Postcard from camp: Rutgers
Scarlet Knights expect to build on breakout season
Posted: Thursday August 16, 2007 7:38PM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 6:46PM
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Camp was five days old, temperatures were high in the 90s and the air had that New Jersey, sits-on-you kind of thickness. Greg Schiano's players were of course still running gassers, as they did every previous day.
Only this time, one of the skill guys sagged at the very end, slowing up right at the sideline -- and sending Schiano into a conniption fit.
"Finish!" the reigning Walter Camp Coach of the Year screeched. "Those last three yards? You know what that is? It's coming up short in triple overtime!"
Oh, last year's headline-grabbing, Empire State Building-lighting Cinderella season is very much on the Scarlet Knights' minds. It's just not in a scrapbook kind of way.
A year ago, Rutgers went from laughingstock to hot topic, achieving its highest-ever ranking and, albeit briefly, entering the national title conversation. But it was in triple overtime, at West Virginia, that Rutgers fell one two-point conversion short of what would've been the Big East championship and a trip to the Orange Bowl. Instead the Scarlet Knights went to the $500,000 Texas Bowl (loser Kansas State actually received $250,000 more), and while Schiano's far too careful to publicly denigrate the game that gave college football's oldest program its first-ever postseason trophy, the word "Texas" has been heard at nearly every practice.
"To be honest, last year was a disappointment," All-America defensive tackle Eric Foster said. "We finished third in the Big East. We went to the Texas Bowl. The attention was nice, but that wasn't our goal. We are here to compete for the national championship and any other thing doesn't matter."
1. When a team gets officially good, there's a noticeable difference between the vets and the new guys. Rutgers has never had this many talented freshmen as it does now. And yet, through the first half of camp, not even Anthony Davis (one of the nation's top two lineman prospects) is a starter.
The Scarlet Knights have now run the same offense for four years, the same defense -- which Schiano coordinates -- for three. Both require brains and discipline and now, Schiano said, "a lot of the kids that are playing, that are starting, really understand it very well. Before, I don't know that our older kids really had such a great grasp on it relative to the young kids."
Still, some of those young kids will play. They're too talented not to.
2. There may not be a quarterback better suited to lead this team than Mike Teel. Football-wise, Rutgers will be a much better team if Heisman candidate Ray Rice doesn't have to again carry the ball 335 times. It's on Teel to open up the offense and spread the ball to the Big East's deepest, most talented receiving corps. He's heady and hungry, and a year after practically doing the playcalling with his nearly flawless checks, the junior is now identifying fronts for the O-line and making protection calls. Of course, a lot of quarterbacks could probably do that. It's the other stuff that makes Teel, just elected a captain, inimitable.
Those young receivers dropped a ton of passes last year (like in the end zone, at West Virginia), and he never pulled an Eli Manning and hung his head. He's preternaturally calm, totally even-keeled, and he'll readily take the blame for someone else's error if he can. He shrugged off the hate mail he got last year (he's gone 13-3 as a starter, by the way), and he's equally dismissive of the preseason publications that have fingered him as Rutgers' weakness. Senior tackle Jeremy Zuttah says it's Teel who "keeps me in line." Rice, who's already gotten all the attention, says, "Mike's our leader."
3. It is absolutely bewildering how this team still doesn't have a middle linebacker. Four-year starter Devraun Thompson is gone -- and looking more and more underappreciated each day.
The Scarlet Knights' high-pressure, hyper-aggressive, quarterback-eating defense was one of the nation's stingiest a year ago. The Knights run-blitzed and corner-blitzed, sacking Louisville's Brian Brohm five times and causing Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt to admiringly call Schiano's scheme "reckless." Hiding their look until the snap won't happen, though, without a 'mike' who knows what he's doing.
Former fullback Chris Quaye and sophomore Blair Bines split first-team reps last week, junior Damaso Munoz has gotten a shot there this week and Schiano's still waiting for someone to take hold.