PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 08: D.C. Jefferson #10 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights runs the ball over Mike Lang #7 of the Connecticut Huskies at Rutgers Stadium on October 8, 2010 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The tight end position for Rutgers remains a study in contrasts, which should be very familiar to offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. On paper, cast in the Nate Byham (or Sam Johnson, if you're looking for a comparable Scarlet Knight) role as the dependable blocker is rising redshirt sophomore Paul Carrezola. If everything had gone according to plan the past few years, he was polished enough to play as a true freshman while some of his positional brethren found their sea legs. Two years ago, Carrezola was close to playing before going down with an injury, which left walk-on (and subsequent transfer) Tony Trahan to pick up the slack after presumed-starter Shamar Graves was inexplicably glued to the bench.
There was that, and then the little matter of the offense falling into a black hole last season didn't help. Not that he's had much opportunity to prove it on the field yet, but if Rutgers is looking for consistent production here, and a security blanket for Chas Dodd, Paul Carrezola is likely going to be the guy (or at least receive the first opportunity.) Now Cignetti's in place to pick up the pieces, and Carrezola is finally projected to see playing time after two years of false starts. That's if D.C. Jefferson, cast in the role of the inconsistent-but-dynamic downfield threat along the lines of how Pittsburgh used Dorin Dickerson two years ago. Dickerson, a heralded-high school recruit, bounced around the Panther roster for years before the light finally went on, and he went off like a rocket.
The best case for Jefferson is that one of these days, he finally starts dominating in the way that his momentary glimpses of greatness here and there can only hint at. That's the trouble with expectations. If Lequan Jefferson was just your average football player, no one would bat an eye at his production level. But that's just it. This guy isn't a cookie cutter - he breaks the mold. When you see Jefferson running downfield, you half expect an unkempt Albert Einstein to run onto the field in a lab coat, hysterical over this man violating the laws of physics. Intuitively, someone of that size and physical stature should not be able to move like that.
While not comparable to past Rutgers greats like Ray Rice and Eric Foster, watching Jefferson on a per snap basis is comparable to the above duo in the way that every single play is an experience that shatters all of your pre-conceived expectations. Quite often, you'll see the guy running around. He's wearing a helmet, he's wearing pads, but nothing about his blocking or route running possibly suggests that he is even tenuously familiar with the game of football. Then all of a sudden, it's "wow, what in the holy hell just happened?" Bob Dylan plugged in his electrical guitar, aliens just incinerated the White House, and D.C. Jefferson just leaped over multiple defenders as if he is suddenly the second coming of Vernon Davis.
Such has been the past two years of the tight end position in Piscataway. The expectations are so enormous because he is so talented. He's only two years removed from being a quarterback, and still has two years left of eligibility to figure it out. If it's not explicit enough from the forced analogy above, Frank Cignetti likes to use tight ends. That's what a lot of NFL teams do, and Rutgers is quite familiar with that personnel grouping from back when John McNulty was the offensive coordinator. Joe Martinek is not a traditional bruising fullback. Don't be surprised if that Carrezola often plays that role this fall as more of a hybrid, H-Back type (as you may recall, Carrezola played some FB last year.) Jefferson at least will earn his figurative keep downfield. Any contribution beyond that should be seen as icing on the cake until proven otherwise.
Malcolm Bush is as good of a bet as any to be the third body off the bench, in the case of injuries, goal line formations, and the like. Bush is similar to Jefferson in that he's still more potential than production at this point. That was expected when he first came to campus. The idea was that Carrezola was the Gary Nova of that year's class, seemingly ready to contribute from day one. Bush was the Mike Bimonte, with more long-term upside, but looking at two-three years on the bench minimum before he could even think about seeing the field. Similarly, a good season for Bush would be that he starts to work his way into the mix as the games go on, setting himself in line for a larger role as an upperclassman. Ideally, he's the card if you want to play if Jefferson really does go off to the point where he's on the first train to New York City next April to attend the NFL Draft.
Both co-starters showed improvement during the spring and preseason camp, but neither pulled away to seize a starting role. For now, they're going to platoon, with Cignetti's new offense keen on getting many different skill position players involved and in rhythm. Rutgers doesn't have very many bodies beyond those two, which is an expected consequence of two years of spread madness. Too many receivers, not enough tight ends. The past few years, they greedily stockpiled the best local receivers, but watched as tight end after tight end showed little interest in sitting on the bench. Depth beyond the top three is spotty. What hurts the team is not signing anyone two years ago, thanks to the dismal '10 NJ recruiting crop. It's almost as if they've been snakebitten here ever since 2006 recruiting signees Jeff Minemyer and Jesse Cisco never saw the field due to injury.
Freshman Tyler Kroft is a decent prospect, but looks like a likely redshirt at this point. Walk-on blocker Evan Lampert didn't return for his senior season, with walk-on lineman Beau Bachety trying to assuming that role. Fabian Ruiz never lived up to his early promise, bounced across the roster, and isn't coming back either. Junior Solice and Anthony La Lota, who weren't natural tight ends to begin with, left the team over the past few months. Trahan is long gone. Marquis Hamm barely ever played while he was on scholarship. None were likely to play, but now the team is thin enough that an injury or two, a cramp here or tear there, and they would suddenly be in a bit of trouble. It's akin to the depth chart at quarterback - you like what they have up top, but there isn't much of a plan B beyond the top optionss. If you take all of the above into account, it's amazing that Rutgers as much promise as they genuinely do here going into the season. They probably will be fine, but if they are not, they would be less equipped to handle adversity than the average team.