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2008 Season Preview: Special Teams/Coaches

Projected depth chart:

K: San San Te (RS-FR 5'9, 180 lbs)
P: Teddy Dellaganna (RS-SO 6'2, 210 lbs), Matt Voliva (RS-JR 5'11, 190 lbs)
LS: Jeremy Branch (RS-SR 6'0, 215 lbs)

Rutgers struggled on special teams in 2007 by any metric. Rutgers ranked 95th in defending kick returns last year, and a dreadful 117th out of 119 in net punting. Poor special teams play was an achilles heel all year, but it was most acutely felt vs. UConn, when our terrible kickoff coverage units let the Huskies average over 40 yards per kick return. As usual, Jeremy Ito's FG% hovered around a mediocre 75%. Ito was forced into double duty as the punter last year. Coach Schiano was so concerned over the miserable state of the team's coverage units that he bypassed Ito's strong leg and had him utilize the rugby punt, to disastrous results. I suspect that a further reason that the kickoff coverage was so terrible was due to Ito being overextended - having to deal with field goals, kickoffs, PATs, and punting. His leg strength seemed down all year.

This year Ito will be replaced as the starting kicker by San San Te. Having another Asian kicker will surely raise a few eyebrows, but what's really curious is that Rutgers found him the same way they did Ito - on blind recommendation from self-styled kicking guru Chris Sailer's blind recommendation following a performance at his combine. Reports from camp about Te have been generally positive, but this will remain a question mark until we see him in games.

Rutgers actually recruited a junior college punter from California last season to replace Joe Radigan. There was one problem though: Dellaganna was not used to Northeastern weather, and could not handle snaps correctly in fall practice. Every camp report indicates that Dellaganna has overcome that severe flaw, and he reportedly does have a strong leg.

Returning at long-snapper will be fifth year senior Jeremy Branch, who basically followed Ito here from Redlands, California. Dennis Campbell and Tim Brown return as the team's punt and kick returners respectively, and should improve with better blocking, even though either may surrender their duties if they are eased into a larger role in the offense. Mason Robinson saw some time returning kicks last year too, but he will probably give up that role in order to reduce his overall wear and tear.

One possible reason for the unit's struggles last season was that position coach Darren Rizzi was overextended, having to also focus on the linebackers. Indeed, those were the two weakest parts of the Rutgers football team last season. The team's new special teams coach is Chris Rippon, who was at Ole Miss last season, and previously had worked at Syracuse under Paul Pasqualoni.

Every aspect of the team's special teams will be different in 2008, save Branch as long snapper and both returners (possibly). The coverage units will be infused with freshly broken redshirts. I'm not usually one to subscribe to the "improving by default" theory, but RU's special teams (and linebackers) were so unmistakably wretched last season that they cannot possibly be any worse. Even an improvement to below average would be terrific. This unit still remains a major question mark.

Staff changes

RB Coach: Craig Ver Steeg -> Gary Brown
WR Coach: Robert Jackson -> Kirk Ciarrocca
DL Coach: Cary Godette -> Gary Emanuel
LB Coach: Darren Rizzi -> Bob Fraser
DB Coach: Chris Demarest -> Ed Pinkham
ST Coach: Darren Rizzi -> Chris Rippon

Rutgers did have a fair bit of staff turnover following the season. Ver Steeg had been demoted from offensive coordinator a season before in favor of John McNulty. His contract was not renewed, and he followed Ray Rice to the Baltimore Ravens. He was replaced by former Giant Gary Brown. Robert Jackson retired and is still with the team in an administrative function. He did an excellent job the past few years. Ciarrocca has already gotten off to a fast start in recruiting, and another recent hire from Delaware worked out great with Kyle Flood. Godette retired, and was replaced by former Purdue DL coach Gary Emanuel. Schiano's right hand man Darren Rizzi left to take the reins at Rhode Island. Fraser had already been working with the linebackers as an assistant; hopefully that unit performs better this season. Demarest lost his job because of an incident in a night club last summer. He will be a major loss, as he may have been in line to eventually take over Schiano's role as defensive coordinator.

Thus concludes Bleed Scarlet's 2008 unit preview.