The 2020 season is officially wrapped up and in the rearview mirror.
The Scarlet Knights have their sights set on the spring. After a 3-6 season that gave the program hope for the future, everyone is looking forward to the 2021 campaign.
“First, God willing that we can have spring practice, but I don’t think we have to do anything different because it’s like a little more than bowl prep as you go through bowl prep, your bowl game, and then you go through spring practice,” Greg Schiano said back in January. “I’ve already put together a calendar that we’re set to go on as long as we are allowed to do that.”
In February, we were also able to hear from both OC Sean Gleeson and DC Robb Smith. Gleeson was named a candidate for the 2020 Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in college football. After six years at Princeton, Gleeson spent 2019 as offensive coordinator of Oklahoma State before taking over the same position in Piscataway.
Smith is back for a second go-around at Rutgers. He was on the banks from 2009-2012 before joining Schiano in Tampa Bay during the 2013 season. He is back with the Scarlet Knights after being a defensive analyst for Texas A&M in 2019.
Rutgers will be getting key players back on both sides of the ball and that is something that will excite these two coordinators. Let’s take a closer look at four takeaways from each press conference.
The importance of Bo Melton
“We’re especially happy to have Bo back,” Gleeson said.
Gleeson definitely spoke for everyone with his words on the Cedar Creek wide receiver. Melton was the biggest playmaker on the field for the Rutgers’ offense in 2020. The Phil Steele All-Big-Ten receiver led the Scarlet Knights with 47 catches for 638 yards and six touchdowns.
Melton is a standout on the field but also a strong leader off. The impact he has made for this program will continue to be visible as he returns for his fifth season.
“I think other coaches have mentioned it in some other conversations with you guys, he’s just such a tremendous practice player,” Gleeson said. “You know when you have a guy that is a leader on the practice field and in the weight room, it’s so easy for those guys that are trying to develop and further their careers to have an example like that to follow. Kind of like a North Star to a certain degree. He’s extremely respectful and extremely hard working.”
Mindset when recruiting quarterbacks
Gleeson made it clear that he was not going to start a quarterback controversy heading into spring ball. Noah Vedral will remain the starting quarterback for the time being. Vedral finished with 1,253 yards last season with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
During this recruiting cycle, the Scarlet Knights did not bring in a scholarship quarterback. This is not something to be alarmed about moving forward.
“It’s hard to be a backup in college football with the portal,” Gleeson said. “Everyone wants to play so the idea of carrying four, five, six scholarship quarterbacks on your roster, I think those days are over.”
We saw what Greg Schiano was able to get done early in his second tenure as far as recruiting. This is something that is not going to change and certainly improve moving forward.
“I think we do a great job at recruiting our own players,” Gleeson said. “We treat them great. We feed them really well. I think they feel like they’re being coached effectively.”
Keeping the band together
Whether is it going to the NFL or taking another collegiate job, either as a head coach or within a bigger program, college coordinators are always shuffling. This has been an issue for the Scarlet Knights in recent years and something that could calm down under Schiano.
“The more important retention was all of our offensive assistants as well,” Gleeson said. “Tiquan (Underwood) mentioned to me the other day how fun its been installing this offense with the young guys. I think whenever you can keep the band together, so to speak, and not have to worry about getting other people up to coordination, I think you’re in good shape.”
Gleeson led the offense to much-improved numbers in 2020. The Scarlet Knights averaged 339.1 yards per game, which was up significantly from 273.1 yards in 2019. Rutgers averaged 26.7 points per contest and scored 20 or more points in all but one game. With the staff returning, the offense should continue to improve.
Schiano has his own methods to make sure his coaches stick around.
“I think the first day I was here coach served up an eggplant parm for lunch,” Gleeson said. “I hadn’t seen an eggplant parm for like 12 months. I was fired up to be back home. I’m raising my family here and we’re really happy.”
Retention of coaches, players returning, recruiting. It all comes down to one common goal — winning.
Rutgers finished with a 3-6 record in an all-Big Ten schedule in 2020. This matched their win total from the previous two seasons combined. Fans of the program were able to sit back and gain some hope for the future.
“To be quiet honest, I just want to win,” Gleeson said. “Whatever it takes to win. We just have to keep winning and what that means, coach says its about having a bigger number than the other team. We’re going to play complementary football. I think we have really smart coaches and hardworking kids. I think the points are going to come as long as we stay the course. Ultimately, do what we can to win in this tough league and take Rutgers to another level.”
The importance of Olakunle Fatukasi
Just like the return of Melton for the offense, the Scarlet Knight defense getting Fatukasi back was extremely important.
“My reaction, I was very excited,” Smith said on Fatukasi’s return. “He is obviously one of the better football players on our football team and one of the better football players in the league.”
Fatukasi had a breakout season in 2020. He led the Big Ten in tackles with 101 and tackles per game with 11.3. He also gained three sacks and 11 tackles for loss, which was good for second in the conference. Fatukasi logged 10 or more tackles in six of the first seven games of the season.
The most impressive part might be that Fatukasi was able to dominate without a normal offseason.
“We didn’t even have a spring football season with O3 last season,” Smith said. “That goes for everybody as well but just real excited about the opportunity to get him more oriented into our defense and take another step forward.”
Stopping the run
Rutgers struggled to stop the run last season. They allowed 203.7 yards per game on the ground, which was the fourth-highest in the Big Ten.
Against Illinois, the duo of Isaiah Williams and Chase Brown tore up the Scarlet Knights’ defense in the run game. In their final games against Nebraska, Rutgers was worn down defensively. They allowed 365 yards on the ground in a 28-21 loss.
“When we discuss our defensive philosophy, one of the top things we talk about is stopping the run,” Smith said. “We certainly have to get better at that. There’s no one magic thing that we have to do to correct that. I think it’s all position groups working together and understanding how we have to get better in certain areas.”
This is where the importance of having player like Fatukasi and Tyshon Fogg will play a big role. The front seven for the Scarlet Knights will have to continue to improve and take a step forward in limiting rushing attacks of their opponents.
Patrice Rene and the secondary
The Scarlet Knights landed some transfers that are expected to make an impact, most notably defensive back Patrice Rene. He will finally end up in a Rutgers’ uniform after five years.
Rene originally committed to Rutgers as a member of the Class of 2016. When Kyle Flood was let go, Rene switched to North Carolina. He is expected to be placed at cornerback, a position where he started 19 games for the Tar Heels. Rene played six games in 2020 and finished with 28 tackles, four passes defended, and a forced fumble. In his Tar Heel career, Rene totaled 103 tackles, 12 passes defended, and two interceptions. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Rene will be the biggest corner for the Scarlet Knights.
This is a move that will impact the Scarlet Knights both on and off the field.
“He’s a typical guy we’re looking for in a transfer. Loves to play the game of football, hard-working guy so that should bid well for us,” Smith said. “Any transfer we take, he’s a Rutgers’ kid. What’s a Rutgers’ guy? Someone who works hard, love to play the game. Those things usually translate well on the field.”
“We have a saying here ‘the ball is the program’,” Smith said. “Our job on defense is to get the ball back to the offense so we have to continue to explore and find ways to do that.”
Rutgers forced 19 turnovers in 2020, 11 fumbles and eight interceptions. This includes forcing seven in a season-opening victory over Michigan State.
This is an area that needs to continue to improve. Overall, the defense has to find a way to show up week in and week out against some of the top teams in the nation in the Big Ten.
“We have to work with our run defense, we have to do a much-better job limiting big plays, and we have to continue to be more consistent in creating takeaways,” Smith said. “That’s our defensive philosophy. Every year at this time we take a long hard look, whether it’s scheme, technique or personnel and how it factors in to those areas that we need to improve. We’ll have a better plan from out standpoint as coaches and put our guys in a better position to be successful.”