In an odd twist, one week ago I watched new Rutgers Football Head Football Coach Greg Schiano’s press conference from my hotel in ... Louisville, Kentucky. Yes I know Pandemonium in Piscataway was an RU home game, but you know the opponent and its place in RU Football lore. After Schiano gave a passionate speech that called out how everyone needs to get on board and can contribute in different ways, this had me thinking, who is “everyone”? And what have we seen in his first week on the job?
Luckily I didn’t wait long for more detail from the coach himself. Later that day, in an interview with Chris Carlin on the “Inside Rutgers podcast”, the host asked Schiano what the State of Rutgers will look like this time around. “It will always be New Jersey and the states that border New Jersey, or at least parts of those states,” Schiano said. He continued that it will include some other areas, particularly “within the Big Ten footprint.” “You drive four hours in any direction you are talking about millions and millions of people ... There’s plenty of players ... but can you get them all? That is the question.” He ended the sequence by adding, “we will get back into the state of Florida.”
I was still pondering this question a few hours later when I boarded my flight back to Atlanta. Literally right in front of me at the gate was Louisville Cardinals star receiver (1st team All-ACC) Tutu Atwell connecting to Miami, Florida. Think of him as Janarion Grant (also from Florida) as a visual down to the speed, height, and jersey number. The woman in front of him you could tell wanted to say something as we stood there on the jetway after already scanning our tickets. The southern housewife about 55 years old, significantly taller than the player, and weighing about 50 pounds more than the sophomore wide receiver (listed at 5’9”, 153 lbs.) eventually turned around and asked for a selfie.
“I have to send this to my husband,” she said. “We watch every game together.”
This is the type of interaction Greg Schiano envisions at Newark and Chris Ash never really got the memo on. I’m not saying that Rutgers will become the entire state of New York’s or Pennsylvania’s team, but Louisville is also positioned across the Ohio River from the state of Indiana and less than 100 miles from Cincinnati. At Louisville’s airport, you get some Kentucky Wildcats fans, but it’s clear who the average, everyday person supports, regardless of which side of or how far up the river they are from.
And those every day people make it a point to say hello to even the average player, like Sophomore Defensive Lineman Malik Clark who sat across the aisle from me, not just the stars like Atwell. These guys are “home” here, just like a Ryan Hart or “Mr. Chop” Eric Foster are now Jersey guys after their time on the banks. Does anyone remember they are from out of state? It’s obvious when a team has support like that and winning of course helps.
The New Jersey radius Schiano described easily incorporates the entire state of New Jersey, New York City, Eastern Pennsylvania, and Delaware. A 120 mile radius (4 hours or so with traffic) even stretches into Connecticut and Maryland. On a good day, four hours gets you past Washington, D.C. to the other side of the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia). Four hours the other way can be Providence, Rhode Island and parts of southern Massachusetts.
That’s a lot of different places, what should we reasonably expect from each of these?
Comparative advantage: Linebackers and Running backs. Rutgers needs to try and pry as much of the top talent from the Garden State as possible, although completely fencing the garden is probably never going to happen. Looking at Schiano’s last class during his first tenure at RU in 2011, you see he signed the following ranked players from NJ overall; #1 (RB), #4 (ATH), #8 (DT), #10 (OT), #16 (DE), #17 (QB), #20 (DE), #22 (RB), #29 (DT), #30 (ATH), #31 (QB). Also note #6, DB Sheldon Royster returned to the banks after one season and he secured PWO’s #37 & #41. For Rutgers truly to compete in the Big Ten, this needs to be on average what we see in-state every single year. In his first week on the job, Schiano has flipped #20 in the 2020 class, Chris Long and #23 in the class Malachi Melton. There could be more.
The running back and linebacker positions are where New Jersey gets poached the most. New Jersey is the most populated state per square mile so you have the most players in a condensed area AND has comparatively smaller high school enrollments than most other states. So you have a lot more running backs and linebackers simply playing football at the high school level who come in a variety of shapes and sizes. So maybe you lose the best of these to another power (like Drew Singleton to Michigan who then returned to the banks), but still can fill out your depth chart with almost all local talent at these spots despite the defections. When Olakunle Fatukasi (NY) was battling injury this year, the entire LB crew all grew up in NJ other than Rashawn Battle (PA); Singleton, Maddox-Williams, Fogg, Jennings, Toure, Anderson, and Onyechi. And that unit is one of the few surefire Big Ten caliber position groups on the Rutgers roster!
You can also end up with a completely unranked running back from Glassboro who walks on and becomes a star like Paul James. These types of guys that mostly fill your depth chart can turn out to hit it big when they want to be at their local Power Five Program rather than taking a scholarship at a smaller school nearby. The McCourtys were at least drafted, but Schiano gave that example of how he wants to develop players. In the past week, a raw talent from in-state, Victor Konopka, also committed.
The best team in the country at maintaining this allegiance is probably Wisconsin who Rutgers wants to emulate, (who also poaches RB’s from NJ a lot unfortunately). Jim Leonhard who was a walk-on Badger who wanted to play for “his” team. He became a starter then All-Big Ten. Though undrafted, played in the NFL for a decade, and is now his alma mater’s Defensive Coordinator that by the way stymied the #1 team in the country in the B1G title game last weekend. Wisconsin as a smaller state is going to fill out their scholarship roster with guys in the 15-20 range from their state. Rutgers can do that with roughly top 40 NJ players, like a Will Previlon who became a solid starter by his final year.
Comparative advantage: Offensive Linemen. How does Iowa always have a zillion linemen like Nebraska did all those years? They have a lot of “farm boys.” This may sound cliche, but was always logical to me that young men who grow up doing under appreciated, repetitive tasks would more naturally make good linemen due to the mental aspect of just doing your often thankless job and the physical side of building those stabilizer muscles at a younger age. Not every player grew up on a farm obviously, but the raised level of play on the offensive line overall has a trickle down effect. Rutgers got two (Chris Muller and JJ Denman) four-star, multi-year starters on the offensive line from Pennsylvania in the same class (2012) originally recruited by Schiano. There has not been activity on this front yet, but Schiano mentioned his staff being hired in a flow chart model, more on that later.
In Pennsylvania, you are also going to get bleed over on some of the same characteristics mentioned in the New Jersey description. Both Raheem Blackshear (still unclear what his plans are for 2020) and Aaron Young, two of the top three running backs on the team are from Eastern PA. Plenty of linebackers from the state also graced the banks in recent memory like Battle, Kevin Snyder, Trevor Morris, etc. These players also might grow up closer to Rutgers than their own state university.
The only current commit from Pennsylvania is quarterback Evan Simon. He and his camp have usually been quiet, but it seems like Simon is still strongly committed based on his recent twitter activity. Simon is no Johnny Langan on the ground, but he possesses the balance and agility you see succeed in some versions of spread attacks, like the Mike Leach Air Raid. More importantly he looks close to another PA quarterback who starred on the banks, Tom Savage.
New York City and Long Island
Comparative advantage: Linemen. The hardest position to recruit at this point in the evolution of college football is the defensive line. The simple fact is that not only do you need to find people who weigh 260 lbs. or more by the time they are 19 years old, they need to be able to move laterally and quickly disengage from the grasp of 300 lb. maulers on the other side and often times just hold their ground. Not only do they need to get off blocks, they need to then find a ball carrier and pursue him while still maintaining gap integrity. In that same 2011 class, Schiano landed Al Page, the #2 player in the state of New York. Page, built like he was chiseled out of granite, was buried on the depth chart but the RU defensive line during his time was VERY formidable so that was not a failure.
So you’ll take them from anywhere you can find big guys who can move, but it’s also in your best interest to focus on the places nearby that have the most consistently high level of competition. It’s hard to pinpoint for certain why New York City more than even other major cities in America and it’s more urban suburbs can produce such a large number of large young men, but I have two hypotheses. “The City” is the largest metropolis in America and has the most schools as a natural consequence. Then within those schools, you have a similar situation to North Jersey where the top talent congregates at a small handful of those schools especially when the smaller ones don’t even have a football program. The other thing that is more important now than ever is the personal responsibility required when spending your time in such circumstances. I have high school coaches tell me in other sports that kids today (especially in the suburbs) want the coaches to send them a text about when the next practice is, even when the team practices at the same time every single day. In a city you need to be street smart, know what buses you need to take, and be tough. If you aren’t, they will find someone else who will.
Yesterday, Schiano landed a commitment from New York lineman Tunde Fatukasi, brother of current starting linebacker, Olakunle Fatukasi. Tunde had to battle at home with Olakunle and their oldest brother Foley who plays for the New York Jets. All the lessons learned from that and their location seems to have paid dividends as the transformation on the field for Tunde between his sophomore and junior, then junior and senior seasons has been incredible.
Western (and Upstate) New York
Comparative advantage: Bigger, versatile athletes. Brian Leonard, Quentin Gause (from that solid 2011 Schiano class), and current freshman quarterback Cole Snyder. All of these players were do it all type guys in high school in less than ideal weather conditions. I recall discussion about Leonard was that he could have been an All-American Linebacker or Tight End which is hard to argue. Snyder was a football, baseball, and hockey player and even returned punts. The starting QB returning punts? That’s unheard of in most parts of the country. And did anyone ever question toughness from these guys? Worst case is you have a guy like Devan Carter who didn’t become a starter, but was a rugged depth chart guy as a running back and linebacker at Rutgers.
As we are starting to get lower on the list, you can expect the Upstate New York recruiter may be one of the later positions filled by Schiano on his staff. Maybe it will even be a former player, though I have no intel to support that. These players are often underrecruited, so it’s entirely possible a diamond in the rough shows up near traditional signing day in February.
Comparative advantage: Defensive backfield. Why there is a need for speed from Florida that is most necessary in DB’s but also critical for wide receivers and edge rushers? There’s two primary reasons teams go to Florida (or Texas). The speed of the high school game is faster (they can play all your round) and often the players are bigger down south at each position (bigger high schools, more big bodies per school). So it’s easier to evaluate the skill positions on film AND because a lot of guys that play corner in Florida are big enough to play corner at the next level, you aren’t projecting whether a linebacker will be fast enough to be a safety or safety is going to be quick/fast enough to play corner. You don’t have the 5’7”, 135 lb. cornerbacks often suiting up from Group 1 New Jersey schools like my alma mater, Waldwick.
So far we have seen safety Jerrold Pough decommit, although I’m not sure he ever visited campus. Linebacker Jack Del Rio remains committed and was recently on campus it appears. Del Rio is not a defensive back, but appears to be a valuable talent for the same reason, he appears to have the necessary coverage skills to be a Big Ten linebacker.
Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Massachusetts
Comparative advantage: Close, but not too close to home & underrecruited gems. I know I wanted to go to college at least two hours from home for some space (RU was not recruiting me). My wife wanted to go to college as far as possible from her parents (in Texas) and still be in the south. So you might get some similar circumstances for guys from these areas. You also could see local ties play a big role like Tyson Fogg who went to high school in Maryland, but grew up in New Jersey. In addition, there are pockets of talent that could go undiscovered or passed on by Boston College and Maryland who could have the same in-state challenges Rutgers does. In the past we have seen Mark Harrison (Connecticut), Lorenzo Waters (Maryland), Duron Harmon (Delaware), Andre Patton (Delaware), and most of those guys ended up ok. Last year’s debatably top signee, Zukudo Igwenagu, is from Massachusetts and I think would have been recruited by everybody in the Big Ten if he lived in New Jersey. Maybe if Rutgers gets good enough people in Delaware will be driving around with Block R’s on their cars, too. NOTE: Not expecting in PA or MA.
There also the likelihood of connections being a huge boost. Cheshire Academy (yes under Chris Ash) got Rutgers Sam Vretman and Malachi Burby (now in transfer portal) so it can be done. You also see pipelines like Rutgers had two players from Fork Union Military Academy (Virginia) in the 2011 class under Schiano.
The 2020 Rutgers class just got a boost from Robert Longerbeam from Alexandria, Virginia in the D.C. area who committed on Wednesday.
Other Big Ten areas
Comparative advantage: Chips on their shoulders. Kay’Ron Adams. Brandon Bordner. Both players (Ohio) moved into prominent roles late in the season. Would they have been on the roster if Rutgers wasn’t in the Big Ten? What about Giovanni Rescigno (Michigan)?
Other national recruiting
Comparative advantage: Gems and novelty. This is about already established relationships, finding random diamonds in the rough, and luck. Maybe a former RU player or Schiano friend from coaching circles is somewhere else and gives you a tip. The current player who fits this bill is redshirt freshman starting left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal, from South Carolina. O’Neal is no farmer, but the hard work described in his days helping his mom with her house cleaning business will build plenty of character. Again I expect this to be a later in the recruiting cycle development.
It also worked out when RU got Chas Dodd (South Carolina). I highlight him specifically because we hear all the time how parochial coaches in New Jersey want to be able to show on the wall all the different college programs they sent players to. Look at the Alaimo brothers for example. I’m picking on St. Joe’s (Montvale where my parents lived when I was born) a little here perhaps unfairly, but they can show with helmets/memorabilia that they sent Matt to UCLA (before he returned to RU) and Michael to Purdue where he is currently committed. St. Joe’s early in Schiano’s first tenure sent their “lesser” prospects to RU like Ron Girault and the McCourtys, though that all worked out fine.
If big high schools who recruit in fact do this like we all suspect, take advantage of similar circumstances in other states. Dodd played for Byrnes which was narrowly defeated by National Champions St. Thomas Aquinas (FL) during his time there and sent players to several Power Five schools each year. There are more schools and players out there, maybe Schiano can find them.
Many of the points above were already part of his successful strategy, but Schiano mentioned a few things he learned in the last eight years as well. He talked about his three sons being recruited and playing college football and as a result getting a better understanding the demands of student athlete that players have as a parent like the time commitment, pain of injury, and social media pressure.
This staff to meet the changing requirements should be the dream team staff of the state. For example, Phil Cundari went from Seton Hall (where he was twice named Pitching Coach of the Year nationally) to Rutgers as the pitching coach in baseball. Rutgers is the state university and this is the Big Ten, so that probably doesn’t happen in the old Big East! That’s a way bigger deal from a relative standpoint in that sport than Fran Brown (who is on fire right now) going from Temple to Rutgers. This is how it works in places like Iowa, Colorado, and LSU. People are on the same page throughout the entire state.
Schiano also stressed the hiring of his staff as a flow chart. “Don’t hire yourself out of more options,” is what he said. This makes sense if you can recruit without the full staff in place, but it is logical to focus on your coordinators and top recruiters first. If you first hired your offensive line coach for example and he’s from Camden, then you get an opportunity hire Fran Brown, now you have two people from Camden. If they are both great coaches and recruiters, that is awesome. But you may also get more diversity in the staff as it pertains to location, experience, and expertise if you follow a process.
One thing going this time around is the success of former players under Schiano. Will any of them end up on his staff? Tiquan Underwood and Darnell Stapleton have coaching experience, but let’s give another example. Quentin Gause is still pursuing his NFL career, but let’s say he decides to go into coaching with no experience. That might be a huge risk to fill your staff with early in the process. But maybe a linebackers coach unexpectedly leaves next summer and you need to fill the spot with a younger guy since there is plenty of experience already on staff. And maybe the upstate New York recruiting role is not really being utilized to its full potential. Well then perhaps you take that risk on a former player.
When asked by Carlin about the identity of the program Schiano responded, “a bunch of guys that care deeply for each other. All culture stuff is great, but if they can’t do it without thinking about it, it’s just documents or a sign in a building ... three’s the limit.” These are things every coach wants to do, but are notable in being his specific priorities. F.A.M.I.L.Y. (Forget about me, I love you) and “the chop” are the same as last time. Max Melton and Fatukasi are literally family members of current players who have kept chopping. The third, trust, is the linchpin and “we have our own definition of trust”. Several commits, decommits, and other prospects mentioned how Greg Schiano is a straight shooter. Knowing where you stand is very important in this process whether you are a recruit, current player, season ticket holder, coach, or member of the support staff.
At this point, “everyone” is New Jersey itself and the areas where Rutgers is the closest Power Five program. Will all of those mothers of children running every which way sit down and watch every Rutgers game with their husbands? No. But if Rutgers starts winning, the general population will know it and we truly will have a “State of Rutgers” surrounding the heart of New Jersey with supporters in some of these other areas that want to feel a part of it.
Bring back @GregSchiano and let’s get that #JerseySwagger going again! Do it! We are ready to write checks!#BringBackGreg #HireSchiano @LesniakSenator @PatHobbsRU @LesniakSenator @GovMurphy @RichardCodey @BenjieWimberly @StevePoliti @rgarutti @gregbrownmoto @jeff_towers pic.twitter.com/okLZils9Hf— MIG ESQ (@MIG_ESQ) November 29, 2019