Strong special teams play across all phases was something that was a signature of Greg Schiano’s first tenure at Rutgers, as well as for a few years after his depature when players and coaches he brought to the program remained.
Amazingly, from 2009 to 2011, in Schiano’s last three seasons and all with current defensive coordinator Robb Smith in charge of the special teams, Rutgers blocked 23 kicks and returned 9 for touchdowns. They had similar success the following season after Smith moved to defensive coordinator and Joe Rossi took over in Kyle Flood’s first season. From 2009-2014, Rutgers led all of college football with 42 blocks. However, in the years that followed as Schiano’s fingerprints faded away, special teams play, specifically in coverage and return units, deteriorated.
The emphasis on special teams and the priority that Schiano puts on the unit has produced immediate results this season, even if it hasn’t resulted in a block kick yet.
Rutgers is currently second in the Big Ten with a 22.4 yards per kickoff return and first with 17.3 yards per punt return. Rutgers finished 8th and 14th respectively last season in those areas. Those return units have produced two big plays this season, a 55 yard kick return by All-Big Ten performer Aron Cruickshank against Indiana and a 58 yard punt return for a touchdown by Bo Melton against Ohio State. That was the first special teams touchdown since the 2016 season, when Janarion Grant produced both a kickoff and punt return for scores.
On kickoffs this season, Rutgers has experimented with different approaches and it’s only produced 1 touchback on kicks while allowing just 10.4 yards per kick return, which is the fourth lowest in Big Ten. They’ve also only allowed 1.6 yards per punt return, while preseason All-American Adam Korsak has produced 9 fair catches and his 43.0 yards per punt average is fifth best in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights are also one of three teams that are perfect from field goal range, making all 4 attempts, while also making all 8 extra point attempts.
Coordinator Adam Scheier, who has twenty years of coaching experience with special teams and served in that role at stops at Princeton, Lehigh, Bowling Green, Wake Forest and Texas Tech, worked on the same 2017 staff as Schiano with Ohio State when he served as a special teams quality control coach. Over the summer, Scheier discussed their similar philosophy with 247 sports, explaining “When I worked with coach at Ohio State, we were very much working together on the punt block unit,” Scheier said. “It was the same aggressive mentality and that is one of the real reasons I am real excited to be here at Rutgers working with coach because I know his emphasis on special teams. I know his philosophy on special teams and his mentality is very much aligned with what I have done throughout my career. I am real excited to get back to campus and get to work with him.”
Schiano gave specific praise to the coverage units after the Illinois game, stating on Monday that “I thought our coverage was very good on Saturday. It was zero return yards in the punt game, which anytime you can do that you’ve actually eliminated one phase of special teams.” He continued, “Great job by the gunners, the punter and the protection. Our kickoff coverage they averaged around 13.5 yards a return, so if you can drive the ball down there even inside the 10 yard line, it’s still better than a touchback. Both are coverage units did a good job.”
As for whether producing big plays on special teams is a necessity as Rutgers continues to be a work in progress on offense and defense, Schiano explained that it wasn’t. “I don’t think that is necessary.” He continued on what is important, stating, “I think what we need to do is do a good job in all of our four core special teams. PAT/Field Goal and PAT/Field Goal block are their own entity. I think they both are different because the expectation on those plays is to score points. If you don’t score points you’ve done something poorly and if you can on other side block one or force them to miss it, now you’ve really made hay. The expectation is they’re going to score points.”
Schiano discussed why special teams is so important and has a major impact on the outcome of games, even if it isn’t a even split with offensive and defensive snaps. “As you know, I’m very involved in special teams. I think special teams is critical in winning games. Its not a third and a third of the game, people always make that mistake. It’s about 22% of the game special teams are.”
On what makes the unit unique, he explained, “The difference is in special teams, the amount of real estate that gets traded. You have guys running down a whole football field to basically get in a formation and run a play on kickoff and kickoff return. On punts are an organized turnover. It’s the only play in football where you know at the beginning of the play you are going to start on offense and end on defense. It takes special guys to be able to play on that unit.”
Schiano routinely had starters on both offense and defense play big roles on special teams during his first tenure. This season has been no different.
In explaining the aggressive approach that Rutgers takes on special teams, Schiano went back to the importance of preparation. “You guys know we love to come after the punter. We love to do return schemes. We think they are all important and put a high premium on special teams.” He continued, “We spend a lot of time on it. When we don’t perform well in special teams it’s very frustrating. We take time allotment and give to special teams so when it doesn’t work you sit there and say maybe we shouldn’t have used the time that way. You can’t second guess, you have your philosophy and have to go with it.”
So far this season, Rutgers has been performing at a high level on special teams. While the development process for the program continues in Schiano’s first year, if they can remain consistent on special teams it will help give them a chance to win every game remaining.
As Rutgers prepares to face Michigan this weekend, it’s hard to forget about the key field goal block by Kemoko Turay, which helped seal the Scarlet Knights’ first ever Big Ten victory. Is RU due another game changing block this Saturday and will it lead to another upset of the Wolverines? We will soon find out. Even if not, Rutgers fans can take comfort in knowing that special teams play will be a strength of the program long term with Schiano back on the sidelines.