Leading up to this past Tuesday, preseason training camp had appeared to be going pretty much as planned for coach Kyle Flood, with a couple of exceptions. There had been more players sitting out with various degrees of injury than any coach would like. There was such a close battle for the starting quarterback position, Flood backed off his initial 7-10 days declaration to make a decision. Every Rutgers supporter anxiously awaited the final decision on who would start at quarterback, with the expectation that Flood would announce after practice on Tuesday.
Instead of clarity at the most important position on the team, Tuesday became a firestorm of allegations, investigations and suspensions for the Rutgers football team. If you have been living under a grease truck for the past few days and need a recap of the drama, you can read my breakdown here. While Hayden Rettig has been named the starting quarterback for the Norfolk State game, Flood changed his stance and has not declared him the starter beyond that game. The distractions are everywhere and the potential for it to impact this team in a negative way is very possible.
And yet I will argue the opposite, that the unprecedented preseason adversity this program has faced, will unite and strengthen this group, preparing them for a successful season. There are questions on personnel regarding how the offensive line will perform, whether a young secondary can improve on two disappointing seasons, and of course, who will lead this team long term at quarterback. There is talent on this team and it is time for the younger players to step up and fulfill their potential. However, the key to this season, and why this team could not be better prepared to face all the adversity that has come this week, is the veteran leadership of this team.
Darius Hamilton, Paul James, Quentin Gause and Leonte Carroo are as strong a group of senior captains as this program has ever had. There is no excuse for Carroo breaking curfew this past weekend, the only dent in his otherwise flawless career. The important part is he isn't making any excuses and is taking full responsibility. From Ryan Dunleavy's article, "
Carroo, who was suspended Tuesday for the first half of the season-opener along with four teammates who violated a team curfew over the weekend, said he made a "dumb decision" and got "exactly what I deserved" in terms of a penalty.
"I had a chance to prevent things from happening and I allowed it to happen," Carroo said. "I take full responsibility (with) me being a captain and a leader of this team."
How many leaders in our everyday lives hold themselves accountable and use their own mistakes to educate and develop those around them? If Carroo and the other captains can use this incident as a positive to reinforce the team goals and what is important in order to have a successful season, then it could end up being a blessing. While we wish this never happened, it is the most minor infraction a star player will make this college football season.
Hamilton, James and Gause along with Carroo have been exemplary student athletes in their careers. Others like Sam Bergen, Keith Lumpkin and Steve Longa have done the same. These players make up a strong core that I believe will keep this relatively young team together. As Rutgers supporters, we unite under the lack of respect our program has received since joining the Big Ten. This veteran group certainly does as well, knowing the projectionsthis season are not good despite the surprise season from a year ago.
With all that being said, the investigation of Flood is the biggest distraction this program had dealt with in years. Fair or not, whether you agree with the media coverage or not, this team is at a crossroads. Not knowing the fate of your leader is a terrible and uncomfortable position to be in as the start of the season approaches. However, with the player leadership that is in place, I believe this will unite this team with a single focus. Prove the world wrong and play their hearts out for the coach they love. Here is a telling tweet from Big Ten Analyst Gerry DiNardo this weekend:
BTN Bus Tour #Rutgers Every program has a personality and culture - RU's is toughness and playing with an edge— Gerry DiNardo (@gerrydinardo) August 23, 2015
Mind you this was before Tuesday's controversy broke out around the program. If this team can channel those traits throughout the season and stick together, it can propel them to greatness. For the seniors, this is their last chance and they know this season will define their legacies. It is also a huge season for Flood, even more so now after the investigation regarding alleged improper contact with the professor. Depending the outcome of the investigation, a losing season could potentially end his tenure. The team leaders have been around long enough to recognize that. The list is too long of players who have publicly praised coach Flood not only as a great coach, but a great man who has enriched their lives in many ways. Starting their season with their coach having his integrity questioned, and knowing he now faces more pressure than any season before, should unite them. Playing for your embattled coach can be a powerful weapon, one in which cannot be measured on paper. However, motivation alone is not enough, proper preparation is a major factor as well.
Paul James defined the team's mantra for this season, before training camp, before spring camp, and before winter workouts. He defined it in the locker room AFTER Rutgers blew out North Carolina in last season's bowl victory. In this article by Ryan Dunleavy from the start of training camp, James said, "I just felt like eight wins wasn’t a good enough goal for this team and the direction that we’re going. I just felt like I needed to have a talk with the guys and tell them don’t be satisfied with eight wins. We want to be satisfied with championships." "You need to be ready for (next) year, it’s going to be a different year, we’re going to come a lot stronger and a lot harder," James told the crowd. "When you are actually out there playing you kind of push stuff to the side and focus on football," James said. "Not having that focus, I saw a lot of things and it made me feel like we needed a change, and we needed to push ourselves more to make our team a better team to win more games. "It was just kind of stuff I’ve seen as I got to sit off to the side and watch everything and see how everything was going on, the way we were working and the way we were practicing." James is a player who had his last two seasons end prematurely due to injury. He is a perfect example of someone who isn't going to let this week's drama negatively effect this team. He has the respect of the locker room.
As upsetting as this week has been, I believe we will be looking back on it in December with a smile. There is no denying the individual efforts of each person on the team prepared themselves to be better football players this season. However, after having to deal with distractions and uncertainty as well as mistakes of their teammates, this team is more battle tested this early in the season than ever before. There will be daunting tests on the field, against the defending national champions, playing a night game in Happy Valley and taking on the Maize and Blue in the Big House. To quote Al Pacino from Any Given Sunday, "Either we heal as a team or we will die as individuals." The senior leadership on this team have been apart of the 2012 team that fell at the finish line, the 2013 team that failed expectations and last year's team that surprised the Big Ten. This season is their's to decide, and after this week's suspensions and investigation, they have everything to fight for, including their coach.