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June 23, 2008
THE SCHEME: This is a pro-style attack that's a nod to Greg Schiano's three seasons as an NFL assistant. There are plenty of two-back looks for an offense that loves to run behind the fullback. Once defenses commit to stopping the run, Rutgers hits them with play-action passes. Coordinator John McNulty is a rising star and has done a good job overseeing the unit, which last season became the first offense in NCAA history to feature a 3,000-yard passer, a 2,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers.
STAR POWER: People liked to criticize quarterback Mike Teel early in his career. He deserved it then, but not now. Teel threw for 3,147 yards, the second-best total in school history, and a school-record 20 TDs last season despite playing the last nine games with an injured thumb on his throwing hand. Now a fifth-year senior, Teel is in line to leave campus as the school's leading career passer. Still, there's one caveat: He needs to deliver big against the best teams in the Big East. He too often gets fat against the patsies while shrinking against better foes.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Caleb Ruch turned heads last season while he was redshirting. Now, he's ready to assume the starting spot at right guard. The coaches are excited about the potential of Ruch, whose biggest asset may be his strength. That power will be needed if Rutgers again wants to dominate up the middle.
IT'S HIS TIME: With both tackle slots open, the staff is banking on senior Mike Gilmartin claiming the job on the right side. He played sparingly in his first three seasons, but Gilmartin has developed strength and savvy in reserve and looks primed to put it all together under line coach Kyle Flood.
STRONGEST AREA: Wide receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood are big, proven targets who can go deep. Britt, a junior, set a school record in 2007 with 1,232 receiving yards. He also snagged eight touchdowns and averaged an eye-popping 19.9 yards per grab. Underwood, a senior, caught 65 passes for 1,100 yards and seven scores. He had a 248-yard effort against Buffalo. If the Scarlet Knights really want to turn up the heat, they insert diminutive speed demon Tim Brown, a 5-8 junior. Dennis Campbell is another undersized target (he's 5-9) who can stretch defenses. And don't forget about senior Kevin Brock, a part-time starter last season who is a nice blend of blocker and receiver and paces a strong group of tight ends.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line needs work because of the loss of three starters from a unit that yielded the second-fewest sacks (11) in the country. Ask anyone, and they'll tell you left tackle Anthony Davis is ticketed for all-star status. Davis played beyond his years last season, when he earned Freshman All-American accolades as a guard. If the Scarlet Knights want to have the physical ground game that has become a staple in New Brunswick, the big guys have to come together quickly. Junior center Ryan Blaszczyk (a Rimington watch list guy) and junior guard Kevin Haslam provide a good core inside.
OVERVIEW: In recent seasons, Rutgers has built everything around the ground game. But workhorse tailback Ray Rice is gone. Still, don't weep for Rutgers, which has a capable stable of alternatives led by Kordell Young - who missed much of last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Mason Robinson and redshirt freshmen Jordan Brooks (a bruiser) and Joe Martinek (New Jersey's leading career prep rusher) also bear watching. The Scarlet Knights won't abandon the rushing game, but don't be surprised if they lean more heavily on a veteran passing attack that looks like it could be the best in the Big East. Once defenses are loosened up by the passing game, there should be plenty of room for a new group of runners to operate behind an overhauled line.
THE SCHEME: Even though he has a linebacking corps that looks to be in transition, Schiano isn't going to back off from an attacking and blitzing style that has become a Rutgers trademark. Schiano, who serves as his own coordinator, operates a 4-3 scheme that he learned while coaching at Miami and Penn State. His job has been made easier as he has upped the talent level, giving him more speed to unleash when he calls one of his blitzes. Expect more attacking from a unit that generated 41 sacks in 2007.
STAR POWER: Most preseason defensive award watch lists include senior free safety Courtney Greene, who paced the squad with 101 tackles in 2007 and toyed with the notion of turning pro. He's the quarterback of what looks to be a strong secondary that also will feature veteran corners/twins Devin McCourty and Jason McCourty. Devin doubles as a special-teams demon (three blocked kicks in 2007), while Jason paced the club with 12 pass breakups. But everything begins and ends with Greene, who also can play strong safety, rarely is out of place, excels in coverage and is a sure tackler.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Linebacker Manny Abreu arrived amid much hype. He redshirted last season and now is poised to take over a starting spot at strongside linebacker. Abreu is quick and strong, able to take on blockers or sprint sideline to sideline to make plays.
IT'S HIS TIME: There is just one spot open in the secondary – strong safety – and it looks as if it belongs to Joe Lefeged, who earned mention as a Freshman All-American in some circles last season. Lefeged is a hard hitter who has shown a knack in run support. If he hones his ability in coverage, Lefeged could be a cut above, though he still will have to fight off a challenge from senior Glen Lee.
STRONGEST AREA: There's a lot to like on a unit that returns eight starters, but the best unit may be the line. It begins with Jamaal Westerman, who played end last season but likely will slide inside this season (he could play some end, too). He would give Rutgers a big-time pass-rush threat from the middle. Senior tackle Pete Tverdov is an anchor against the run inside. And keep an eye on incoming freshman tackle Scott Vallone, who looks as if he's game-ready. The depth looks good, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The closest thing to a worry is the linebacking corps, but only one starter must be replaced. Junior Ryan D'Imperio looks like he'll be the new guy in the middle. He's big, strong and tough, a classic Schiano player. Kevin Malast, the No. 2 tackler on the team in 2007 during his first year as a starter, and Damaso Munoz – who missed spring ball with a shoulder injury – are the returning starters. Malast likely remains a starter, but Munoz – who played in the middle last season – is expected to play outside this season, where he probably backs up Abreu.
OVERVIEW: Losing tackle Eric Foster, a playmaker inside, and strong safety Ron Girault, a spirited leader, hurts. However, there is enough returning talent for this defense to backstop a run at the Big East crown. The unit is Schiano's baby, as he has built a rugged and attacking group that has played some of the best defense in the nation in recent seasons.
Kicker Jeremy Ito is gone, leaving campus as the school's leading career scorer. Redshirt freshman San San Te steps into Ito's huge shoes. More bad news: Ito also was the punter, which means the worst punting team in the Big East will rely on the winner of a battle between junior college transfer Teddy Dellaganna and junior Matt Voliva. There is potential in the return game with Campbell.
Schiano's mantra is "keep chopping wood." That tells you all you need to know about one of the nation's most hard-nosed coaches. He has branded his image and likeness on one of the fastest growing programs in America. It's all about being accountable and working hard – and doing it on a consistent basis. Michigan came after him, but Schiano, 42, rebuffed the Wolverines, opting to stay in his native Jersey and continue building. Still, scuttlebutt persists that when the Penn State job opens, Schiano will be tapped. But he'll have none of that talk now. He is committed to getting Rutgers to a BCS game – and he's getting closer. Flood is considered one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation, and McNulty is a coach on the rise. There also are five new coaches. The biggest addition is Chris Rippon, who will coach special teams. Previously, Schiano didn't have a coach fully dedicated to special teams, so improvement is expected. Rippon coached special teams at Ole Miss the past three years. Rippon also knows the recruiting area. He was an assistant at Syracuse from 1993-2004 and forged some good special teams up north. Other new coaches are Ed Pinkham (secondary, from Colgate), Gary Brown (running backs, from Susquehanna), Gary Emanuel (defensive line, from San Jose State) and Kirk Ciarrocca (receivers, from Delaware, where he had been coordinator). Chris Hewitt moves from a part-time role to a full-time gig coaching cornerbacks.
In recent years, Rutgers has loaded up on patsies in its non-conference schedule. But no one will mock this season's lineup, which opens with visits from Fresno State and North Carolina and includes a trip to Navy. The visit from Fresno State was a late addition and will be a great litmus test for both programs. If the Fresno game doesn't show what the Scarlet Knights are made of, the Big East opener at West Virginia will. The Scarlet Knights haven't beaten the Mountaineers since 1994, and that has to end sometime. The trip to Morgantown kicks off an October that will make or break Rutgers: at West Virginia, at Cincinnati, UConn, at Pitt. The schedule features good spacing, as Rutgers will have three off weeks. More good news: Three of the last four games are at home, so a fast finish is in the offing.
For the first time in 138 years of Scarlet Knights football, Rutgers went to a bowl for a third consecutive season. Count on that streak hitting four. Schiano has things rolling, the momentum gaining steam as the school finishes a renovation of its stadium that will cost $102 million and be done in 2009. For the second year in a row, the school set an attendance record and the waiting list for season tickets is nearly 12,000. When work is done, Rutgers Stadium will hold 56,000. Yeah, it's good to be Schiano – and a Rutgers fan. The defense looks championship-caliber again. If the coaches can shore up the offensive line and find some capable runners, the Scarlet Knights could be a sleeper to win the Big East.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.