Rutgers has emphasized special teams to great effect the past few seasons, seemingly taking a page out of Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech playbook with a strong emphasis on blocking kicks and punts. The other units vary: kicking has been shaky, punting is usually decent, coverage fine, kick returns good, and punt returns shaky with so much of the emphasis on blocking as opposed to breaking big returns. Up to this point, the early 2012 returns indicate more of the same in most of those respects.
At kicker, freshman Kyle Federico replaces departed senior San San Te. Te's shaky accuracy hurt Rutgers a number of times the past few seasons, but before his graduation becomes cause for celebration, consider how many good kickers that there actually are in DI football. Statistically, there were over twenty less accurate kickers last fall, not that 80th is anything to write home about. Jeremy Ito was by no means automatic (see: Illinois 2005), but because of his knack for making kicks in critical moments, Te's struggles, and because he was a big upgrade on Ryan Sands, Mike Cortese, et. al., Ito is lionized. There just aren't that many college kickers who have both a strong leg and accuracy though, and with scouting the position subject to extreme unpredictability.
Walk-on punter Justin Doerner returns after an erratic 2011. Doerner had an excellent Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State, but really struggled in a few other games, as well as at USF a few weeks ago. Still, Rutgers was able to get through the season without burning Anthony DiPaula's redshirt, so that has to be seen as a victory. He was slightly below average, but reasonably competent as a whole. For those who still remember the rugby punting debacle from a few years back, that's all you can really ask for. This is a position where while it would be nice to have a real weapon, you can tread water and not be exposed too badly. Justin has a decent leg, and has shared kickoff duties in the past.
In the return game, receiver Jeremy Deering has shown a penchant for reeling off big plays, including a memorable return for a touchdown in last fall's comeback against USF. He hasn't had many opportunities so far, which owes to a combination of the new kickoff rules; starting out against two cupcakes doesn't help either. Mason Robinson has been interesting at punt returner. The past few years, they just threw Mohamed Sanu out there as the guy with the team's best hands as the designated fair catcher; given that Rutgers was going all out for a punt block on most plays. That's what has been so surprising about Mase actually returning punts this year. Wait, you mean you can actually advance those? Overall, this is a very good combo, and that's without even giving Miles Shuler a chance to get in the mix yet. Rutgers has a plethora of speedy athletes on the team, and it really shows all throughout the special teams. This year's freshmen and sophomores making a name for themselves out there will soon be ticketed for a promotion for the two deep.
Greg Schiano took nearly the entire Rutgers staff with him last fall to Tampa Bay. Lone wolf Frank Cignetti went on his own to St. Louis, RBs coach Chris Hewitt landed in Baltimore, and special teams coach Robb Smith stayed with a promotion to defensive coordinator, but everyone else except for offensive line coach Kyle Flood left. Brian Angelichio (TEs), P.J. Fleck (WRs), Phil Galiano (DLs), Bob Fraser (LBs), and Jeff Hafley (DBs) all followed Greg to Tampa. He even took the S&C coach (Jay Butler), some of the graduate assistants, and even the AAD with him. The cupboard was left stocked on the roster, but completely empty in the coaching staff, to the point where even athletic director Tim Pernetti had to suit up as a recruiter.
It's a whole new staff, and Flood did not hesitate to work his old late-90s Hofstra ties in assembling a staff. Tutoring Gary Nova is Rob Spence, who was maligned as a conservative play caller at Clemson and Syracuse. He's not the OC though; that's WR coach Dave Brock, who was promoted on an interim basis last year at BC after Frank Spaziani fired Kevin Rogers, and proceeded to call a zillion screens and runs up the gut. (Brock also was OC for the last Ron Prince year at Kansas State.) That was the fear two games after Howard and Tulane. Crap, this guy still thinks he's at BC, still thinks there's no one on the team who can run faster than a 4.7. We went from all screens to no screens. Fortunately, the USF and Arkansas games saw the real playbooks unleashed, with Brock calling fantastic games in each, and Nova looking very sharp under center. Crisis averted (at least for now.)
TE coach Darnell Dinkins is getting his first major coaching opportunity. He's a Pittsburgh native who used to play for the Giants a few years ago. RB coach Norries Wilson was the OC at UConn during the Dan Orlovsky years, which is a solid enough resume. The RBs have looked decent so far, easing the blow of losing the first RB coach hire, Ben Sirmans, after a short period to the NFL. That's owed a fair bit to improved OL play. That goes back to last season, there are a lot of factors involved (play calling, personnel, etc...), and Flood had things trending back in the right direction, but the early returns look great for OL coach Damian Wroblewski, who like Flood came to Rutgers from Delaware (and had a brief cup of coffee at Ball State before Rutgers opened.) The run blocking looks decent, and the pass protection has been AWESOME. The only question - what do we nick name this guy? Wrobs? Wrobocop? This was a hire that looked very sketchy at the time, but as of now has been promising.
Defensively, the big get of the new staff was probably bringing in Jim Panagos from Central Florida. Rutgers lost its top recruiters from the old staff like Angelichio and Hafley, and he's considered one of the better ones on the new staff (who, unfortunately, don't really have anyone with proven, established bona fides here yet.) Panagos was well-touted at UCF, and both lines are right up there with QB coach for the most critical positional hires. At LB, there's another old Flood buddy (Delaware again) in Dave Cohen. He was formerly Western Michigan's DC, and before that was the HC at Hofstra, and has decent local recruiting ties as well. Robb Smith is the DC as well as the secondary coach. The latter's been shaky early (that was Schiano's specialty for starters.) Overall, the play calling has been aggressive as usual, but the defense seems to be shifting to more of a bulkier personnel style with all of the top DT recruits as of late. For a special teams coach, Flood perhaps tried to replicate the Smith hire with bringing in another Maine defensive coordinator in Joe Rossi.
As for graduate assistants, well, there's four now, and Darnell Stapleton is one, which is pretty cool. He was a great center for Rutgers, and played a bit for the Steelers before knee injuries ended his playing career. The real name of note though is former Don Bosco offensive coordinator Anthony Campanile. Camp was a walk-on defender early in the Greg Schiano years, and it's not like winning with DBP's roster is difficult, but he did very well there. More importantly, once he gets a few years of experience, Anthony is likely to be a very strong New Jersey recruiter as a full assistant here, fitting into that Jeff Hafley role as the young guy who can relate well to prospects. Expectations are high for him, and probably a bit unrealistic for now given his relative inexperience. You can definitely imagine him earning a promotion a few years down the line though.
How good is this staff? It depends on how the offensive assistants prove themselves over the coming games, and even seasons. It's a decent staff on the surface in terms of track record, but Greg Schiano had a few marquee, "name" assistants, and Rutgers fans would have been more comfortable with some bigger names to ease the skepticism after Kyle Flood's promotion to head coach. That isn't really a knock on the hires though. Dinkins could be a find in time, but Angelichio really was fantastic in all aspects. Wilson and especially Panagos look like upgrades. The time is nigh to buy Wroblewski stock. That leaves Brock (who has done well with the WRs so far too) and Spence as the lynch pins determining whether this staff, and ultimately, Flood will be successful or not. If Gary Nova keeps flinging the ball around, then everyone's happy and Rutgers keeps on rolling. If things go south though, and either Nova or Brock's plays look more like they did in 2011, then the critics will come back out of hiding.