There are three annual spring awards that Rutgers football traditionally announces during the Scarlet-White game and tonight was no exception. After the awards were infamously suspended during the Chris Ash Era, they were quickly reinstated upon the return of Greg Schiano as head coach of the program. The awards began in the over three decades ago and are named after former players Mark Mills and Douglas Smith as well as legendary coach and player Frank Burns.
Mills was a fullback and Smith was a defensive lineman in the early 80’s. Both players died from brain conditions after experiencing symptoms during spring practice just two years apart from each other. Burns went 27-7 as the starting quarterback at Rutgers in the 40’s and is the all-time winningest coach in program history.
Here are the winners for this spring camp:
The Mark Mills Second Effort Award - Most Improved Offensive Player
Center Ireland Brown, who has changed positions in his career multiple times since transferring in from Boston College, was named the most improved player on the offensive side of the ball. It’s encouraging that an offensive lineman won the award and credit Brown for persevering through adversity in his career to achieve such an accomplishment. It’s too early to tell how big of a role Brown will play next season, but he has certainly put himself in a position to be in the mix heading into training camp after starting six games at left guard last fall.
Greg Schiano on Ireland Brown:
“Ireland started the year, the spring at guard. After four practices, we made the move to center. We just thought that he had that kind of fast twitch, and he does. I mean, I think he can be as good as he wants to be. He really improved quite a bit. He did a good job the first four practices but from practice five on, he really picked it up. You know, centers, people kind of take it for granted, especially in a shotgun offense. They just take that snap for granted. Well, that’s not the easiest thing in the world. If that’s all you had to do, it’s easy. But you have to snap it, and then you have to block somebody, and that other guy doesn’t have to snap it. He just has to get off on ball. It’s really a lot harder than people think. So you’ve really got to be a pretty good athlete to do it, and with he and Gus, I think we have some good depth at the position now.”
Last year’s winner - Right Tackle Hollin Pierce
Past offensive players to win the Mills Award include current players Bo and Max Melton’s father, Gary, as well as Terrell Willis, Marco Battaglia, Kevin Haslam, Kenny Britt, Tim Wright, and Janarion Grant.
The Douglas A. Smith Award - Most Improved Defensive Player
Linebacker Deion Jennings has also switched positions in his career and had plenty of opportunity to make an impression this spring at a position of need for Rutgers. With the college careers of veterans Olakunle Fatukasi, Tyshon Fogg, Tyreek Maddox-Williams and Drew Singleton now over and Tyreem Powell, Mo Toure and Moses Walker out with injuries, Jennings took advantage and made major strides this spring. Hopefully, this gives him momentum headed into the summer and he can make a major impact next season. The fifth year player has seen action in 34 career games with 65 tackles and three passes defended.
Greg Schiano on Deion Jennings:
“Deion is a really talented guy. Deion had some bad luck with the injury. Then he needed the surgery, so he missed the whole spring, last spring. He’s really made big improvement and I think he’s a Big Ten linebacker, I do. I think he’s going to have a really good season. We need all hands on deck. That room right now is light with the injuries.
“We are hopeful that Mo can come back but he may not be able to and we’re preparing as if he’s not and if he does, that’s going to be great. So we’re going to try to uncover every stone and see whether it’s outside our program or even inside our program to make sure we have the ample linebacker depth to go compete for a whole Big Ten season. But Deion is definitely right in the middle of those plans and he’s really made huge improvements in our 14 practices. I have no idea if he played well tonight or not. I didn’t really watch him but he sure did have 14 good practices.”
Last year’s winner - Linebacker Tyreem Powell
Past defensive players to win the Smith Award include Harry Swayne, Jay Bellamy, Gary Brackett, Jason McCourty, Pete Tverdov, Khaseem Greene, Quentin Gause and lastly Saquan Hampton.
The Frank R. Burns Award
This prestigious award is given to the player who “displays extraordinary mental and physical toughness” during spring practice. Matt Alaimo has made 18 catches for 133 yards in 33 games for Rutgers the past three seasons after transferring in from UCLA. He’s steadily improved in his career and tight end is a position that the program is hoping to make a strength next season. Alaimo plays alongside Johnny Langan, who impressed last season after switching over from quarterback. Credit Alaimo for establishing his own reputation as a tough player and earning this award. He could see plenty of snaps next season if he continues to develop.
Greg Schiano on Matt Alaimo:
“Matt played this entire spring in a lot of pain but he knows he’s going to have to have a procedure done at the end of the spring, and he’ll be fine. You know, probably somewhere middle of June back to normal. But he could do the spring with it, and it got worse as spring went on. But he’s going to go get the procedure and he’s going to be fine. And all he did was go out to practice every day and just give it up for this team. We were down, oh, at one point, well, tonight, we only had four tight ends on the roster. The rest of them were injured or recovering from injury.”
“So there was a couple times when Matt laid out for catches and I didn’t think he was going to get up, and he said, give me a minute and he got up and gave them a minute and he was okay. I knew he was in pain. But that’s part of our game, right. There’s a difference between playing with pain and playing with injury. If you’re not going to hurt it worse, then you know you’re going to need the procedure. Matt made the decision to help the team, and I thought that was really, really big of him and especially a guy who has got game experience. I mean, Matt’s got a lot of snaps under his belt and he did it for the team.”
Last year’s winner - Cornerback Robert Longerbeam
Past recipients include Ryan Neill, Kevin Malast, Pete Tverdov, Mason Robinson, and KaLail Glaud.
It’s a great thing that the program honors three former players with these awards as they all deserve to be remembered. Last season, all three winners made an impact at their respective positions. Hopefully, Brown, Jennings, and Alaimo can do the same this coming fall.