Here's where I am coming from: the more I learn about the state of Rutgers football this season, and the more I think about what went wrong last year, the more optimistic I become. I think the team will benefit from substantial upgrades in coaching, more experience in key positions on the field, more Athletic Department stability, and increased fan energy due to our new conference.
It may not matter record-wise, because we are also taking a serious step up in competition. The schedule is an obvious reason for concern, but aside from our seat at the cool kids' table and the brutal schedule that comes with it, is there anything else that has not improved? I'm having a hard time coming up with areas of the football team that are not better than they were last year.
Head Coach Kyle Flood
Kyle Flood is going into his third year as head coach, and it is a make-or-break campaign. If he has not improved, learned and grown, he is gone - pretty simple. Let's call it IMPROVED.
Offensive Coordinator/QB Coach Ralph Friedgen
Offensive Coordinator Ralph Friedgen is calling the shots now. By all accounts Ron Prince was a disaster chemistry-wise, and his spats with QB coach Rob Spence led to Nova's inconsistency and turnover issues. Hard to see how the Fridge (as both OC and QB coach) is not a huge step forward from 2013. IMPROVED, exponentially. Just ask Gary Nova:
"I always said I wish I had [Friedgen] all four years. He's great. He's a great teacher. He's probably the best teacher I've been around, in school, anything. The way he remembers things and can teach it. He won't put a lot of stuff in if I'm struggling with it. He'll peel back and just focus on things like that. He's awesome."
Defensive Coordinator Joe Rossi
On the other side of the ball, Defensive Coordinator Joe Rossi replaces Dave Cohen. Cohen presided over statistically one of the worst defense in Rutgers history. His inability to adjust schemes to counter spread offenses was inexcusable - he did not just fail to adjust, say, after halftime; he failed to adjust game-to-game and month-to-month, as a parade of spread offenses shredded his secondary with underneath routes and short screen passes. Rossi should get the Knights back to the aggressive, swarming pressure defense that became a hallmark of the Schiano years. In any case, there is no way he is worse than Cohen, even though he is young, so the defensive coaching is definitely IMPROVED.
The Scarlet Knights also added Bob Fraser as special teams coach (WASH - Rossi was fine here in 2013) LB Coach (IMPROVED - players praise Fraser's abilities as a teacher). Fraser raises the overall talent level of the coaching staff, so he seems like a great add so far. Also joining the staff is Mitch Browning as the O-line coach, replacing the fired Damian Wroblewski. Browning brings a wealth of B1G experience, and seems to be instilling a back-to-basics approach and a hard nosed attitude to the OL. It's early, but let's call O-line coaching IMPROVED. Ben McDaniels rounds out the new hires as WR coach, replacing Matt Simon. Early returns are positive, but McDaniels is a little too young to tell for sure at this point. WAIT AND SEE.
On the Field - Offense
At QB, Gary Nova can be terrific, or dreadful, sometimes in the same game. He is a senior, he is the most talented (eligible) QB on the roster, and he is looking to make a splash in his final season. This is more a proxy call based on Friedgen's ability to maximize good-Gary and reduce lousy, TurNova-Gary, but I'm calling the QB spot IMPROVED. No experienced backups though - Chas Dodd is not riding to the rescue, so that's troubling.
Receivers and Tight Ends
The receiving corps loses Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt, who were experienced playmakers, but also guys who occasionally had trouble with inexplicable drops. The Knights are adding the explosive Janarion Grant to the offensive mix, and Ruhann Peele, Andre Patton and Carlton Agudosi should see increased opportunities. Leonte Carroo was terrific last year, and if he can avoid the injury bug, should be a monster in the B1G. Tyler Kroft is All-American caliber, and should only get better. I call this IMPROVED, slightly - Coleman had all-world potential, but he did not flash it enough last year. I like the upside on the young guys, and newcomer Andrew Turzilli could be a valuable experienced addition.
The running back position looks stacked for the Knights this year, even if Savon Huggins misses substantial time because of injury. Paul James is as good as anybody in the B1G when he is healthy, a rather large caveat last year. He had off-season shoulder surgery, and claims he is 100% to start camp. Behind him, Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples are looking strong. Peoples has been one of the most-improved players two years in a row, no easy task, and he looked tremendous in the spring. Goodwin got carries last year as a true freshman, and impressed with his opportunities. Fullback Michael Burton is an old-school throw-back kind of player, and a major leader on this team. He is also a threat as a pass catcher in the backfield. In two practices (with no pads, so take it with a gigantic grain of salt), freshman Robert Martin and Josh Hicks have drawn praise. The RB situation is IMPROVED, although most of its problems last year came from injuries, always a question mark at that spot.
Offensive line should be a strength, as Rutgers returns five starters with 99 career starts under their collective belts. The O-line finished 100th in rushing offense and 102 in sacks allowed (35) last year, so its hard not to improve from that performance. Kaleb Johnson and Keith Lumpkin are NFL level linemen, Betim Bujari is a very solid center, Taj Alexander brings a lot of experience, and Chris Muller is showing why he was so highly recruited. Behind them, Dorian Miller is ready to contribute, and Marcus Applefield looks promising as a freshman. IMPROVED, because of experience and a coaching upgrade.
On the Field - Defense
Starting with last year's biggest weakness, the secondary, this looks like a clear improvement. Frankly, there is very little way the secondary does not improve, from the worst pass defense performance in school history. Injuries (Lew Toler) and weirdness (Ian Thomas) took two key pieces out of the secondary, leaving a very green corps of defensive backs to hold the line against some pass-happy offenses. This year, all those "green" DBs are battle-tested and playing with gigantic chips on their shoulders. Anthony Cioffi checked in close to 200 lbs., packing on some mass to prevent him from getting pushed around in run support, and Nadir Barnwell lost the weight that Cioffi found, giving him more quickness and explosiveness. Gareef Glashen is solid at CB, and Jonathan Aiken and Lorenzo Waters should be steady at safety. Rutgers added a bunch of talented young DBs, with at least Dre Boggs and Kam Lott getting some looks at corner. If one of the younger guys steps up, Cioffi might move to safety, which could suit his skill-set well. IMPROVED - God help us if it's not.
Still so early in #RCamp14 but several true freshmen look very promising already. Andre Boggs with a big-time INT today.— Jason Baum (@JasonBaumRU) August 3, 2014
It is hard to believe Steve Longa is only going into his second season, as productive as he was last year. The sky is the limit for him this year, and it would not be a surprise at all if he was Rutgers leading tackler as well as an all-B1G selection. He should be even more effective from the Will, where he can really utilize his quickness. Kevin Snyder is an experienced, smart football player, and he will benefit from being the defensive QB at the Mike position. Quentin Gause showed up looking like he was carved out of oak, Myles Nash is putting on some mass and ready to contribute in a big way, and freshman Brandon Russell has looked good early. The biggest loss in the LB corps was 3-year starter Jamal Merrell. LB corps is IMPROVED, slightly, mostly because Longa's unbelievable upside makes up for Jamal's loss, but this was a pretty decent crew last year to begin with.
.@KyleFloodRU cited the high level of play from Darius Hamilton, Leonte Carroo & Steve Longa at today’s practice. pic.twitter.com/UXSEQqZZq4— Jason Baum (@JasonBaumRU) August 3, 2014
D Line should be a major strength this year. Darius Hamilton is going to be a household name this year (because, spoiler alert, he will decapitate that glory boy nitty kitty QB in September). Quanzell Lambert is finally in the right position as a rush end, and should blossom into a ferocious pass rusher. David Milewski (finally healthy) and Djwany Mera are very strong, Sebastian Joseph Day is a beast, Julian Pinnix-Odrick is finally 100% after a series of injuries, and Kemoko Turay is an athletic freak who is just beginning to tap his potential as he learns the position. These guys should finally be able to bring pressure without blitzing, something the Knights have clearly been lacking the last few years, which also contributed to the secondary meltdown last year. The Knights lost Marcus Thompson and Jamil Merrell, but should be able to make up for their loss with the long-awaited eruption of younger talents like Quanzilla and JPO. IMPROVED, and we will see nasty-ass swarming old school Rutgers D once again.
.@RFootball practice No. 3 of #RCamp14 is in the books. #CHOPNation pic.twitter.com/s2p3kjhgoM— Jason Baum (@JasonBaumRU) August 3, 2014
Off Field Situation
It's hard to say how the off-field circumstances this year will change. At least to outsiders, the Athletic Department seems more stable than last year, but that may be deceiving. Ticket sales are booming, and Rutgers fans (hopefully) will fill the stadium with scarlet, while resisting the temptation to make a few hundo by selling tickets to ttfp, Michigan or Wiscy fans.
Rutgers just announced the two biggest sponsorship deals in school history -- five-year contracts with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and AmeriHealth New Jersey that are worth more than $5M combined, so great work by Julie Hermann and her team there (I know haters: IMG pulled these in, and Tim pulled IMG in, so Tim > JH. I get it, but I'm still thrilled about this).
And best of all, Julie Hermann has stayed out of the media for several consecutive months now, a personal best. All this is positive, and better than the chaos last year. IMPROVED, because it pretty much had to be.
Leadership and Intangibles
Big steps up in leadership are already apparent. Darius Hamilton is the face of the program, and he has matured into a dynamic leader of this team. Michael Burton is a strong leader, and Gary Nova has finally stepped up and embraced a leadership role. I also like what we are seeing from Guys like Longa and Myles Nash, as well as David Milewski. I expect a more disciplined, pissed off, chip-on-the-shoulder, fired up team that is ready to prove all the doubters and all the skeptics and all the haters wrong. This team had a pretty serious leadership deficit last year, exacerbated by weak coaches in a few key spots. That appears to be behind us. IMPROVED, and ready to kick some B1G doors down.
#RELENTLESS #WARREADY whatever you wanna call it we will shock the NATION. ##CHOPNation— Myles Nash (@DareOneTwoBeGr8) August 2, 2014
I feel as though the fans are more nervous about the big 10 then we are lol WE FEAR NO TEAM #CHOP— Duce13Ru (@Hungry_Humble22) July 24, 2014
Fun, but Yikes