Rutgers football held its tenth practice of spring camp on Saturday, which was also the second scrimmage in as many weeks for the program. The annual Scarlet-White Game is less than two weeks away and head coach Greg Schiano spoke about the progress made so far after Saturday’s scrimmage.
“Really good energy. I thought the guys came out focused,” Schiano commented. “There was every reason not to be. We have a very eventful weekend after the scrimmage. We had the coaches clinic. Some of the guys were in and out. Then it starts downpouring, then a little hail. We had some wind. The guys didn’t break their focus. We came out and scrimmaged for a good amount of time. I thought they did a really good job. So I am very pleased, not so much with the execution because we were hot and cold there. That’s expected. Really pleased with the energy and enthusiasm and the effort.”
When asked about his assessment of where the team is at this point of the offseason compared to the end of last season, Schiano was positive about the steps taken so far this spring.
“We’re better. I said to them, the biggest improvement you’re going to make should be between scrimmage 1 and scrimmage 2 in the spring. I believe we did that,” Schiano declared. “We’re only allowed three scrimmages so next week will be a mixture of 7-on-7 stuff and we’ll do a little bit of live stuff, but it wont be like these two because the third one is the spring game. This was an important day today. I thought that they came out and performed, like I said at the beginning, with enthusiasm, with focus, with effort. As a head coach at this time of year that’s really what you’re looking for.”
There are many position battles of note this spring with so many starters from the last two season’s having departed. Of course, the competition at quarterback is the most intriguing position battle ahead of the season opener on September 3 against Boston College. Two year starter Noah Vedral, heralded freshman Gavin Wimsatt and backup Evan Simon are all taking meaningful snaps this spring. How they perform in the spring game at the end of camp will tell a lot about where things stand ahead of training camp a few months later.
“I thought the quarterback play was at times a lot better, and overall better,” said Schiano. “There were still a few things that you sit there and say, ‘Why?’ But we’ve got a lot of stuff going on and it’s not like training camp where you’re practicing every day. You’re one day on, you’re day off. We’ll go Sunday, Monday off and then we’ll be back at it Tuesday. It’s not like that continuity that you get into. So I could see – these guys got a lot going on. They’ve got their schoolwork, they’ve got their life as a student-athlete. But we’re getting better.”
Being that it is spring camp and the workload is not nearly as rhythmic as being in season, Schiano’s perspective on the situation is important. His ability to push this team forward while also having a balanced and realistic outlook is good for this program in the long run. This being the first true spring camp that Schiano has had since returning to Rutgers is likely a reason why. They were unable to have spring camp in 2020 due to Covid-19 in full swing. Last spring, there was a Covid-19 outbreak on the team and the start of practice sessions was delayed a few weeks.
“That’s the key. All three of the quarterbacks that are in this competition are getting better,” Schiano reaffirmed. “And our two guys you didn’t get to see very much today, our two young guys, [Gavin] Rupp and [Austin] Albericci, they’re really, really performing well. So I’m pleased with the room overall.”
Obviously another huge factor for the offense to take a major step forward this coming season is for the offensive line to improve as well. With four transfers now on the roster including JD DiRenzo, Mike Ciaffoni, Curtis Dunlap Jr., and Willie Tyler, as well as multi-year starter Raiqwon O’Neal having left for UCLA, the position room is much different. Another change is having a new position coach with assistant Augie Hoffman switching roles with Andrew Aurich, who now coaches the running backs. With so many moving parts, establishing an identity this spring is important for this group.
“Making improvement. It’s a steady climb. It’s a long climb,” stressed Schiano. “We started way down at the bottom. But one step at a time, they’re getting better. I think coach (Augie) Hoffmann, coach (Phill) Guard, coach (Scott) Vallone, all those guys are really doing a great job of forming this group as a unit. Just got to keep doing it.”
On the other side of the ball, Rutgers has a chance to have as strong a defensive line next season as they have had in some time. Many contributors from last season return and although replacing Julius Turner’s production won’t be easy, his former backup Kyonte Hamilton has a ton of potential and is poised to take over next season. Mike Tverdov and CJ Onyechi are gone as well and need to be replaced. This is another position group that has a new leader, as new assistant coach Marquise Watson replaced Jim Panagos, who is now coaching at Kansas.
“I thought today we got stuck on some blocks early in the scrimmage. Later on I think we juiced it up a little bit,” Schiano explained. “Early in the scrimmage it just felt like some of the conversion rushes didn’t occur when we needed them to. Overall it’s been a really good spring. The D-line has been very productive, they’ve gotten after the quarterback, they’ve made plays in the run game. So we’re getting better. We’re young. But you’re right, we have depth.”
An inability to rotate enough players along the defensive line without having a significant dropoff has been an issue since Rutgers joined the Big Ten. They may have its deepest group they’ve had entering this season in a long time. Mayan Ahanotu, Ifeanyi Maijeh, Mohamed Toure and Aaron Lewis are all poised to have the opportunity to make big contributions this fall.
One bit of bad news for the defense was that Schiano announced that linebacker Moses Walker, the former 4-star and highest rated prospect in the 2022 recruiting class for Rutgers, tore his ACL in practice earlier this week. He will likely miss the 2022 season. In a position group having lost four seniors to graduation, Walker was competing for snaps after enrolling early this past January. He has a ton of potential but will likely have to wait until the 2023 season before taking the field for Rutgers.
You can watch Schiano’s Saturday press conference here.
To hear more perspective on how spring practice has gone so far for the Scarlet Knights, you can listen to our latest podcast episode featuring USA Today - New Jersey’s beat reporter Chris Iseman from earlier this week.