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Greg Schiano’s rebuilding 2.0 of Rutgers at critical stage

The early arrival of Gavin Wimsatt has accelerated every facet of the process.

Syndication: The Record Chris Pedota, via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The offseason and subsequent training camp leading up to Greg Schiano’s second season of his second tenure at Rutgers was in a word…..boring. And that’s exactly the way the head coach wanted it. There were no major injuries, no major defections, no offseason scandals that marred the program in the days after he left the banks in 2012. Most significant perhaps was that there was no quarterback controversy leading into this fall.

The Scarlet Knights were beginning the season with the same offensive coordinator and starting quarterback for the second straight year for the first time in over a decade with Sean Gleason and Noah Vedral. The goal for the program was forward progress in year two, but how to much to expect was unknown.

One night before the season opener against Temple, the area was devastated by an unprecedented rain storm that left as much as seven inches in the area. Piscataway officials called for Rutgers to have the game without fans due to many roads flooded and deep under water. Instead, the school pushed it back to Saturday to allow fans to attend a home game for the first time since 2019 due to COVID-19. However, the aftermath of Hurricane Ida was just the warm up act to the drama that unfolded soon after.

On the second version of the eve before the season opener last Friday, news broke that the highest rated quarterback prospect in program history, Gavin Wimsatt, was enrolling at Rutgers in a matter of days and thus forgoing the rest of his senior season at Owensboro high school in Kentucky. On Saturday, minutes after a stunning 61-14 blowout victory of Temple, head coach Greg Schiano was answering questions about the unexpected scenario for this season.

The reality of student-athletes now having name, image and likeness rights paved the way for Wimsatt’s surprising decision. Schiano explained the process for what was happening and in doing so, proved his adaptability in his second run at Rutgers has become a strength. We know he can sell the program, but being proactive in reacting to how the recruiting process changes is just as important nowadays. Schiano is proving he can do both.

On Monday, the first several questions asked of Schiano at his game week press conference were about Wimsatt. When the hottest topic on your team is a heralded signal caller three days removed from playing a high school football game and set to make a reported six figures with an NIL deal despite scoring 61 points without him, things are definitely no longer boring.

“He and his family got into town last night,” Schiano said. “He’s going through all the onboarding right now, as far as physical and he’s done all this stuff for school so he’ll start classes tomorrow.”

As for football, Schiano was quick to harp on the outside adjustments Wimsatt needs to make before worrying about playing.

“He can practice this week, did not practice last night,” he said. “This is a young man who played in a high school game three nights ago, so, taking it really slow, get him going. You know, people forget, just because they’re a great player, they are still a young person that’s going away from home for the first time. And he’s getting moved into a dorm and doing all that good stuff so we’ll give him a chance to get his feet on the ground here before I worry too much about any of the practice or that kind of stuff. I’m sure he’ll want to. That’s what football players like to do - get out there and play football - so we’ll get to that as soon as we can.”

Schiano sounded like a coach who is wisely considering all facets of the reality of Wimsatt’s decision, but also sounded like a coach who has urgency for his prized recruit to get going on the field. While he made it clear that this situation has played out this way due to Wimsatt wanting this to happen, he also is sounding like all options are a possibility now that he is on campus.

“Well, it definitely is a new situation, right, he’s the second player in I think the history of college football to do it,” said Schiano. “College sports is changing so you need to adapt, and we’re doing our best to do that. He wanted to do this, he and his family, and there’s an avenue to do it. So we helped them navigate that avenue, but it was his hard work. He got it done and now he’s a member of the team, like every other member of the team.”

As for whether Wimsatt could travel to Syracuse this weekend as part of the active roster, Schiano said, “I haven’t really even made that decision. I’m not sure if we can get him acclimated in time to do that, and I don’t know if you’re allowed to travel. I haven’t even looked at that yet, but we’ll figure it all out.”

Schiano is the master of saying as little as possible when it comes to the status of a player or pretty much anything else related to the team. He’s been very accommodating with the media in his return but he is very careful to not give out any information that an opponent can use against him. Schiano remains a master strategist who rarely shows his cards. In Monday’s press conference, one thing seemed obvious….Gavin Wimsatt is going to play this season.

Indicating they want to get Wimsatt on the practice field as soon as possible and that he is like any other player on the team, as well as not ruling him out for Syracuse, even though he is not likely to be eligible due to not having enough practice time, were all signs that seemed to point to full speed ahead now that the potential program changing prospect is already here.

After a honeymoon first season back in which Rutgers exceeded expectations by winning three Big Ten games, the rebuilding job for Schiano this second go around just had the process ramp up faster than expected. How he manages this process will determine if the progress comes faster too.

Can he successfully navigate the challenge of the dynamics changing with having Wimsatt available this season while also making sure the long term development of his most important player is handled correctly?

Schiano has proven to be the right coach for Rutgers once again and he seems well prepared for this, but there are no guarantees. This isn’t the first time Schiano had the program’s highest rated quarterback on his roster. The transfer of Freshman All-American Tom Savage many years ago was a rare misstep. Schiano has certainly grown and developed as a coach since then, but there will be a learning curve for everyone involved, not just Wimsatt.

Having the star quarterback arrive early is a situation that could derail a team. You never know for sure how it will impact team chemistry and considering this situation is almost unprecedented, there is no playbook for how to handle it. It’s not just the playing time debate. An unproven but highly touted prospect has now shown up after the first game with a reported six figure pay day and is already drawing a significant portion of media attention immediately. How will that sit in the locker room, let alone the quarterback room? It’s a question that will be answered over time but one that has to be managed.

That being said, Rutgers is in a very good position to handle this situation. Schiano is an experienced coach who is evolving with the times and starting quarterback Noah Vedral is the ultimate team player and class act. The culture that Schiano has built along with so many experienced leaders on the roster give confidence this team will benefit from Wimsatt’s early arrival

Another key is offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson, who has experience running a multiple quarterback system at Princeton. The big debate among fans is whether Wimsatt will play this season, especially if Vedral struggles for an extended period of time the way he did against Temple. However, one important thing to consider is that if Rutgers can figure out a package for Johnny Langan to get snaps and make an impact, why can’t they at least do the same for Wimsatt, at least initially? Gleeson has proven to be a great play caller and seems ready for this new challenge.

The concern that it will take a long time for the top 100 recruit to learn the playbook is minimized to a degree if Gleeson creates a package specifically for Wimsatt. It would give him a an opportunity to play while learning at his own pace. Does he have plays called for him in a certain situation or does he get a series in the first half to lead on his own? Could he ultimately rotate drives with Vedral by the midpoint of the season? After the bye week, does Wimsatt see an increase in snaps against Illinois in the game eight? These are all questions that might seem like putting the cart before the horse for some, but this isn’t a typical situation.

The idea that its important that Wimsatt should be held out this season or make sure he maintains his redshirt year seems silly. The future is here and slowing it down for the sake of slowing it down isn’t a good enough reason. This isn’t a traditional situation so looking at it and handling it in a traditional way makes little sense. If he isn’t ready, then he shouldn’t play. However, it doesn’t seem like either side thinks that’s going to be the case.

The decision for him to join the team now wasn’t made last week. If we know anything about Schiano, he is always prepared. He and Gleeson have a plan. What that plan is we will wait to see but I just don’t believe that its anything other than figuring out the best way to get the most out of Wimsatt this season.

Another thing to remember is that future top quarterback prospects will be watching the Wimsatt situation closely. If it goes well, Schiano will likely see the door open wider for more heralded signal callers in the future. If it doesn’t or he wasn’t proving to be hip to the new reality that college football and recruiting have created, then it would be viewed as a negative in the future with other prospects. Rutgers has recruiting momentum right now and how Wimsatt does will certainly help shape perception moving forward.

That is what makes Wimsatt’s early arrival so important to the future for Rutgers football. Even if he arrived as expected next season, his development into a potential top half Big Ten quarterback was always the most important factor in determining the short term ceiling for this program. If Schiano is going to get Rutgers back to a bowl game on an annual basis while also becoming a middle of the pack Big Ten team at a minimum in the next five years, they need Wimsatt to lead them there. Starting the process a year early with little prep time is both a blessing and a curse.

Simply put, Schiano has to ace this test. No one is saying Wimsatt needs to become a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he has MUST become a capable quarterback that the program can build around. Rutgers needs to continue to add talent and depth to the entire roster to solidify the future, something that has happened in force since Schiano returned in December 2020. However, without Wimsatt fulfilling his potential, the odds of taking a true step forward as a bowl team on a regular basis in the next few seasons are lessened by a significant degree.

Can Schiano and Gleeson get Wimsatt enough work in the early part of the season to see clear signs that he’s ready to take the reins by the end of the season? Can they keep Vedral focused and confident despite his replacement already in his dressing room? If backups Cole Snyder and Evan Simon don’t end up playing this season, is there any chance of keeping them? It’s not just about developing Wimsatt, but also about keeping the entire position group as stable as possible. This will not be an easy task.

Rutgers can’t rush Wimsatt, but they can’t afford to sit him either. There are nine super seniors on the roster and twenty starters back from last season. With 92% of the team’s production back for this season, there should be urgency to get the most out of the experience they have back to make as much progress as possible. Next season the team will probably have a two deep with more talent and potential, but will be far less proven. With Wimsatt being the most talented quarterback now on the roster, it’s on the coaches to develop him and figure out the best way to use him fast enough to make an impact this season. They can’t jeopardize the future by rushing him, but they also don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to jump start the rebuild and exceed expectations a second year in a row.

Threading the needle is essential. If it means keeping Wimsatt out this season and that’s what the staff feel is best, then they’ll do it. However, in reading the signs and knowing the potential for what could be achieved, I’d be very surprised at this point if Wimsatt didn’t play and have a role of some degree this season.

This is the new world of college football and Rutgers is in the center of its orbit now. How Gleeson develops Wimsatt and how Schiano manages the situation is going to be studied by college football coaches in the future as the blueprint of what to do or what not to do as top prospects skipping senior seasons becomes more common. Rutgers fans have yearned for Schiano to restore credibility and make the program relevant again. Wimsatt being with the program now gives Rutgers a unique opportunity to achieve both quicker than expected. Whether they achieve it or not remains to be seen, but for Schiano and the program, these days are anything but boring.