As we sit just four weeks away from the official start of the 2019 Rutgers Football season, we here at OTB will try to somewhat forecast what we may be able to expect from a critical year for the program. Today, we look at the man running the offense - John McNulty. Coach McNulty’s return to the sidelines for 2019 is crucial for the progression, as well as the stability, of the offense. Coming off the worst season since 2002, every little bit of an advantage will be of the utmost importance.
For starters, this marks the first season since 2010 that the Offensive Coordinator has returned for another season. Although its a turnaround from Year 1 to Year 2, that type of consistency is immeasurable for every member of the offense. Not a single player on his side of the ball has had the same coordinator two years in a row.
Not only are we talking about the quarterbacks mastering the offense, but the wide receiver routes and running play designs as well. These guys have had an entire off-season just to retool, refresh, and add wrinkles to the playbook. For the first time in nearly a decade, the offense will not be playing catch-up when we kick off on August 30th.
One of the more standout attributes of the offense since the Schiano Era, at least in this writer’s opinion, was how clueless they looked even on “simple” play calls. The beginning of every season under a new coordinator was ripe with bad blocking, poor read progressions, and predictive play calling. With a spring practice season, summer workouts, and fall training camp hammering the same offensive scheme, those “just missed” plays start to become routine. As they say, “practice makes perfect”, and Coach McNulty’s return pushes that agenda further towards a respectable offensive showing in 2019.
There is also the unique ability to have a sample size of past seasons for reference. Coach McNulty was the Offensive Coordinator for 3 seasons prior this stint, from 2006-2008. Before we delve into some of the numbers, we should acknowledge that those years were part of the golden age of Rutgers Football, when a bowl game was a foregone conclusion. Yes, those teams included nine offensive players drafted into the NFL, but we will come back to that later.
Coach McNulty’s arrival in 2006 oversaw a team that went 7-5 in 2005 (and known for defense) under Mike Teel, a freshman QB with a 50.5% completion rate, 683 passing yards, and 2 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions in 9 games. Extrapolating out to per-12 game numbers, that would be good for 910.7 yards, 2.7 touchdowns, and 13.3 interceptions. And that’s arguably the best QB in school history. Art Sitkowski’s per-12 game freshman year looked like this: 49.1% completion rate, 1,263 passing yards, 4.4 touchdowns, and 19.6 interceptions.
Sure, the interceptions are worrisome, but Sitkowski had better yardage and touchdown numbers in his first year than Teel. In 2006, his first season with McNulty, Teel’s numbers drastically improved to a per-12 year of 55.4% completion, 1,970.8 passing yards, 11.1 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Teel’s junior year, and second with McNulty, saw those numbers climb again to 58.2% completion, 2.904.9 passing yards, 18.5 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions on a per-12 game basis. Is that to say we can expect similar numbers from Sitkowski this year? He is on record as saying that being in the second year of this system, everything is “definitely slowing down.” Not to say he can’t do it, but I don’t believe it will that easily. According to sports-reference.com, Rutgers’ strength of schedule has been at least four times more difficult in the Coach Ash era, than the Schiano era. A steeper hill to climb will surely mean a slower progression, however, Coach McNulty has shown what he can do with a sophomore quarterback (and beyond) after a year like we saw in 2018.
Beyond the quarterback, though, Coach McNulty had a significant effect on other skill positions as well. From 2006 to 2007, Ray Rice exhibited increases in rushing yards (+216), touchdowns (+5), and receiving yards (+209). Kenny Britt saw increases in receiving yards (+798) and touchdowns (+6), as did Tiquan Underwood (+810 and +3, respectively). Sure, these are some of the best players in recent memory. Was their success based on their talent, or based on their coordinator? As with most things, it was certainly a mixture of both. Ray Rice was an under-sized 3-star recruit. Mike Teel and Tiquan Underwood were 2-star recruits out of high school. Kenny Britt had the best pedigree as a freshman, but under-performed in his first year. In 2007, these players combined to produce the first FBS season of a 3,000-yard passer, 2,000-yard rusher, and two 1,000-yard receivers.
For that many players to go from relative obscurity to prolific offensive weapons, we have to look at the common denominator - John McNulty. Nine of his guys went on to be drafted in the NFL, the most such offensive players in any three year span in school history. It cannot be understated that he has proven to possess an innate ability to squeeze the most talent out of his players.
Fans should not be surprised to see the combination of Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco have a more pronounced and productive role this season. While we shouldn’t start predicting school records to fall, the right mix would make a marked improvement in the run game, and offense as a whole. In 2018, Pacheco averaged 5.0 yards per carry; no small feat in the notoriously tough Big Ten. During the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Rice averaged 5.4 and 5.3 yards per carry, respectively. Additionally, last year Blackshear caught 44 passes for 367 yards (8.3 yards per catch) and 2 touchdowns. In his career, Rice caught 37 balls for 334 yards (9.0 per catch) and 1 touchdown.
The two top backs have the chance to make a name for themselves under a second year with Coach McNulty. Utilizing them in the right combination for the right situations could really be one of the most understated keys to the whole season. On Day 1 of training camp, Coach gave us a glimpse of what the offensive gameplan will be when he spoke to the media after Thursday’s practice, highlighting the depth of talent in the backfield and stating “two or three of them are versatile to play inside and outside. The quarterback... doesn’t have to go win the game all the time. Hopefully, he can just facilitate it, and when his time comes, he’ll have to step up and make some plays.”
It’s no secret that a respected run game opens up the passing game. Such was the formula on the Ray Rice teams that led to great seasons by Britt and Underwood. It appears that the same formula will be implemented this year, too. A well planned running game has the potential to open up those same opportunities for the likes of Art Sitkowski, Bo Melton, Hunter Hayek, and Johnathan Lewis.
For all the comparisons to those magical seasons, let’s be clear -similar results are not likely in the cards for 2019. They were the result of an extensive rebuild over many years, and growing pains are to be expected this year (hopefully with a greater emphasis on “growing” than “pains”). Even Coach McNulty acknowledged that during a post-practice interview the other day, saying that our outside threats are still developing, the tight end group is young and untested, and the offensive line is still working on getting technically sound. That level of candidness is somewhat rare at this time of the year. All too often we hear coaches view their teams through rose colored glasses, speaking of promise and potential. When players have realistic expectations, they tend to play within themselves more and not press too much. Or perhaps, it’s a classic case of under-promise and over-deliver.
The consistency within the program of John McNulty’s return in 2019 will be vastly important to the offensive success of Rutgers Football. Aside from the obvious implications that a stabilizing presence provides, he also carries a portfolio of evidence that he can move this group to a new level. He has proven from his previous tenure in Piscataway that he can take under-recruited kids and turn them into productive Power 5 conference players. If this team can open a few eyes this year, the return of our OC for the first time in a decade will be a huge reason why.