Rutgers football began spring practice on Tuesday after having delayed the start three weeks due to “spike in positive tests for COVID-19” following a return from spring break. Head coach Greg Schiano spoke to the media about the delay and the benefit of taking time to resume activities.
“Our medical people are phenomenal. When that happens, you need to do the responsible thing and our doctors and our trainers were awesome. We navigated through as well as we could,” Schiano said. “Pushed spring practice back for a couple of reasons. One, it’s really, really important. We already missed our first year. We couldn’t afford to have several players missing for spring practice. And number two, there were some guys who came to me and were desperate. ‘Coach, I need to be able to compete.’ That was encouraging. Competition levels are rising and guys understand this is a very important time in their careers. I am excited about that. You never want to push spring football back past final exams but that is just where we find ourselves.”
On what the delay has helped reinforce to the team, Schiano explained, “One thing we’ve learned is we have to be ready to pivot and another is don’t spend time worrying about the situation and spend your time figuring out how to thrive.”
As for the annual Scarlet-White game that is traditionally held as the last of 15 practices during the spring period, that has been pushed back as well. “Tentatively, the spring game is scheduled for Thursday, May 20,” Schiano said. “Now we’ll see. As long as there are no further stoppages that is what we are planning on.”
There was no word regarding fan attendance or specific timing on that day.
In regard to the roster, there are plenty of developments to highlights and questions that need to be addressed during spring camp. Schiano spoke at length about several different issues and let’s review here.
Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral is the clear starter entering spring camp but Schiano did say he is still recovering from the gruesome ankle injury he suffered against Maryland last season. “He’s not 100% yet, but Noah is feeling better,” said Schiano. “It was a pretty serious deal.”
While it will be important for Vedral to get more reps with the offense this spring, it’s also critical that his potential backups do as well. With Artur Sitkowski announcing last week that he will transfer out of the program, the no. 2 spot appears wide open. Aside from Johnny Langan returning, there is now an opportunity for Evan Simon and Cole Snyder to move up the depth chart. The only other quarterback on the roster is walk-on Austin Albericci. They could all benefit from increased snaps this spring.
“I think the quarterback room is in a good place. There’s good chemistry in there,” said Schiano. “Coach Gleeson, like I am, is very excited about watching Evan, Cole, Johnny, Austin and all those guys develop. Certainly with Noah now being in the system for a year, going out and having a chance to work through things again. We continue to grow the offense. I’m looking forward to it. I think we have a good situation there and we need to really make sure that’s one of our points of emphasis....how do we maximize our quarterback play? Part of that is through spring football.”
Schiano was asked if there was the potential to add another signal caller through the transfer portal and he responded by saying, “No, we’re not gonna add anybody in the portal right now.” He added, “Gavin Rupp is coming in as a walk-on freshmen in the summer, but that will be the only addition to the room.”
It seems likely that the true backup spot will come down to Simon and Snyder. While Langan figures to remain a factor with his running ability, the two younger quarterbacks have more potential to develop into complete players. How they perform this spring and in the Scarlet-White game will certainly help determine who ultimately is in that no. 2 spot for the season opener against Temple on September 4.
Aside from having a complete spring practice schedule, the importance of Jay Butler’s strength and conditioning program cannot be overstated in the development of the program. Schiano said of the progress made during offseason training, “I think the group has made tremendous gains. I don’t think it, I know it. Statistically you can see it. From the new personal bests in the weight room, weight gain, lean muscle mass gain.”
It’s no secret that Rutgers has to improve both the offensive and defensive lines to move its way up the Big Ten ladder. The gains in the weight room are a key factor and there were significant for some players based on the roster released on Monday.
Getting bigger and stronger only helps the offensive line and many players within this group made significant gains. Brendan Bordner, who switched over from defense last season is now listed at 305 pounds, which is a 21 pound weight gain. Other offensive linemen that bulked up include C.J. Hanson, who is up 19 pounds to 310, Bryan Felter is up 16 pounds to 315, Reggie Sutton is up 14 pounds to 305, Cedrice Paillant is up 12 pounds to 310 and Raiqwon O’Neal gained 9 pounds and is listed at 305. On the flip side, Hollin Pierce is down 29 pounds to be at 325, which should only help his development.
On the defensive line, Mike Tverdov made huge gains, jumping up 21 pounds to 275. Freshman Keven Schaeffer gained 21 pounds to bulk up to 265, Wesley Bailey gained 19 pounds to move up to 250, Shawn Collins added 17 pounds to 245, and Tijuan Mason and Brian Ugwu both added 16 pounds to be at 250. Other double digit gainers include Robin Jutwreten being up 15 to 280 pounds, Jamree Kromah is up 14 to 275 pounds, Aaron Lewis is up 13 to 255 pounds, Mayan Ahanontu is up 11 to 285 pounds and Rene Konga is up 10 to 275 pounds.
One notable player on the roster that listed major gains was four year starting linebacker Tyshon Fogg, who is up 13 pounds to 245. A big gain from a younger player was defensive back Robert Longerbeam, who is up 15 pounds to 170.
Two freshmen that switched from the defensive line over to offensive line were Troy Rainey and Kamar Missouri, who gained 28 pounds and is now listed at 295. Schiano spoke about the moves, explaining, “We just think that is their best position for our football program as well as their future. So we made those moves. Kamar has been there a little bit longer, actually Troy has been over there and then we moved him back, he’s been kind of a back and forth guy. They are both really good prospects, we just need to put them in a position and let them grow. That’s what we are going to with the offensive line, but very natural benders, guys that are athletic and have big frames.”
Another player to switch was Shawn Munnerlyn, who began as a tight end but is now listed as a wide receiver.
The positive is that with just a few position changes, the overwhelming majority of the roster has played in their current positions and will have a full offseason to develop.
The cornerback depth for Rutgers is a strong point with Avery Young, Tre Avery, Max Melton and North Carolina transfer Patrice Rene all poised to play big roles. However, other than Christian Izien at one safety spot, there is much less depth in the back of the defense. Naijee Jones seems to be the guy who could fill that role, but it certainly seems like a position that could be filled with multiple options following the departure of last year’s starter, Brendon White. With so much depth at cornerback, it’s possible someone could be moved to fill a key role in the secondary. It’s possible someone from a deep receiving group could try switching as well.
“Well, the safety question is an interesting one,” said Schiano. “We may have to make some moves. I have to see and let it play out a little bit. But spring is also a time to experiment, so you can slide some guys over and see if they have a natural inclination to play defense.”
Younger players who could step up that are already in the secondary are Baylor transfer Peyton Powell, veteran Lawrence Stevens and highly touted newcomer Alijah Clark among others.
Powell, once a quarterback recruit, has brought plenty of intrigue to Piscataway but hasn’t had time to develop yet. The issue with Powell taking advantage of the opportunity this spring is his availability, as Schiano said, “He’s not totally healthy right now, so we’ll see if he is able to go. If he is, it’s a great opportunity for him in the secondary.”
The good news is that Rutgers has options and Schiano, along with defensive coordinator Robb Smith, have proven to find the answers needed in the secondary previously. What those answers are remains to be seen. Heading into spring camp, Schiano assessed the group by saying, “I think we have a chance to be good in the secondary, but we are green.”
Developing Young Roster
Although Rutgers welcomes back an overwhelming majority of starters on both sides of the ball this spring, there is not a lot of experienced players behind them. That is why having a full spring camp is critical to the program to have time to develop and grow after not having that opportunity last year.
“It’s really important, and not only for the mid-year enrollees, but last year’s freshmen,” said Schiano. “They didn’t get a spring if they were mid-year enrollees, they didn’t get a training camp. What we got was a couple of weeks in the fall and then we went and played the season. As you know the season is all about Saturdays. You’ve got to get ready for that Saturday. That’s what I love about spring football. There is no game at the end of the week. You don’t have to work on game plan preparation. You’re strictly working on playing the game of football, our offense versus our defense. And to me that’s where you can make some real growth for your younger players, and we have a lot of young players.”
As for the balance of old versus new on the roster, Schiano said, “I like the mix of our team right now. We have some guys with the super-senior type deal that occurred because of the NCAA waiver. But we have a huge group of young players. And what comes with that is they don’t have a lot of experience, and this spring is a chance for them to get live reps running our offense or running our defense and. I think it’s huge for those newcomers and huge for last year’s as well.”
Schiano talked about many of those newcomers learning the way Rutgers wants to play as this offseason as opposed to being solely used to help them get ready for opponents week after week last fall. “There are some guys I’m excited to see run our defense and run our offense that were on scout teams a year ago,” said Schiano. “We were so quickly forced into game competition last year that there wasn’t an opportunity to see them run our offense and defense where they understand what they are doing.
As to how the benefit of the past few months, Schiano explained, “Not only did we lift and train, but we were able to meet with our players, review film. I think there will be guys that come out there that understand our offense and defense. I’m excited to see them play. With the exception of some of our super seniors, we are such a young football team. I am excited about it. I also understand we have to accelerate the progression, otherwise we will run out of time.”
After a 3-6 season last fall, Rutgers has a long way to go before making a significant jump up the Big Ten standings. With West division crossover games against Northwestern and Wisconsin, along with the always brutal Big Ten East division, the learning curve is steep and will move fast. Having this offseason development time is crucial to future success, next season and beyond.
“I do like our team a lot,” said Schiano. “As I’ve told you before, they are very, very hard working. That’s kind of a prerequisite to play under this staff. This staff is a hard working group. That’s really been from the day we got here. I think we took over a group that knew how to work for sure.”
Schiano emphasized that this spring is about taking that next step forward.
“What we are now into is learning how to work smarter. This is our last new thing together, spring practice. I think it’s a really important one last new thing. We have to get better,” said Schiano. “We have an opportunity in front of us, but we have to get better. And I don’t mean a little bit, there is a lot of work to be done. I encourage these guys, find out how good you are. Don’t be so worried about ‘can I do this’? Go try. And if you can’t, then you know that’s your limit right now. Go reach to be a little bit better. We need to do that as a program. We have to get better and get better fast.”
If Rutgers is going to improve even more this coming fall and make more strides in Big Ten play, it will be because of the depth and contributions from the younger players on the roster.