Projected 2009 depth chart
QB: Domenic Natale (RS-SR 6'2, 210 lbs), Jabulani Lovelace (RS-SR 6'2, 215 lbs), D.C. Jefferson (RS-FR 6'6, 245 lbs) OR Tom Savage (FR 6'5, 230 lbs)
Amazing, ain't it? Last year at this time, the emerging media consensus was that Mike Teel was a bum, his fleeting success solely an incidental by-product of a talented supporting cast. You think his Facebook wall took some abuse? That's nothing compared to the beating he took from across the country before getting off to an awful start last fall. Now Teel is in Seattle, Peter King and Todd McShay be damned, and the worm has turned.
"How will Rutgers ever replace its record setting quarterback and universally acknowledged team leader", the prognosticators ask.
"We'll do what we did in 2006, run the ball, and emphasize a short passing game", respond the Scarlet partisans.
Well, that would be the best case scenario, but nobody really knows for certain. Mike Teel took nearly every snap last season, and Jabu Lovelace saw limited action during the preceeding two seasons. As far as in-game snaps, there's very little to go on. In theory, I understand the reasoning in sticking with Mike Teel through thick and thin last year. He was the starter, the coaching staff saw how everyone looked in practice, and presumably, their goal is always to give the team its best chance of winning.
What I don't get is the hesitancy to give a Dom Natale snaps under center when Rutgers was ahead by multiple touchdowns. The coaching staff knows how he looked in practice, but there's no substitute for real in-game experience. Getting Teel his place in the RU record book is admirable, but that goal is by far trumped by putting the team in a better position to win next year. Natale should have played more last year.
Everyone forgets now that Natale was a high profile QB in high school, originally spurning Rutgers for Michigan State. He soon transferred home, and ended up missing the 2007 season with an arm injury. The injury set back his development. He was buried on the depth chart behind Teel, Jabu Lovelace, and Chris Paul-Etienne entering last season, but benefitted from Lovelace's injury, and CPE landing in the doghouse.
In terms of the skills Natale brings to the table, he doesn't have a lot of zip on the ball. His arm isn't quite as bad as Ryan Hart's, but you wonder whether the injury sapped him of some arm strength. That's quite an adjustment considering that most of the program's recent QBs since Hart's graduation have possessed strong arms. Lacking arm strength doesn't necessarily equate to an ability to throw bombs when necessary; it means that those "10 yard" outs, which are actually more like 30 yards when you take into account moving back in the pocket, and the distance from the tackle box to the sidelines. It will be easier for defensive backs to jump Natale's throws, but he also will be less prone to the overthrows that always plagued Teel.
A rich man's Hart isn't a terrible comparison. Add in a little more height, a somewhat stronger arm, and some decent maneuverability in the pocket.
He can run. He can move. Rutgers can float the pocket with him. He ran for a first down on a fourth and two.
Natale is by no means a mobile QB, but he can scramble to avoid pressure, and get a first down here and there. All of these assumptions rest on practice and camp reports, but Dom is supposed to have decent scrambling skills, and is more accurate with his throws than Teel. When thinking of similar players, the best case scenario would be something along the lines of what Tyler Palko did in Pittsburgh a few years ago.
The worst would be Tyler Lorenzen for UConn last season, a signal caller so ineffective (owing in no small part to UConn's terrible receiving corps) that Donald Brown frequently faced eight and nine defenders in the box. If Natale can produce something like Lorenzen's 2007 though; something like 2,500 yards passing, 300 rushing, a positive TD/INT ratio, and an ability to scramble for critical first downs, that would be acceptable. Given the uncertainty facing the position entering fall camp, would everyone be on board in signing up for that?
Dom has to protect the football, run a little play action, and keep the defense honest enough for the running game to be effective. He may not have to win games, but not throwing them away will be critical. The best case scenario is that Rutgers dusts off the Hart playbook. Involve the TE and the backs a lot with short passes, run the ball down opponents’ throats, and use the occasional bomb to Brown when necessary. This plan will be a lot easier if a reliable possession WR emerges in camp.
Natale bested redshirt freshmen D.C. Jefferson and Steve Shimko (Jabu Lovelace was recovering from an injury) in spring practice, although he didn't do much to seize the job. Admittedly, the sessions were plagued with bad weather, and a green WR corps was further thinned by injuries. One reason for optimism was the emergence of freshmen receiver Mohamed Sanu near the end of spring practice. The spring game was held under much nicer environmental conditions, and Natale actually looked pretty good.
Odds are that Jabu Lovelace will see the second most snaps at the position this year. The fanbase has kind of a love/hate relationship with Jabu. On one hand, all accounts indicate that he's very smart, personable, and a great teammate. In fact, that's why his chances of playing this fall are much higher than most of us are comfortable admitting. Even his critics will acknowledge that Lovelace is very talented; in an option offense, or playing another position, he could be more than effective. Jabu has a cannon for an arm, better than Teel's, and is a terrific scrambler.
The downside is why Knight fans are so nervous about the possibility of Jabu lining up center. Rutgers isn't West Virginia. True, Lovelace has the arm to get the ball to receivers streaking downfield. But in three years of taking snaps to this point, that's all we've ever seen him do when tasked with throwing instead of scrambling. I can't recall Jabu ever attempting, say, to go for the easy 8 yard curl for the first down. Mostly, he'd just come in the game to run a custom option package.
When Lovelace was throwing the ball, the former offensive coordinator John McNulty would accentuate his worst play calling tendencies, and always have Jabu air the ball downfield. Unfortunately, I cannot recall any of these passes even being in the near vicinity of their intended targets. Jabu, unfortunately, has never shown any semblance of accuracy in his very limited attempts at throwing the ball in game. As far as I know, the word out of practices over the past few years has been exactly the same thing.
It's difficult for me to criticize a player that strongly, just like it was to scapegoat Tiquan Underwood last season. It would be terrific for Lovelace to prove his many fans in the program correct and silence all the critics. It's unfortunate that his talents aren't utilized to their fullest extent in his current role. Lovelace will contribute and help the team this fall by providing a different, option-based look for a series or two each game. He will also provide sorely needed valuable depth at a position of uncertainty. If Lovelace can emerge as a viable starting quarterback this year, more power to him. I hope that he proves me wrong.
Another player that will be given an opportunity to battle for playing time this fall is redshirt freshman D.C. Jefferson. It's easy to forget that before Tom Savage drove up to the turnpike, it was Jefferson who was seen as the program's quarterback of the future. He is listed at a physically imposing 6'6 and 245 lbs, and is reputed to have, by far, the strongest arm in the program. He's huge, but a surprisingly good athlete to boot.
The knock on Jefferson at this point is that he's raw, and didn't show much in the way of accuracy last fall or in spring practice.
Kid’s got a cannon attached to his shoulder, no question. But you don’t want him replacing Mike Teel. Why? Because the same velocity and power he puts behind a 50-yard bomb, he puts on a 5-yard pass.
What freshman quarterback doesn't need to show significant improvement? The position is known for having a huge bust rate, and even the better ones may not make the leap until their sophomore or junior seasons. In that sense, redshirting last season was a no-brainer, and the best thing that could have happened to Jefferson. Don't be set on writing him off just yet, because D.C. could conceivably make the leap at any time. Savage is the local kid, the presumed heir and face of the program, and he's the better story, but the two are neck and neck as far as I'm concerned. Anyone writing Jefferson off at this point is making a terrible mistake.
However, fellow redshirt freshman Stephen Shimko is largely the forgotten man going into camp. Coach Schiano barely mentions him in comparison to Savage and Jefferson. Shimko, too, is big, and has a lot of arm strength, but that's about it. Everything I read about him in 2007 indicated that he was even more of a project than Jefferson, and largely signed for depth purposes. Shimko hasn't done anything in the past year to make people pay attention. Who knows at this point.
I think that everything I can about Tom Savage at this point would be redundant. I spent more time over the past year writing about him than any other incoming recruit, and you can say the same about anyone remotely following the program. Odds are, the star Philadelphia prep quarterback will battle with Jefferson this fall to see which will be on the odds-on favorite to start in 2010. If not, do I dare say it, take over later this year. I don't want expectations to be too high for Savage, because it's very difficult for even the best quarterback prospects to step in right away.
Savage is a film nut, was a fixture at spring practice (his high school didn't allow him to enroll early), and came to Piscataway as early as possible. If any freshman was ever equipped to see early playing time, it's him. I share everyone's hopes here; Savage emerging as the face of the program, bringing the football program to the next level, and so on. But that level of expectations isn't necessarily realistic. They're not fair to Jefferson, and they're not fair to Savage. At this moment, Savage is just one of eighty five, and will have to earn his playing time as anyone else would.
There's no bones about it; coupled with inexperience at the WR position (I think Tim Brown can get downfield, but who will be the possession guy?), Rutgers fans should be awfully nervous about their passing game entering fall camp. No one can really say whether or not Natale or one of his competitors will be up for the task, because they simply haven't seen enough meaningful snaps to this point. This group could end up being fine, or utterly falling flat on their face. It's by no means a good situation; below average, even. Natale may never live to the hype from his days at Hun. If he can manage the offense (re: adequately well, not being a turnover machine is as far from "game managing" as one can possibly get), limit his mistakes, put the team in a good position to win, and prep his eventual successor to start next season, that's all, if not more, than can reasonably be asked of him at this point.