in 2010) portends intriguing possibilities if he were to mentor Tom Savage. Whipple improved Miami's offense from 89th (which did come under a horrible OC in Patrick Nix) to 45th and 31st.
The biggest knock on Whipple is that he can be too pass-happy at times. I have heard that he's strong-willed and can be tough to work with, but have no idea where the rumors about him having a bad relationship with Greg Schiano came from. He is a prime candidate simply by virtue of being on the market after Miami fired Randy Shannon. My wishful thinking is that he would relish the opportunity to bolster his reputation as a turnaround artist and to work with Tom Savage. Chances are however that he will go back to the NFL as a quarterback coach or go to a traditional college power next year.
Bill Lazor - Actually, he is my favorite candidate over Whipple. Last year after the Seahawks drafted Mike Teel, I looked at Seattle's assistant coaches to see if any of them had any sort of connection to Rutgers. Sure enough, I immediately zeroed in their QB coach at the time. Lazor, like former Rutgers OC John McNulty, originally hails from the Scranton, PA area. After stints at Cornell and Buffalo (under Jim Hofher, aka the guy before Turner Gill), Lazor spent five years as a quarterback coach with the Redskins and Seahawks. He's reportedly good with the media too.
Pete Carroll cleaned house in Seattle after being hired last year, and Lazor returned to the East Coast under the new Mike London regime at Virginia, installing a textbook pro style offense. The immediate turnaround was striking. Virginia's futile offense was 118th in 2009, and improved to 41st under Lazor. He basically turned them into a John McNulty offense overnight, with little after-effects from transitioning away from a spread. Rutgers fans would do cartwheels if the Scarlet Knights made a similar jump next year.
On the downside, Virginia didn't run the ball much this year, and was very inefficient in the red zone (which, ahem, should bring to mind the negative aspects of McNulty's tenure at Rutgers). To Lazor's credit though, Virginia's roster is mostly devoid after Al Groh's years of mismanagement. The results were extremely impressive given what he had to work with. Lazor is reportedly unhappy at UVA and eying a return to the NFL, although he has publicly denied the prevalent rumor.
Paul Petrino - Finally branched out by leaving Arkansas for Illinois this year, where he mainly improved their offensive efficiency (under one of the worst passing attacks in the country). Ron Zook can't stick around forever, although I think Illinois can probably pay more than Rutgers can. Petrino might be better off hopping to another job while seeking to burnish his credentials for an eventual head-coaching gig. Arkansas and Louisville ran a spread coupled with a strong emphasis on a power running game.
Frank Cignetti, Jr. - Pittsburgh's coaching situation is still fluid, although if Cignetti hits the market Rutgers should find him a strong choice. Pitt's offense badly regressed in 2010, although that can easily be blamed on Dave Wannstedt's conservatism and a patchwork interior line. Schematically, I love how Cignetti can keep every skill position involved in the offense while still emphasizing his playmakers. He has an extensive resume in college and the NFL. Schiano certainly got the opportunity to scout Cignetti in person recently, and theoretically can pick his old boss Wannstedt's brain if needed.
Kevin Rogers - Assistant at Syracuse (1991-1998), Notre Dame (1999-2001), Virginia Tech (2002-2005), and the Minnesota Vikings (2006-present) where he developed a reputation for working with mobile quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, Carlyle Holiday, Bryan Randall, and Tarvaris Jackson. Rogers grew up in Sparta, NJ and was an excellent NJ recruiter, which was one reason why Bob Mulcahy had interested in Rogers as a head coach ten years ago. I mostly included him on this list because Brad Childress was fired a few weeks ago, although there is an increasing chance that Leslie Frazier is extended and keeps the current Vikings staff in place. The Chicago Bears wanted to hire Rogers a year ago, and like most of the names on this list his first choice would probably be the NFL.
Scott Satterfield - FIU coach Mario Cristobal is a former Rutgers assistant under Schiano, who brought back a former FIU (and Rutgers assistant) a year ago in Phil Galiano. Satterfield, who previously spent a decade at App. St. and a year at Toledo before landing in Miami, oversaw a huge improvement this fall. FIU showed drastic improvements on both sides of the ball en route to their first ever non-losing season and bowl appearance. Probably is a coordinator on the rise, but the major knocks against him are his lack of FBS experience and his spread tendencies. FIU was a good running team this year, but a lot of those plays came off the read-option from what I remember.
Jim Hofher - Current Delaware OC, who was formerly a DI assistant with HC stops at Cornell and Buffalo. Greg Schiano frequently looks at regional programs when making hires, but Hofher wouldn't go over too well in Piscataway considering how poorly former Delaware OC Kirk Ciarrocca is being received at the moment. Worst still, Hofher runs a spread (with Penn State transfer Pat Devlin), although apparently at a faster pace than Ciarrocca's offense according to Delaware coach K.C. Keeler.
Tim Brewster - Brewster is one of the worst head coaches in Division I history, but he was also a great tight end coach in the NFL, and is considered an elite college recruiter. Will almost certainly go back to being a NFL position coach or rejoin Mack Brown's staff at Texas. Solely included on the list because he grew up in Phillipsburg, but this isn't happening.