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Strategy Session Part 3: Concerns for Sean Gleeson’s Rutgers Football offense in 2020

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The dark cloud of systems past continues to haunt the fan base.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Rutgers at Penn State
Pacheco is a solid player, but does Rutgers have enough good players to succeed in 2020?
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In Part 1 of this three-part series, I looked at two personnel groupings with one example of how they can be best leveraged to defeat a defense. It also included a little commentary about the Air Raid influence new Rutgers Football offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson picked up last season at Oklahoma State.

In Part 2, I reviewed Quarterbacks and H-backs in Sean Gleeson’s offense. The H-back group was boosted shortly after publishing by the addition of graduate transfer Jovani Haskins.

We will conclude in Part 3 by addressing concerns that have been mentioned by analysts and the fan base to try and properly put them into the context.

Mastering the Fundamentals

The fictitious basketball player Uncle Drew (not be confused with Drew Mehringer, much more on that below) said in the Pepsi Max commercials, “First you master the fundamentals. Then you get to forget about ‘em.” Yes Uncle Drew is a fictional character played by New Jersey native Kyrie Irving, but the quote is at the heart of any total rebuild like the Rutgers Football program is undertaking. We can talk all we want about recruiting, gadget plays, and winning 50-50 balls, but none of that really matters if the building blocks of success are not in place.

To counterpunch and/or go against the tendencies mentioned in Part 1, you first need to know how to punch. After discussing the quarterback transfer Noah Vedral in Part 2, commenter JinNJ even pointed out “Vedral’s role may be to be a highly competent test-pilot who can survive multiple crash landings!” This analogy is how many of us have felt as fans of Rutgers for much of our lifetime other than the first Schiano era. Gleeson mentioned he wants his quarterbacks to be competitive and also have intelligence, which is great, as long as the QB and the rest of his teammates are on the same page.

The number one priority for Sean Gleeson is to ensure every player and coach understands the terminology (more complicated than you would think) and has the basic plays in the playbook memorized. Then, the team needs to develop an identity and start to do one thing well to force defenses to be prepared for that one thing. Once that happens, layers and layers can be added on top.

These Rutgers players have been in so many systems, perhaps that makes it easier for them to learn new ones? Maybe, but past history would indicate otherwise. The best example is that of the 2017 season when Rutgers was a competent offense during the second half of the year, but was pathetic until Jerry Kill simplified the playbook after a 1-4 start. That team won three Big Ten games afterward basically by just executing the basics and not turning the ball over. (more on that shortly)

The hope is that Rutgers has a lot of diligent, smart players and coaches who spent all this “free time” during the quarantine mastering the parts of the mental game they can control. Even if they did stay in shape and read their playbook every day, the Big Ten losing streak could continue and I can live with that IF we see signs of progress. To their credit, the offense did get a hold on Nunzio Campanile’s system in just a few weeks, in time to defeat Liberty last year.

Turnovers

Speaking of ball control, Gleeson provided some stats to support how much ball security matters. If you don’t turn the ball over you usually win. That is true, but I find this statistic to be just as often a result as it is a root cause, though not as frustrating as those ridiculous stats of how teams run the ball more in wins than losses.

I think about turnovers in the mindset of the tennis comparison of “forced errors” compared to “unforced errors.” If a turnover happens because a back just fumbles or a quarterback throws the ball into traffic on first down, I agree those must be prevented. On the other hand if a quarterback is throwing the ball deep on third down trying to complete a 50-50 ball, or at least draw a pass interference or holding call, and it gets picked, I can live with it. Bottom line is, don’t be sloppy, but don’t be afraid to try and make a play. Rutgers played WAY too conservative under Chris Ash and no one is talking about how many times they won the turnover battle by surrender punting or just running into a nine man box rather than taking a shot downfield to draw a flag. Naturally if you are winning by 17 in the 4th quarter, there would be no need to take risks.

Some research shows turnovers are purely about luck, but that extreme is also false. It is the right mindset to focus on holding onto the ball and playing guys who can be more trusted, because the alternative makes no sense. That would be construed as “we play guys with talent, even if they are careless and don’t prepare.” Rutgers needs to be as buttoned up as they possibly can be to have a shot in these games.

Rutgers wasn’t even competitive in most games the last few seasons so winning the turnover battle wouldn’t have mattered at all in those contests. Right now we just want our team to win ONE conference game to get the monkey off our backs as fans and not turning the ball over is one of the ways of keeping is close long enough for lady luck to get us a victory. In that same 2017 season, the Illinois win featured turnovers by both clubs that roughly evened out. Rutgers simply outwilled and outlasted Purdue and Maryland, made possible by avoiding egregious mistakes. Even with unusual pandemic circumstances, I think we could all live with a 4-8 campaign like 2017 turned out to be.

“We want to play fast” and “be physical”

Playing fast has brought back nightmares and a multitude of comments in the Part 1 article about the failed Drew Mehringer era. Some of this criticism is warranted, but we are forgetting a few important facts. Rutgers has scored 20 points or more in a Big Ten game ONLY five times in the last four years and two of those five came when Mehringer had a healthy Gio Rescigno at quarterback. By every metric, that 2016 offense was either the best or second best offense Rutgers had in the past four years in virtually every category. Yes, this was mind boggling to me also when I was reviewing the data, but that is how atrocious and ineffective the 2018-2019 Rutgers Football offense was. Even looking at the run game, the 2016 squad predicated on the Air Raid outgained the 2019 team by more than 10 rushing yards per game!

The 2017 offense was comparable statistically to the 2016 club, however Jerry Kill wasn’t hanging his defense out to dry with three and outs before the D could even get a sip of water. So the total offense per game was 20 yards lower in 2017, but the time of possession and yards per play were vastly superior. Not only that, when the Kill offense did move the ball, they killed so much clock that the defense was THAT much fresher at the end of games (50 less yards allowed per game), a big reason why they held up in the aforementioned Big Ten wins when the 2016 club ran out of gas in games against Iowa, Indiana, and Minnesota.

I like the approach of being in control and steady when inheriting the ball for a few plays. If you can get into a rhythm picking up the pace, the defense is then sucking wind after matriculating the ball downfield for a first down or two. We should all watch closely to see how stubborn Gleeson is if he is having too many three and outs. Being successful at a non-Blue Blood program is about being adaptable, a trait Gleeson absolutely needs to have at Rutgers.

As much nervousness as I have of “playing fast” when Rutgers is lining up against the Ohio States and Michigans of the world, I am glad to hear the focus on “being physical.” I do think no matter how “soft” football is getting from the sidelines, to win you still need to win battles in the trenches and perimeter plays need to sacrifice their bodies, too.

The 1980s 49ers are often remembered as a finesse team, but Bill Walsh was a Golden Glove winner who would have turned professional boxer if he didn’t get one particular coaching gig. After a loss during the early days of the now legendary “West Coast offense”, Walsh pledged his team would never be outhit again and if you look back at the few losses they did have, it was the times they were not physical enough. This is even more important for an underdog squad that needs every player to trust all his teammates are laying it all on the line every play.

But will simply being physical be enough against the competition Rutgers has to face in the Big Ten East? This is a good question especially when his Princeton offense was already a successful machine in the Ivy League. Gleeson then joined a similar situation with Mike Gundy in the Big 12. Now Gleeson inherits an offense that has been completely dysfunctional for two years with an entirely new coaching staff and many new faces on that offense.

The best way to test the hypothesis if to look at the biggest talent disparity. I chose the 2019 contest between Oklahoma State and #12 Texas as the primary litmus test for what Rutgers might look like in the next few years against division foes. The Texas Longhorns trotted out talented players to the tune of these national recruiting class rankings per 247 from 2015-2019: 10th, 7th, 25th, 3rd, 3rd. This is quite a similar pure talent level (though not necessarily the finished product) to some of the teams Rutgers faces off with every week like Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. I could have chosen the Oklahoma game, but Rutgers won’t be beating Ohio State anytime soon, and all our avid readers know how little I care about the scores and optics of blowouts.

You could play devil’s advocate and say, “Dave, Oklahoma State is WAY more talented than Rutgers.” More talented sure, but not as much as you think though, in the same time period, the Cowboys recruiting class rankings per 247 from 2015-2019: 40th, 45th, 38th, 34th, 38th. The clip below was cut up specifically to watch offensive line play for Gleeson’s Cowboy offense against the Texas Longhorns. For the entire game, click here.

Oklahoma State lost to Texas 36-30 and you can count on one hand the number of times they drove the Longhorn defensive line backwards. Most of the play at the line of scrimmage took place a yard or two in the Cowboy backfield, but the zone blocking scheme was effective enough to build a wall in both run and pass protection. Of course the team Gleeson is inheriting at Rutgers, did not even push around perennial Big Ten West cellar dweller Illinois, but I don’t think they have to do that to score points.

Talent and Fit

SpaceCatNYC noted in the Part 1 comments that those Princeton clips were great but ... the expression, “it’s more about the Jimmys and the Joes than the Xs and Os” is a common one used to say players matter more than scheme. thevinman also made the analogy of fitting square pegs into a round hole. So after all that has been discussed in this series so far, it comes down to whether or not there is enough talent in the Rutgers locker room for this system.

I have covered the offensive line, quarterback, and H-back already with the conclusion that Rutgers probably has enough at those spots to “get by” for the time being. Rutgers does not have an all-conference player at any of those positions based on anything we have seen from them thus far in their careers. Of course there could be a break out, but the success of the Gleeson system now depends on the running backs and wide receivers. The offensive line should be able to zone block enough against middle tier opponents to give the quarterback enough time to not get hit before he can make his second, sometimes third reads, and the tight ends will be able to hold their blocks and catch check down passes.

So, the game I was most interested in watching was the contest with West Virginia when starting quarterback Spencer Sanders did not play due to a thumb injury and backup Dru Brown was forced into action. For that full game, click here. Brown doesn’t blow you away with physical ability or timing, but plays a serviceable enough role when opportunity presents itself. Gleeson is the first true quarterback coach at Rutgers since Ralph Friedgen and has multiple players discussed in part 2 with comparable physical ability to Brown. I am confident Gleeson can get more out of the existing QB contingent.

What sticks out to me more than the size or speed is the actual skill being demonstrated by the skill position players. We don’t talk much about it on this blog because in the pro-style system you are looking more for diverse position-specific, big enough, strong enough, cogs to put in your machine. This works if you have the horses, but is a colossal fail if you don’t. Even if you do have the NFL measureable players, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, etc still have moved to more spread concepts because running down opponents throats may work 90% of the time for them, but not as much in the college football playoff.

SailingEngineerSF and Hearand Now mentioned not “dumbing down” the offense. To execute the Gleeson offense, the backs and receivers need to be tremendously precise. I was amazed how well play fakes by quarterbacks, receivers, and backs were executed. If you don’t look at the quarterback on the film, all the receivers are ready to receive the ball or at least sell to the defenders in their area that they might. You notice how much of a delay there is for West Virginia in diagnosing if the play is a run or pass, who has the ball, etc. Contrast that with the Rutgers-Illinois game highlights.

With the Running backs, this is where you’d love to have a Paul James or Jawan Jamison on the roster, who had an elite natural ability to read blocks and adjust accordingly. Rutgers does not have a Chuba Hubbard, but Gleeson has done it before without a workhorse back. The bigger issue is depth. Awalk-on, perhaps even freshman walk-on may be needed to help out if injuries occur throughout the course of the season. Nonetheless. the scholarship backs today are an intriguing group of four.

Isaih Pacheco has great physical ability so the hope is that in some semblance of a functional offense, he can adjust to the stretch runs and match the right amount of patience with aggressiveness. Pacheco also needs to be a better receiver because the threat of him escaping out of the backfield or even splitting out wide initially to let the QB make an initial read are hugely important. This is NOT the best system for him, but he has the willpower to make it work.

Aaron Young is poised for a big year. Unlike Pacheco, Aaron is effective as a slot receiver (15 catches) either in jet sweeps or running routes as a wideout. This is the best possible system to maximize his talent, though he doesn’t have the physical build to play every down as a tailback. Of the current backs, he has the most skill in reading blocks both at the line and in space. Young should be able to do exactly what Raheem Blackshear would have had he stuck around. RU needs him to stay healthy.

Kay’Ron Adams. Adams is the hardest to project of the group because I think his lack of patience in 2019 was out of pure necessity. As a true freshman he often ran full speed and hoped the hole would open up for a glimmer of a moment which is probably why the highest percentage of his carries went for positive yards of anyone on the team. He only had two catches, but tallied 47 yards which demonstrated the same yards after catch potential he flashed in high school. Hopefully his skills are a fit in any offensive scheme as he adjusts to this one.

Kyle Monangai. A late pickup in the recruiting cycle, Kyle is a lot like Young, albeit perhaps a notch below right out of the gate albeit with more power. That said Monangai, like every good running back at RU before him, will get a crack at playing time as a true freshman.

At wide receiver, Rutgers has a lot of turnover so it will be interesting to see who emerges.

Split End. Isaiah Washington did a nice job as a true freshman in 2019 and should take another step in 2020. Behind him things get interesting as the only other receivers with size are Tyler Hayek who has yet to make a college reception, redshirt freshman Stanley King, and true freshmen Ahmirr Robinson. Shameen Jones has started a lot of games in two years and improved as a route runner so he or fellow redshirt junior Everett Wormley are the guys who at least you know will provide a passable level of play despite being recruited to play in a four-wide Air Raid system. Regardless, don’t expect overachieving from this group until late in the year if Washington becomes a Mark Harrison or King is the second coming of Kenny Britt. The only player in this group who is a better system fit here is probably Jones, though split end is a role that varies less than others in different offenses.

Flanker. Bo Melton is a senior already, still waiting to put up the type of numbers he is capable of. Behind him, Paul Woods looks like a solid backup who should have received more targets. Both players showed solid improvement in tracking balls and route running as 2019 went along so I like what they will be able to do in the new offensive scheme since their skillsets are a good fit in any type of offense. In addition, Rutgers has Monterio Hunt who missed all of last season due to injury and should be much better in this scheme than the McNulty offense. True freshman Robert Longerbeam and transfer converted QB Peyton Powell could also be X-factors, so expect bleedover into other roles on the offense from this pool of talent. In a best case scenario, Rutgers can get double or triple the production from this position group and use it as the building block of the offense.

Slot. The team’s three primary slot guys are all gone in Eddie Lewis, Hunter Hayek, and Mo Jabbie. Aron Cruickshank should be eligible and brings needed speed and gamebreaking ability, but didn’t get many balls at Wisconsin (no one does). Cruickshank probably has the most work to do to ensure he can run a bigger route tree effectively to become a playmaker on offense. Melton or Woods could see action here, but there is also optimism that redshirt freshman Christian Dremel could be that possession receiver without elite measurables could be a Chris Hogan (New Jersey native) type that has reliable hands and can just simply “get open.” Their skills will determine how often Rutgers plays the aforementioned Aaron Young in the role rather than using him in more high leverage situations where he would be the primary target. There is plenty of hope that even with the departures, this could be the position Rutgers makes the biggest strides at in 2020.

Bottom line

Gleeson in limited time needs to get Rutgers offensive skill position players to take more responsibility while the offensive line is doing the bare minimum to create baseline success until reinforcements arrive. Quarterbacks need to play with toughness but also be able to trust everyone around them knows what is being asked on every play. I do believe it CAN be done in one off-season, but I won’t be worried if it takes longer. When I say can be done, that means being able to move the ball against every team that is not ranked in the top 10 and scoring 20 points or more in those games. The keys are mastering fundamentals and finding at least one thing the team, possibly even individual player, does well and build plays to counterpunch off it. Who will those players be in this system?

Rutgers has a lot going against them in 2020 with inferior talent to most Big Ten teams, no spring practice to build chemistry, an abbreviated summer training period that prevented on-field installs of plays in the new system, and so many new players. It’s a tall order, but there’s a chance things could look better than they have in years immediately while also possibly working out down the line if 2020 is another forgettable campaign. This is exactly the situation you want and need to be in for a total rebuild.

Please let us know your thoughts and any other concerns you have in the comments below.