By the time groups of Scarlet Faithful were walking into Jersey Mike’s Arena on a sunny mild Thanksgiving Saturday to cheer on the Men’s Basketball team, another disappointing chapter was dwindling on what was once the university’s flagship athletic program. Rutgers football was shut out for the second time, and sustained their seventh conference loss, bringing them to 4-7 on the season, with a Big Ten record of 1-7.
Depending on how you’d like to calculate it, Rutgers finished in either last place, or second to last place, due to how division and conference victories count in the standings. It doesn't matter though. Rutgers will not appear in a bowl game, and the program seems to have been left with more questions than answers following another season below .500.
Schiano returned to the banks with a ton of fanfare and a hefty set of expectations. In year one, an odd season marred by the pandemic and muted by the lack of fans in the stands, Schiano seemed up to the task. The Knights started out by beating Mel Tucker’s Spartan’s on the road 38-27 en route to a respectable first season in the Big Ten, going 3-6. For the Knights at that time, it seemed like the beginning of an ascension from deep in the basement, where the program had dwelled consistently since 2014. Schiano’s next two recruiting classes ranked 42 and 33 respectively.
Following another step forward in 2021, which saw Rutgers going 5-7 overall and earning an unexpected bid to the Gator Bowl, the Knights lost ace recruiter Fran Brown to Georgia, and surprisingly saw home-grown wide receivers coach Tiquan Underwood depart for Pittsburgh. Momentum was further stalled when Rutgers fumbled an unexpectedly manageable schedule, dropping a home heartbreaker to Nebraska, and blowing a halftime lead against Michigan.
The long slog back to respectability was never going to be a swift one. The fabled path toward competitiveness would be even more daunting. Fans new that. Schiano knew that. But the challenges were compounded with the enactment of NCAA rules allowing for NIL and free transfers between schools without penalty. Schiano is keenly aware of this, having recently shifted his fund-raising focus from a state-of-the-art practice facility to NIL collectives. If so, he should also be keenly aware of what this program needs to have any semblance of a chance at actually completing the task he started.
Looking at the team this past season, including the play of some of his highly touted recruits and the performance of individual team units, the sole path forward is clear. Rutgers ranked 37th nationally in total defense this season. That was without highly-touted linebacker recruit Moses Walker, who should be back next year. That was also playing a healthy handful of very young and still developing players. In several games it was clear, even to the most novice of fans, that the Defense was up to the task of competing with the very best of competition. They caused turnovers, forced punts, and stifled some of the most prolific of coaches, including Jim Harbaugh, for halves at a time. But the Rutgers offense continually stalled, put the defense in terrible situations, and turned the ball over time after time.
Young quarterbacks Evan Simon and Gavin Wimsatt took turns showing flashes of promise, and then displaying epic misfires. And while many tend to focus solely on the quarterback play, the offensive systems themselves were also flawed. Early in the season, since dismissed Offensive Coordinator Sean Gleeson insisted on rotating the quarterbacks nearly every drive, stalling any rhythm they might have acquired. Gleeson also failed to get the ball into the hands of his best playmakers frequently enough. When interim Offensive Coordinator Nunzio Campanile took over, there was a bit more of an effort to stay consistent at quarterback and to find creative ways to get the ball to Aaron Cruikshank and young speedsters Chris Long and Rashad Rochelle, but it still left plenty to be desired.
It seemed that when Campanile took the reins, his first orders of business were to get freshman stud running back Sam Brown the ball more, and to get Gavin Wimsatt a ton of experience throwing the football. Those were both commendable ends, and he accomplished those things to the extent he could before Brown went down with an unfortunate foot injury. But there were, and are, limits.
First, college football has changed drastically from two decades ago. No matter how good of a back Brown is, and he is that good, Rutgers cannot expect to put together winning seasons relying solely on handing him the ball every two to three downs. Second, Gavin Wimsatt is a natural fit in a spread/RPO offensive system. That was evident early in the year against Boston College when he was playing under Gleeson. He needs to be able to use his running ability and strong arm to make things happen. The same can be said for new recruit Ajani Sheppard, who has a similar game and skillset. Third, and this is what I believe is the least likely to actually happen, these quarterbacks all need intensive development and attention, and they need a dedicated quarterbacks coach. For all of these things, Schiano must search high and low, and he must search outside of the program. That isn’t to say that Campanile is not a very good coach, nor that he cannot be an effective Offensive Coordinator in the future, but right now Rutgers just needs something different.
Last year, Schiano went outside the program to replace longtime assistant and first defensive coordinator Robb Smith with rising star Joe Harasymiak. Harasymiak was a Jersey native and was developing a strong reputation at Minnesota for calling defenses and developing players. The move has paid dividends for the program. Players have developed, play calling and game planning appears to be more effective, and the defensive unit as a whole has taken steps forward.
The same needs to happen for the offense this year. No matter what one’s craft, it is widely accepted that a pair of fresh eyes is invaluable. Someone with a new set of ideas, looking at the same canvas without any pre-conceived understandings or positions can often alter the outcome of a project entirely. Right now, Coach Schiano has assembled an impressive stable of young offensive line recruits, a budding running back room, and has brought in quarterbacks who have shown promise. But perhaps not all of the current pieces fit, and perhaps some new pieces might help put the unit over the edge. A new hire, with a new energy and a new personality from outside the program, might help to get some of these necessary transitions going. An established recruiter might help to get the high school pipelines in the “State of Rutgers” running again.
As mentioned above, Rutgers could also benefit from a dedicated Quarterbacks coach. If that is not possible, then the hire Schiano makes from outside the program should also have a well-documented background as a quarterbacks coach and of developing quarterbacks or should have been a quarterback at the D1 level himself. Despite what some fans may perceive (and who could blame them, having sat through so many dismal seasons as of recent), Rutgers is still an attractive job for many promising young coaches outside the program in the vein of Harasymiak. The key will be for Schiano to sit with each of them, spend a considerable length of time getting to know them and understanding their vision for the pieces in place and those potentially in the pipeline, and to make a decision on the best one for the job.
Schiano 2.0 needs to enter phase 2.0, and it needs to do so with 2 young and talented coordinators who he may not have started with back in 2019.