Spring practice began this week for Rutgers football after a three week delay due to COVID-19. It’s a crucial time for the program, as this is the first chance to have this offseason practice period since head coach Greg Schiano took over in December 2019.
Veteran wide receiver Bo Melton spoke about how it felt being back on the field on a call with media on Wednesday.
“It feels great to play football again with the players on the team, my teammates,” Melton said. “Getting out there with coach (Greg Schiano) and just going out there and playing spring football, it just feels different. Just coming out there and having an opportunity to play this game and get some more practices with the team, it’s a very good advantage for us.”
Schiano spoke earlier this week about how critical it is for this team to make major strides this spring and Melton echoed that sentiment on Wednesday.
“We’ve got to clean up some things in the spring. That’s an advantage that we have right now, going into spring and perfecting some things that we weren’t so good at during the season,” Melton said. “Spring ball is time for that. It’s going out there and just getting our connection with our receivers and running backs and quarterbacks and o-line.”
The Rutgers offense did take a major step forward last season under first year offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson. The Scarlet Knights averaged 26.7 points per game in nine Big Ten contests last season, posting 20-plus points eight times after only doing so twelve times total the previous six seasons combined since joining the Big Ten.
“We had some good momentum on the heels of the progress that we made this past year,” Gleeson said on a call in February. “We are just trying to keep that thing going in the same direction. Whatever we have to do to win. I know yards per play, points per possession and I like the statistics as much as anyone else, but we just have to keep winning. What that means is and coach always talks about it, we just need to have a bigger number than the other team.”
That’s a sentiment that hasn’t seemed possible at Rutgers for a long time. After witnessing the dramatic improvements on offense last season under Gleeson, the potential for this unit moving forward is very intriguing and fun to ponder.
Quarterback play is crucial to the progression of the offense and starting signal caller Noah Vedral made it clear that his recovery from an ankle injury late last season would not prevent him from developing this spring.
“I know Coach Schiano gave you guys an update but I’m doing good, making progress, and I’m able to practice, so I feel good,” Vedral said. “I’m excited for the spring. My ankle and whatever else I’m dealing with really shouldn’t hold me up too much.”
In addition to Vedral improving this spring, the competition to become his backup is likely between Evan Simon and Cole Snyder. He was positive about the potential of both players, who will get increased reps in practice over the next month. With Vedral being a mobile quarterback and having been injured previously, the development of the no. 2 QB will be hugely important for next season.
Melton said building a comfort level is key with the other quarterbacks is key, explaining “I have a lot of chemistry with all the guys in the quarterback room,” Melton said. “To get a connection with the quarterbacks will be very helpful for us. There is a lot of competition in all the rooms, so getting a connection with everyone will help us perfect our games.”
As for the goals of the offense, Vedral stated, “This spring is going to be really big for us as an offense. We want to take that next step and I also do as a passer and quarterback. Coach Gleeson has talked a lot about how our offense has the potential to take the next step in getting our completions down the field up, so we’re going to take a little bit of that approach this spring and try to get that to be a better weapon for us this fall.”
As for how having a full year under their belts in the offensive system, something that’s been unheard of at Rutgers over the past decade with a new OC each of the past 11 seasons, Vedral made it clear how valuable it was. “It’s going to help a lot. I’ve been talking with Coach Gleeson and the quarterbacks and the vibe already this spring feels like we’re a much older and experienced group. We’re going to be able to do a lot more things and do a lot of our fundamental things a lot better. We’re really excited about that and I think that’s the approach we’re going to take.”
After a 3-6 season in which Rutgers was much more competitive, Melton explained how that progress has helped the mindset of the team. “It changed a lot having a good year. We always say ‘good is the enemy of elite’. I just want to be one of the elite players. Along with all my teammates, we have a really good receiving core. So, just being on top and being on ourselves every day is going to allow us to be one of them.”
The receiving corps should be a strength this coming season with the top four producers returning. Including receivers Melton, Aron Cruickshank, Shameen Jones and Isaiah Washington, as well as the top two returning running backs in Isaiah Pacheco and Aaron Young, the top six players in both receptions and receiving yards are back for next season.
As for how Melton is leading the receivers group that includes several freshman, he explained, “I go out there and grind every day and just go hard. If they need help, I’m there for them. I just show them the way.”
An intriguing offensive weapon who will also pair with Cruickshank as a dangerous tandem in the return game on special teams is Kansas State transfer Josh Youngblood. Last season, Cruickshank transferred from Wisconsin and aside from earning Big Ten Specialist of the Year, he made a significant impact in the passing game with the second most catches (37) and was third in receiving yards (239).
On Youngblood’s potential to make a similar impact on offense this season, Melton said “Josh is very fast. He’s very explosive, he’s very sudden. I think he can do a lot of good things here.”
With all eleven starters back from a year ago and the offensive line making real gains in the weight room, as well as adding Temple transfer David Nwaogwugwu to that group, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Allowing Gleeson time to develop the offense, fine tune the unit’s strengths and improve weaknesses while expanding the playbook is critical to taking a step forward next season. However, Melton explained that the foundation laid by the coaching staff and Schiano is the key to everything.
“It is our culture, really,” Melton said. “The way we build our culture from last year, and the way we are still trying to build it, is excellent. We are trying to perfect it. Family, trust, chop, we are trying to perfect that. That is our No. 1 thing. We want to make sure our culture is right and, as a team, that we abide by that culture. And that is gonna help us as a team”
While Rutgers needs to improve in all three phrases of the game, the development of the offense could be the difference in how much progress this team makes next fall. After being a major weakness and historically bad in recent seasons, the just the idea that the offense could be the reason that Rutgers climbs up the Big Ten ladder in the near future is an extremely exciting prosepect.