Projected 2010 depth chart:
Tight end was a big trouble spot for the Scarlet Knights last year. The athletic receiver hybrid Shamar Graves was expected to play a major role after coming on in the second half of 2008. He mysteriously lost his starting job, before earning back some playing time during the second half of the season. Then the athletic department announced that his bid for a fifth year of eligibility on an injury redshirt had been denied by the NCAA, and suddenly his once very promising college football career came to a disappointing conclusion.
What was so befuddling about these events as they were playing out was that Rutgers didn't exactly have a lot of depth at tight end to begin with. Freshman Paul Carrezola was expected to play major minutes early, but fell behind in training camp due to a mistimed injury and ended up redshirting.
"I feel a lot better this year,'' said Carrezola, a Neshaminy High product who was named an Associated Press second-team All-Pennsylvania performer in 2008. "I feel bigger, stronger, a lot more durable than I was last year. Getting hurt kind of set me back a little bit.''
Another reserve in Fabian Ruiz was actually moved to defensive end in the middle of the season. Walk-on freshman Tony Trahan was thrown into the fire early, which preserved redshirts for fellow freshmen Carrezola and Malcolm Bush. The eventual starter at the position, D.C. Jefferson, had actually opened fall camp as a quarterback.
There's no dancing around the fact that D.C. Jefferson did not get a fair chance at quarterback. While an extremely raw prospect, Jefferson showed a lot of promise as a passer, and in most circumstances would/should have stayed under center. That plan was thrown out the window partially owing to the the looming disaster at tight end, but the depth chart at quarterback didn't help either. Jefferson was a very good prospect, but he had the misfortune to be in the same eligibility year as a great prospect in Tom Savage.
Rutgers is extremely fortunate that D.C. Jefferson apparently took his position change in stride, seizing a starting job several games into the season. Normally quarterbacks are stereotyped as statues in the pocket (along the likes of a Drew Bledsoe or Byron Leftwich), and Jefferson certainly lived up to the billing in terms of size and arm strength. He's that big, but he. wasn't moved solely to be a bulky blocking specialist.
Two things are readily apparent when watching D.C. play. He's a fantastic athlete, far better in that regard than his press clippings indicated coming out of high school. Other programs like LSU wanted Jefferson for tight end (which, er, was a selling point in him landing at Rutgers), but it seemed like that was de-emphasized to give him more credibility as a passer. Simply put, someone that big should not be able to move downfield that fast. If Anthony Davis wowed you when he got a head full of steam as a puller, Jefferson's on another level entirely. He may have the best combined size/speed ratio of any player at Rutgers under Greg Schiano.
Those considerable gifts come with a major caveat. D.C. Jefferson looked, well, exactly like what you'd expect to see from a tight end who had been playing QB weeks earlier. Outside of a few brief spectacular glimpses, it wasn't a pretty sight. Route running and blocking technique were question marks from play to play as to whether or not he'd get the assignments right. The offense last year had already been simplified and changed (more spread + Wildcat) in order to accommodate weak OL play and a true freshman quarterback in Tom Savage. Jefferson's challenge now is develop into an asset for the offense.
"[He showed] an improvement on the first day," Schiano said. "D.C. made some really good plays on day one, but then got a little careless with the ball. Today I thought he stepped up his game."
D.C. is that good of an athlete that you're temped to write off his early inconsistency as the direct result of him playing far sooner than would have been ideal. He was just so green that it would be hard to not improve as the result of accumulating more experience, but the net sum of his progress should be one of the ongoing themes of training camp.
Another up and coming player in Paul Carrezola won't compile gaudy statistics, but could well be just as important to any offensive turnaround. The book on Carrezola in high school was that he was a blocker with good hands, polished enough to step in and contribute from day one.
Carrezola's tall stature (6-foot-3) and sizable frame (255 pounds) have been used on both sides of the ball.
Despite a lack of receiving numbers early in the season, the Rutgers signee became a huge part of the offense because of a great blocking style that helped free up running backs Quilan Arnold and Bryan Dean. Lately, he has become more of a pass-catching threat - including the grab of a 2-yard pass for the game-winning touchdown in last weekend's 21-14 victory over Garnet Valley.
Paul doesn't have the speed or upside of a D.C. Jefferson or Malcolm Bush, but the skills Carrezola brings to the table compliment that pair so well that he could easily play just as much, if not more, over coming seasons. He brings to mind one Sam Johnson, who for my money was one of the most underrated players to suit up at Rutgers for Greg Schiano. Chris Rudanovic could block too, but Johnson was better in that regard, and he had great hands to boot. Definitely the kind of key cog where his contributions didn't necessarily show up directly in ever stat line, but his absence was glaring almost immediately upon graduation.
Rutgers hasn't really had that kind of player since, which is why I'm so high on Paul Carrezola as just what the doctor ordered to help get the running game back on track. The fullback depth chart is thin, which is why there could be a fair amount of multiple tight end sets this year, with Carrezola serving as a functional H-Back. He'll essentially be a starter, mainly concentrating on blocking with the occasional third down conversion here and there to help bail out Tom Savage as a security blanket when no receivers are open.
"As of right now we do do a lot of 2-tight end stuff, tight ends moving, but honestly I believe we have a lot of talent at that position,'' Laryea said. "We have guys like D.C. Jefferson, Paul Carrezola, Evan Lampert, Fabian Ruiz, Malcolm Bush. We have guys that are pretty athletic and can perform at a high level so we're going to utilize our talent the best way we can. We're going to make sure that those guys are going to help us win games.''
The Knights should be much improved at the top of the depth chart. However they will be extremely inexperienced, and the team will need a rotation of three or four tight ends if Jefferson and Carrezola play as much as the tea leaves seem to indicate. The real wild card in this mix then is redshirt junior Fabian Ruiz, who briefly saw snaps on defense last fall. Ruiz was originally touted down in Florida as a workout warrior type who'd grow into the position. He subsequently wasn't mentioned much, if ever, over the past three years, before missing spring practice with an injury. Still, Coach Schiano is now touting him as looking "tremendous", so the light could possibly be starting to come on here.
Walk-on Evan Lampert has shuffled between tight end and the defensive line, and offers additional blocking prowess. He should be Carrezola insurance, and see time in short yardage situations. The long term future at tight end though is undoubtedly redshirt freshman Malcolm Bush, who has the luxury of not being thrown to the wolves ala D.C. Jefferson. Both are similar boom or bust types with low floors but enormous ceilings. The one downside for Bush is that he's only a season behind Jefferson. If/when Malcolm is ready to contribute as an all-around threat, that role may still be filled for the time being.
This unit should be much improved as a whole, but to what extent remains to be seen.
"I really would (like more production from the tight end)," Schiano said. "When we've had good offenses the tight end has been productive. Hopefully, we're getting there."
Rutgers tight ends combined for a high of 61 catches for 819 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2004, albeit with the caveats that WR Shawn Tucker was out injured, and QB Ryan Hart didn't really have the arm to run a Teel-style vertical game. That total has declined from the prior year in every subsequent season except 2008. L.J. Smith and then Clark Harris produced so much partly out of necessity (Moses, Tucker, etc... were good, but were no Britt or Sanu). A D.C. Jefferson could play a central role in the offense owing to his relative edge in experience over most of the receivers, but the chief playmaker is clearly going to be Mohamed Sanu.
That doesn't mean that there isn't value in trying to get some of the supporting cast more involved. As hard as it is to remember that Sanu is mortal, even Britt couldn't always beat double or triple coverage. Savage will need to spread the ball around and go through his reads, if only to keep defenses honest. Jefferson's potential is tantalizing, but he's a lottery ticket until proven otherwise, and it's best to keep expectations guarded at least initially. I'll be content with merely improving on the 2009 production, coupled with a noticeable leap forward in run blocking. Anything more is probably asking too much from a group that still needs more seasoning, and is likely a year away from turning into a team strength. Sound familiar?