With Robb Smith having left as defensive coordinator to take the same position at Duke, Head Coach Greg Schiano and the Rutgers Football program announced Joe Harasymiak as his replacement on Friday. Harasymiak was most recently co-defensive coordinator at Minnesota after achieving success as the youngest coach in Division I Football when he took Maine to the FCS Semifinals in 2018. So the question becomes, does Rutgers change their defensive scheme with a new defensive signal caller on board?
Quickly first as some readers may remember from the 2019 matchup between Rutgers and Minnesota, I actually grew up with Joe Harasymiak. Waldwick is such a small town in Bergen County, both of Joe’s parents and my father David Anderson (RC ‘81) all were in the same graduating class at the same High School before we were. I’ll save the anecdotes for later and simply say thanks to everyone who texted me congratulations when I had literally nothing to do with it. I wish Joe the best of luck on the banks. Now back to the regularly scheduled programming.
Harasymiak played college ball at Division III Springfield College (MA) as a cornerback, leading the nation in interceptions as junior in 2006 with 10 en route to a career program record 17. He went from a team captain in 2007 to an assistant coach at Maine Maritime before returning to Springfield for two seasons. (There’s not a lot of film on those stops publicly available as you’d expect.) Next up was a much documented stop in Maine where he was a 27 year old defensive coordinator and then named Head Coach before he turned 30.
Though now the Head Coach, Harasymiak’s fingerprints were all over the defense that helped propel the Black Bears to the best finish in school history in 2018. They were strong out of the gate, demolishing 35-7 a heavily favored rival in New Hampshire in the season opener. That New Hampshire team was no slouch on offense either under the direction of fellow rising young star Ryan Carty who is now the Head Coach at Delaware. The Black Bears defense had significantly better personnel than they did four years earlier (a good sign for recruiting) and played a style similar to what we saw from Rutgers a lot in 2020.
Creative pressure packages on third down to try and get 1-on-1 matchups in protection the defense could exploit. Then Maine upset the high flying FBS Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on the road, 31-28 after trailing 21-0 less than six minutes into the game. Despite the physical shortcomings, the Black Bears were still able to generate pressure with their front four. This type of resilience and punching above your weight class is something Rutgers absolutely needs to have to succeed in the Big Ten East.
Fast forward to the 2018 FCS playoffs against #8 Jacksonville State, stunning #3 Weber State on the road, and then falling badly at #4 Eastern Washington. What stands out from those games on the Maine side are 1. Maintaining the ability to get pressure with defensive ends 2. Players rallying to the ball and making quick decisions and 3. Unpredictability of what Maine is going to do on any given play defensively.
The first two are exactly what Schiano has always wanted with his defense. The third is what Rutgers has had success with when they are less talented, but we did not see enough of in 2021 until the bowl game with Schiano calling the defense personally.
Harasymiak parlayed his success into the role of defensive backs coach at Minnesota in 2019 and then co-defensive coordinator (alongside Joe Rossi) for the past two seasons. Watching extensive Minnesota footage of this past 2021 season when Harasymiak would have had the most influence, the Golden Gophers employed a 3-4, mostly quarters coverage base scheme. I focused my study on two games in particular, Purdue and Nebraska.
I chose Purdue first because they are the only Big Ten West team that is a pass-first offense so the Gophers needed to have a significantly different game plan than against any other annual division foe. Minnesota took down the highflying Boilermakers by confusing them with blitz packages and playing anywhere from just two all the way to six down linemen in a three point stance at various times. They never let the Purdue quarterback or play caller get comfortable and it showed.
The second game I chose was Nebraska because despite their point differential of 0 that led to an unreal 1-8 conference record, the Cornhuskers have had the best aggregate recruiting classes in the West division over the past five years and therefore in theory should have the biggest talent advantage. Minnesota didn’t play their best game, absorbing several big plays from talented athletes on the Nebraska sideline, but squeaked out a 30-23 win over the Huskers.
Against common opponents, the Gopher D put up very similar showings to what Rutgers did against Northwestern and Illinois, but significantly better results against Maryland and Wisconsin. In the win against Wisconsin, the Gophers held the Badgers to just 62 rush yards on 22 attempts and 21-38 passing for 171 yards. Yes, the same Badger team that three weeks earlier achieved 579 yards of offense at Rutgers.
Minnesota beat Maryland by primarily keeping the Terp offense on the sideline more than anything else. In addition to that, the Gophers defense dictated where plays had to go, often baiting Taulia Tagovailoa into roll outs to one side of the field or making him have to throw to the middle of the field when he had trouble seeing over the line of scrimmage. Rutgers employed some of the same strategies, but Taulia carved them up, at least partially due to the mistakes he learned from in the loss to the Gophers.
What does this mean for Rutgers in 2022?
Remember when Schiano hired Sean Gleeson as the offensive coordinator, the whole idea was that Gleeson would have free reign on what style of offense the team would run and theoretically personnel. This willingness to be open-minded was clearly evident in 2020, though in 2021 it seemed that a lot of factors including injuries and different personnel tactics saw the offense take a step back in every respect. Schiano is well aware and seemingly will give Harasymiak the control Gleeson had in 2020, but on the defensive side of things.
Is the defense even broken?
They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it but as we have all seen during this global pandemic, no one wastes a “crisis”. Based solely on what Harasymiak is familiar with, Rutgers will not overhaul it’s defense but should spend more time in adjusting the role of the weak-side defensive end into more of a 3-4 outside linebacker role to help in coverage. The frequency of different coverage calls already in the existing playbook should change significantly.
What is Rutgers’s goal for 2023?
Yes, I did mean 2023. With a tougher schedule, tremendous attrition of multi-year starters and at least three if not up to five new skill position starters alone, it’s perfectly fair to expect the offense is going to take steps back next season. The defense as we have seen the past decade can only do so much, so this is a unique opportunity to fundamentally change how they operate in a true rebuilding year.
The advantage is that if there is a better long term option than the base 4-3 Rutgers has run since Greg Schiano arrived in 2000, this would be the time to rip off the band aid and try it. The major disadvantage is that 2022 may be rough as it is and nothing signals program discombobulation like blown defensive assignments and miscommunication.
So with 2022 likely to be tough sledding, where do the Knights see themselves the following year? Forget looking even farther ahead than 2023 because in the modern day college football landscape particularly the transfer portal era, two years is an enternity for everything other than offensive line development. Does Rutgers want to simply at worst “suck normal” as James Kratch referenced during the Chris Ash era against top tier programs or do they want to play some higher stakes risk-reward games that could produce uneven results?
To zig or to zag?
As recently as 2017, 48 of the 68 Power Five programs (including high independents) still primarily operated out of a traditional base 4-3. That number continues to go down in favor of three man fronts which against the spread often are 3-3-5 with an extra defensive back to mirror spread offenses. I saw an unconfirmed statistic that only one college football playoff champion (Ohio State) was a base 4-3. Interestingly enough, their defensive coordinator was Chris Ash. So that presents an interesting angle. It may actually be easier than ever to recruit the critical personnel for a 4-3 much like Rutgers was able to get pro-style offensive players late in the Schiano 1.0 tenure when many other teams were already in the spread era. Also as opponents have to prepare for more odd fronts, maybe there is a market inefficiency to be capitalized on in that regard. Even if several Big Ten coaches including Nebraska’s Scott Frost didn’t get the memo. Minnesota showed a tremendous mix of fronts week to week, even in game, so if Harasymiak and the defensive staff can achieve this diversity while still having the players “play fast,” that would be opportunity for major improvement.
The continuity approach would be to stay with the Schiano four man front that does play a lot more nickel than he used to, subbing a linebacker (usually strong-side LB Drew Singleton in 2021) out for a nickel cornerback more than half the time. There could be an option for more of a 4-2-5 as a base look with one of the five defensive backs really being a hybrid safety/linebacker type. Rutgers used a true slot corner this season, requiring one of their safeties, usually the undersized Christian Izien as the 7th man in the box.
Rutgers could switch to primarily three man fronts as Minnesota did recently, which became in style in the NFL when Dick LeBeau had so much success with unheralded front seven players in Pittsburgh 15 years ago. Rutgers fans are most familiar with the West Virginia version of 3-3-5 that included two big safeties that functioned as linebackers when called upon to get eight in the box. A three man front can play a one gap scheme or a two gap scheme but in either case you need your most effective player at nose guard flanked by sturdy ends who can hold up at the point of attack.
Schiano values on defense
The main reason Schiano has been long tied to the 4-3 is that gap responsibilities are more obvious and simple. This allows inexperienced players to get on the field faster and chemistry in the front seven less important, so substitutions are less disruptive. By being straightforward and less dependent on one single position to have to be “elite”, the defense year over year can feature different positions depending on personnel. The converse is of course that the opposing offense also has a pretty good idea what defenders will be where and especially if you just sit back to read and react as a defense, it doesn’t usually end well against even equally talented opponents.
On BTN, I recall a segment where the primary explanation given is that if you have elite 4-3 edge rushers, you should play a system that showcases that ability. The 4-3 worked so well in Schiano 1.0 because once recruiting was in high gear, Rutgers was often able to generate pressure with NFL-caliber talent on the defensive line that simply won their 1-on-1 matchups. George Johnson and Jamaal Westerman were not just good for the Big East, they had success at the NFL level. Getting a duo like that would be needed almost every other year to sustain success.
Any three man front on the other hand offers all kinds of blitz packages designed to get a free rusher from one of the linebackers or safeties coming off the edge as long as the three down linemen can force double teams. Not getting knocked backwards could open up huge inside run game holes. Those linemen don’t need to be elite athletes, but they need to be strong to hold the point of attack, allowing time for the guys behind them to come crashing down to stop the run or pass. If they can, pressure can come from the second level that offenses are not ready for.
When a defense press covers with the cornerbacks which Minnesota did more than Rutgers in 2021, they need to be willing to get beat over the top every once in a while or concede large spaces in the middle of the field that require excellent downfield tackling to avoid yards after the catch. As I harped on time and time again this year, more than half the Big Ten teams prefer shortening the game and running over the pass game. So Rutgers for the most part hung in games until the opponent uncorked some downfield throws.
When they did play big play pass offenses, it was catastrophic especially against Maryland and Michigan State who on paper did not have an absolute edge talent wise up and down the roster. Harasymiak will be tasked with bringing some of Minnesota’s success against these type of offenses to the banks.
The most oversimplified version of priorities is as follows. In any base three man front, the nose guard has to be awesome. And of course you need two substitutes or more to hedge against injury because very few other positions are going to be able to provide depth to help there. The other keys are outside linebackers who can take on offensive linemen while all linebackers and safeties need to be versatile enough to cover and play near the line of scrimmage. In a nutshell you are only as good as your nose guard and OLB/SS.
With the four man look, no single position is the linchpin, you are only as good as your weakest link, regardless of where he lines up. Traditionally, the most important ingredient is a defensive end who requires double teams off the edge in the pass game and having either a middle or weak side linebacker who you funnel the ball toward and rely on to make most of the tackles in the run game. If you have a strong-side linebacker who is great in coverage, your team is not forced to substitute as often and tip off the offense.
The 2021 roster was primarily built to play a 4-3 style with Olakunle Fatukasi the weak-side linebacker expected to make most of the tackles in the run game. When the defensive tackles were able to keep pulling linemen from getting to Fatukasi and the middle linebacker tandem or Tyshon Fogg and Tyreek Maddox-Williams, Rutgers had good success. With all three of those players plus the most disruptive defensive lineman Julius Turner out of eligibility, would Rutgers have personnel to be more flexible when projecting down the line?
The short answer is yes, though at nose guard Kyonte Hamilton probably needs to be the real deal for a 3-4 to work. Jamree Kromah and Ifeanyi Maijeh could be stopgaps there while Zaire Angoy is the mammoth game changer the team would hope in a few years.
Rutgers does not have the juice right now like an Ohio State does to switch to a 3-4 and simply stockpile the best available players from the transfer portal. The team is stocked with players who could play defensive tackle in a three man front already though, most notably Aaron Lewis who is the prototype for that role.
The bigger issue is who would play those outside linebacker spots and it’s unclear what players Rutgers has who can run a 4.6 40 yard dash but also have the size to take on offensive linemen. Tyreem Powell has a nice trajectory and Mo Toure as long as he hasn’t put on too much weight might be able to be a true strong-side linebacker in a 3-3-5 look, but who is going to man those big safety roles? Deion Jennings has flashed and maybe Avery Young adds weight, but this role is where I see the issue if the team wanted to change in Spring 2022.
What beats the upper echelon Big Ten teams?
The short answer is offense of course, but on the defensive side it’s primarily aggressiveness and forcing your opponent to make plays. In the Big Ten West, the slug it out style football was upended only by the one team with an explosive passing attack, Purdue who Minnesota handled. The other teams pretty much tried to beat one another at their own game and it turned out Iowa (who we will see each season over the next six years) was the best of the bunch. Rutgers resides in the East though where no team respects your run game if you can’t pass, just ask Penn State. Then when Iowa ran into Michigan in the conference title game, it was a bloodbath since the Wolverines were so much more dynamic than the West squads. The Big Ten East will be a step up for Harasymiak who also will be calling plays for the first time in a few years.
For Rutgers to beat Michigan and Penn State as a next step, (they have beaten Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan State in the past two years) the defense needs to improve against the pass, especially the linebackers in coverage. Staying with a 4-3 would require this to simply be better personnel at covering people, very straightforward theoretically. Moving to a 3-4 or 3-3-5 would mean that less responsibility would be at the feet of individual players to cover better 1-on-1 that the offense could isolate rather easily. You would need more guys who have coverage skills which I already mentioned are in short supply outside of the cornerback room. It’s worth at least experimenting with it in 2022.
I think next season Schiano and Harasymiak will play mostly 4-2-5 with such an inexperienced linebacking corps, trending toward 3-3-5 as players are groomed for the big safety and hybrid edge rusher roles. Then the staff will re-evaluate next off-season if more drastic changes are in order based on the development of young players.
Once again, congrats to Joe Harasymiak and welcome home to New Jersey!