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Observations from the Rutgers Football spring game

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Offensive line wins battle in the trenches, skill position players execute up tempo.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Rutgers at Penn State
Tre Avery may be the team’s most effective player at his position.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Rutgers Spring Football game has come and gone. I only watched the “game” one time so far and came away with the following thoughts.

What I know I saw

1. Cole Snyder and Evan Simon commanded the offense. With the tempo to dictate the action, they ended up in play calls where especially on first down there were quick throws to be had for five or six yards. They gladly took the yardage. Big Ten defenses will not be in as vanilla coverages as we saw in the spring game, but you can see that the building blocks for competent, moving the chain offense were there. Johnny Langan’s role in the offense remains important, though if starter Noah Vedral is out for an extended period, the true backup will probably be Snyder or Simon.

2. The offensive line has depth for the first time since … 2014? That doesn’t mean they will be even an average unit in the Big Ten just yet, but the staff at least has enough lottery tickets in the mix that if just a few guys really become elite (Bryan Felter for one looked good) then they might actually be able to get some push against big defensive linemen even before reinforcements arrive on the banks. I don’t know who will fill out the two deep because there’s probably 13 names that if I saw listed would believe could be competent.

3. The biggest improvements for the team as a whole came at defensive end and tight end. I have been a Matt Alaimo and CJ Onyechi supporter for some time now, but it was obvious that less experienced guys like Victor Konopka and Wesley Bailey even without fully knowing what they are doing were more impactful. This is bittersweet in a way because it’s always nice to root for underdogs, transfers looking for a second chance, and even walk-ons, though you can see why the guys who look better getting off the bus are critical to the program taking the next step.

4. The enthusiastic celebrations when big plays were made by walk-ons such as Jameer Campbell were great. It did not look like a team that has been cut off from most of society for the greater part of 9 months and was pulling double duty with final exams last week. There is pride in this program and despite the internal competition there does seem to be a non-fabricated bond between these players.

5. The safety position is not showing the type of improvement we need to see as of yet. Key word YET. Of course when you play mostly cover two in a spring game, highlights will be hard to come by. Avery Young is a logical candidate to move to safety based on his size and willingness to tackle; he wasn’t a liability by any means, but Schiano / Smith / Fraser defenses have relied on consistent never-ending pipelines of safeties that simply are not on the roster yet it doesn’t seem like. Until then they need to really coach up who they do have to get through 2021, Peyton Powell hopefully being a big gainer in summer camp. I feel bad for some players clearly overmatched at safety, a few of which made a personal sacrifice and switched positions in the best interest of the team.

What I think I saw

1. The linebacker group has so much depth, playing time will be hard to come by for players who are stuck in a logjam. Therefore it’s obvious why in recruiting the coaching staff has been primarily interested in 4-star linebacker types knowing they can develop guys currently on the roster like they did during Schiano 1.0 for depth. One star of the spring game, Chris Conti, has great instincts, though I am not sure yet if he’s big enough to excel at Mike linebacker. Officially Conti is listed as 6’2”, 230 lb. and it’s true that former Scarlet Knight Kevin Malast was similarly sized at 6’1, 233 lb. Malast ended up in the NFL for parts of four seasons playing multiple positions at that size so if Conti can play coverage at the same level and learn how to avoid getting squared up by pulling linemen he could get reps down the line in the Big Ten. It feels like every linebacker recruited by Greg Schiano has outperformed their original recruiting ranking, maybe Conti will become a poster child of the Schiano 2.0 era.

2. What makes this offense go is Sean Gleeson’s diverse / flexible scheme, surely required when most teams they face are still more talented than Rutgers. Hence the need to find ways for many different types of players to contribute, thus providing an ability to significantly change the game plan each week. No one was hurt more by the extra eligibility for returning starters than Paul Woods who reportedly entered the transfer portal today. Had Bo Melton and Shameen Jones completed their time at RU, Woods would probably have gotten the first opportunity to win one of those spots especially with how well he tracks the ball. Instead the staff is carving out roles for players with other skillsets like the other two members of last year’s two deep at WR, Christian Dremel and Isaiah Washington. Even former blueshirt Jessie Parson looked like he has a niche. For Woods, I wish him well and believe he can be a significant contributor in another program.

3. There were some players other than just Conti who seemed overjoyed to be in a game and played to the whistle every time, swarming on both sides of the ball, Raiqwon O’Neal being the best example. O’Neal was consistently running downfield and picking up his running backs after they were brought down following big gains. That type of leadership on the field, in the huddle, and on the sidelines proved it was more than just Greg Schiano talking to BTN about the players stepping into more leadership roles, a critical part of program success his first time around. If this happens in practice every day and not just under the lights, it means there are players on this team who can literally will their comrades to be better even when nobody is watching.

4. Tyreem Powell flash. At times he looked a little awkward, but his arms are so long and he was around the ball so much, the Jamal Merrell comparisons will start flowing very soon. Not sure where Tyreem is going to play though, especially if the team utilizes mostly nickel defense particularly on early downs. Guys like him on special teams though against Group of Five teams just doesn’t seem fair.

5. Unlike other teams in the league who were whining about cornerback play all season in 2020 (Illinois, Michigan, Penn State off the top of my head), Rutgers has guys at this premium position. Patrice Rene and Tre Avery looked awesome at times, batting balls away without anything resembling holding or pass interference. The other younger players were good too so we won’t be close to a situation where you end up with an inexperienced walk-on one injury away from having to start across from NFL bound players from other schools. When Christian Braswell arrives, maybe he ends up at safety.

What I am not sure if I saw

1. Did Jamier Wright-Collins get more comfortable as the game went along? Or was he just feasting on less physically gifted players who were getting reps later in the game? Ditto for Aaron Young who finally looks like the player at running back that we saw excel as a slot receiver in 2019. Was that a mirage because the offensive line had a better day than the defensive line?

2. Staying on the Running Back theme, Kyle Monangai looks small and that he is not running fast, yet somehow gets the better of impact with tacklers than you would think, running straight through arm tackles. I saw a comment on a message board that he may be able to bring exactly what Kay’Ron Adams did even if Adams looked more the part of a Big Ten running back.

3. Monterio Hunt finally is healthy and demonstrated why he was brought to the program before a series of bad luck. Rutgers has been waiting for the true possession receiver since Quron Pratt or maybe even James Guarantano. Shameen Jones exceeded all expectations in the role in 2020 achieving first downs with extra effort in traffic, but who else can do that? Isaiah Washington maybe, but I’d rather see him downfield. Hunt looked super smooth and I was too skeptical from the very beginning.

4. The tandem of Ireland Burke and Ifeanyi Maijeh were getting work done at defensive tackle it seemed like, though they weren’t making as many tackles as I would have expected. I was quite harsh on Mayan Ahanotu early last year for his lack of production before he started to show up more late in the year, so I’m not sure what to make of the DT performance overall.

5. Are the specialists as good as we think they should be? Rutgers will have several games that come down to field position and clutch field goals. One kick here or there each game may be the difference in a won-loss record that is either better or worse than the level of consistent play in 2021.

Summary

Rutgers is finally a Big Ten football program for the first time since their first year in the conference. They look the part physically, play fast, and fielded two competitive teams for an exhibition. Most importantly, the scholarship players who are inexperienced and still learning the game are either big, fast, or both. I don’t want to get too caught up in won-loss totals in 2021 as long as the team is competitive enough to keep the current 2022 recruiting class intact. This is about the long haul and Rutgers clearly continues to trend in the right direction.

What did you see? Let us know in the comments below.