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2009 Season Preview: Special Teams/Coaches

Projected depth chart:

K: San San Te (RS-SO 5′9, 180 lbs), Kyle Sullivan (FR 5'11, 175 lbs)
P: Teddy Dellaganna (RS-JR 6′2, 210 lbs)
LS: Andrew DePaola (RS-SR 6'2, 210 lbs), Clem Udovich (RS-JR 6'2, 235 lbs)

Believe it or not, Rutgers actually showed noticeable improvement on special teams last year. Its average yardage surrendered to opposing returns improved from 95th in 2007, to 30th last year. My other big complaint from 2007, net punting, improved from 117th to 73rd. Clear progress, yes, but the units continued to struggle in several areas. The biggest complaint would be general sloppy play - muffing returns, returning punts when they ought to be downed and vice versa, the jaw-dropping gaffes that make you wonder whether those units had even bothered to practice at all.

Bottom line, they need to improve across the board. That means creating more big returns for the guys in Scarlet, surrendering less yardage on coverage teams, winning the turnover battle (the 2006 season was keyed by several kick and punt blocks). However, the unit was still miserable overall, which led to the sacking of position coach Chris Rippon after only one season. Enter former Maine DC Robb Smith.

"The better we can do in kick returns and by taking care of the ball on punt returns," Smith said, "it's going to put our offense in the position to score points."

Lip service is nice (especially considering how dreadful these units have been), but they will have to show progress on the field.

Kicker San San Te remains a work in progress. He missed three extra points last year (I recall one or two not being his fault, but don't precisely remember the circumstances of each off the top of my head), and one kick closer than 30 yards, making everyone apprehensive about his accuracy and nerves. Te does have a reasonably strong leg, to the point where Coach Schiano can at least contemplate going for field goals 45-55 or so from the goalposts.

The X factor with Te is that he battled a back injury during his freshman campaign, a condition that eventually required surgery, forcing Te to sit out spring practice. As of now, he's 100%, and looking to take a step forward.

"My back has healed up pretty well and it’s holding up alright," Te said yesterday during Rutgers media day. "I feel a lot better kicking the ball because my follow-through is fluid and it’s a lot easier when I don’t have pain in my back."

If the Rutgers offense reverts to its 2006 form, as expected, this season (ball control, short passes), they'll likely need a steady dose of Te when drives inevitably stall in the red zone. If he falters, or doesn't show consistent accuracy, that could open the door for walk-on freshman Kyle Sullivan.

Actually, both Te and punter Teddy Dellaganna replaced Jeremy Ito (lost to graduation) in their respective roles last season. Ito stabilized a kicking game that had been a major weakness for the program earlier in Schiano's tenure. He had a knack for making clutch kicks, and a very strong leg, but questionable accuracy at times, which made him miss a few of his easier field goals. Given how strong Ito's leg was, I wondered for three years whether he would be even better punter. We didn't exactly get the answer in 2007, as Ito used an ill-fitting rugby punting style, perhaps in an effort to preserve his leg strength (in addition to field goals, Ito also kicked off that season). That precaution didn't seem to work, as Ito's kickoffs suffered a notable dropoff too.

Ito's struggles led to the obvious question: RU had signed a junior college punter in Teddy Dellaganna. Why, exactly, was he redshirting that year? In 2008, we saw the answer, sort of. Dellaganna has a strong leg, averaging 41.2 gross yards per punt last year. There's absolutely no question that he would have been an upgrade in 2007, and not having a legitimate punter that season arguably swung a game or two.

However, I can see why Coach Schiano had his qualms about throwing Dellaganna into the fire. Any reported issues with handling snaps didn't surface last year, but raw leg strength only goes so far. Teddy still has a lot of room to improve in refining the other aspects of his game. His release is notably slow. Watching games last year, in the back of my mind, I was always fearful that he'd have one blocked, and it ultimately happened against Syracuse. He's not much of a directional punter at this point. In fact, his technique seems to be raw to a point where he will shank far too many.

2008 was up and down for Dellaganna. He had a couple brilliant games in the middle of the season, and actually seemed to regress as the year went on into November (and the winds picked up), at the same time his teammates were finally waking out of their stupor. It was a mixed debut, relative to reasonable expectations. Thankfully, we actually have a bonafide FBS-level punter once again. Considering that Joe Radigan's 2006 season (following three years of inconsistent play) was the only true good punting season we've had since Mike Barr left, having a punter rank higher than 117th is a victory in itself.

Dellaganna has a strong leg, and won the kickoff job last year by default, owing to Te's back issues. That's another area where he can improve. With the way our coverage units have looked the past two seasons, seeing frequent touchbacks wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. The spot remains an open competition in camp.

Jack-of-all-trades walk-on Andrew DePaola will snap this season. On one hand, you have to feel for DePaola. He's so useful on special teams that, despite displaying progress at receiver this spring, Andrew is so important on specials that he won't see much time, at all, at receiver. On the other, special teams are one third of the game, and he has the chance to make an impact on every game as a starter, instead of a second or third stringer. DePaola famously threw a crucial touchdown on a fake field goal two years ago against South Florida, and he has a background at quarterback and receiver. Given Coach Schiano's propensity for trick plays on special teams (especially in front of a national audience), there's a good chance that any such shenanigans this year will involve DePaola.

The return units are a bit of a question mark too. Rutgers is rich in athletes that could handle the position, but none of them have much experience. Departed seniors Jason McCourty and Tiquan Underwood contributed in that area last year. In the mix include projected starters Devin McCourty, Tim Brown, Brandon Bing, and Joe Lefeged. Brown, especially, has looked good when given an opportunity to return kicks, but strangely hasn't received much of an opportunity there. You wonder if Coach Schiano is concerned about wear and tear, protecting the football, what exactly.

Depending on how much the coaching staff wants to put starters in harm's way, it could make sense to give at least one job to junior Mason Robinson. He's bounced around between positions over the past few years, and didn't see much playing time last year in the team's jumbled RB platoon. Robinson showed flashes during the spring and fall, but true freshman Mohamed Sanu was even more impressive, and could take touches away from Robinson. I think Mason is far, far too talented to keep off the field. He needs the ball in his hands, and returning kicks and/or punts could be the way to do it. It's been mentioned that incoming freshman back De'Antwan "Rocket" Williams has been getting some looks here as well. If Kordell Young can contribute this year, and the team doesn't have an immediate need for shiftiness out of the backfield, this could be a place to give Williams a look.

The "back to 2006" meme was tired before it even got off the ground this year. Yeah, how can you not see the obvious similarities in the trenches? But for Rutgers to actually see a repeat of its breakout campaign, they will have to shake off the countless special teams woes of the past two seasons. which won't be an easy task. Given the attrition across the conference, Te and Dellaganna actually return as one of the top duos in the Big East, which is odd to say for an average unit that struggled at points last year.

I understand what's up with the placekickers, but can't quite put my finger on what happened to the return and coverage units. Was it coaching? Rutgers keeps bringing in better athletes every season, but hasn't had a consistent returner since "Windmill" Willie Foster departed. With a tough home opener against Cincinnati looming, I can't think of a better way to start off the season with a bang than with a big special teams play early in that contest to set the tone, and show that the Scarlet Knights mean business this year.

Staff changes

RB Coach Gary Brown (who was technically a graduate assistant, meaning that he couldn't recruit off campus) was replaced by former Syracuse assistant Randy Trivers. His status as an underling to one of the truly worst FBS coaches of all time shouldn't be held against Trivers; he was well regarded, and has a lot of ties to prep football in Maryland. Trivers coached safety Joe Lefeged in high school, and Jourdan Brooks played for a cross-town rival. I don't know much about the new WR coach hire in Brian Jenkins (hired from UL-Lafayette), beyond the fact that he's a native of Ft. Lauderdale, and was primarily brought on for his recruiting connections in Southern Florida.

Last year's staff shakeups weren't limited merely to hiring two new assistants. Offensive coordinator/QB coach John McNulty departed back to the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals (he originally landed with Rutgers after Bill Parcells tanked McNulty's offer to join Tom Coughlin's New York staff as WR coach). As expected, WR coach Kirk Ciarrocca was promoted to passing game coordinator, and Jenkins came on board to fill the resulting gap. Ciarrocca, as you may recall, was Delaware's offensive coordinator during Joe Flacco's breakout season, making him potentially an excellent mentor for young Tom Savage. The Blue Hens used more of a spread look that year, although Coach Schiano doesn't expect Rutgers to change much on offense this season.

Schiano wasn't satisfied with one promotion however. No, Solomonic decrees were in order, splitting both the offensive and defensive coordinator roles into two positions, with Schiano relinquishing the latter title. I still don't exactly understand how sharing duties will work, and what exactly the titles entail besides additional status and a promotion in salary. In fact, the following Schiano quote seems to be deliberately unclear.

"I don't agree wholeheartedly with that. A lot of our gameplanning gets done in the office during the week by down and distance, by field zone -- all those things. How that plays out on game day, I think is going to vary and I think I'm going to be interjected there in certain areas as well.

"A large percentage of what we call has been called in the calmness and the serenity of our staff meeting rooms with all of the information in front of us and then we go out and execute it on game day. Now, that's not to say there's not some gut-feel calls that go in. Really, the way we do it -- and I'm not saying that's the way everybody does it -- I thought Kyle and John (McNulty) has great communication when it was run-pass type of deals and Kirk was involved in that pass decision-making from up top. The whole offensive staff works very well. How it's determined, we're going to work through that. I'm not very concerned about that."

What we do know is that Kyle Flood is a truly elite offensive line coach, and now he's in charge of the running game, sharing overall coordinator duties with Ciarrocca. Flood is the most important member of the staff, by far, and every day that passes without him jumping at a bigger off, to the NFL, and being offered a Head Coaching job is a blessing.

On the other side of the ball, I'm still not fully convinced that Schiano will be able to just walk away, work on his golf game, watch soccer practice, sleep six hours a night, and those sorts of things. Will Coach be able to resist the urge to micromanage co-DCs Bob Fraser and Ed Pinkham? Good question.

"(Schiano) is involved in the defense. He knows exactly what's going on at all times," noted Fraser. "When you have the best in the business, you'd be nuts not to want to have him involved."

Ultimately, what's important is that the defense regains its 2006 form if Rutgers wants to be in the national conversation this year. The front seven should be good, so as long as the secondary gets it together, it doesn't matter how they all get to that point. Who knows; maybe we'll actually see some stability following the season for once.