Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2000: 3-8)
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Coach and programNow, itís up to one of their own. After wandering through the wilderness under the unsteady hand of West Coast offense-meister Terry Shea, Rutgers has turned to former Miami defensive coordinator and (most importantly) New Jersey native Greg Schiano to bring respectability and prosperity to the program. Itís a big job. Some might say itís an impossible job.
Just not Schiano. The 34-year old is brimming with optimism, which either makes him crazy or incredibly sure of himself. Anybody who has paid close attention to the Rutgers program the last 20 years realizes that it is just a step or two ahead of the miserable standards set by perennial NCAA dogs Kansas State and Oregon State before they became powerhouses under other coaches who were brimming with optimism.
If the Wildcats and Beavers could make it to double-figure win seasons and BCS games, why canít the Knights?
Itís no secret that New Jersey is filled with talent every year. If Schiano can convince the best players in the state to join his team each year, then the Knights will be good. Just imagine what it would have been like in New Brunswick had Ron Dayne stayed home. And how good would the Rutgers offense look this season with Chris Simms at quarterback, or even Matt LoVecchio? Thatís just for starters.
ďI think everybody in New Jersey wants this to be a power,Ē Schiano said.
Schiano has come home, and he pledges to stick around for a while, not just turn the Knights around and then bolt for a better job. Heís telling the recruits the same thing. Stay home and make Rutgers a winner. Commit to the program.
Meanwhile, Schiano is trying to change the programís culture. It began during the offseason, with a conditioning program that had two goals: first to get everybody in great shape and second to change the losing attitude that had permeated the program. Both were accomplished.
Rutgers lost more than 2000 pounds of ďgoo,Ē as the Knight coaches call it, an average of about 40 pounds per man. And by the end of spring practice, Schiano could see a more aggressive, confident team. Itís hard to tell whether that will make a difference Sept. 8 at Miami, but itís a good first step.
OffenseThis cannot be considered a strength for the Knights. Gone is Mike McMahon, who despite completing just 49.7 percent of his throws last year (for 2,157 yards, 18 scores and 17 interceptions) was still picked in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
His departure leaves the Knights with junior Chad Schwenk (6-2, 200) as the main man under center. In five games last year, Schwenk completed 45.3 percent of 75 passes for 330 yards, just one touchdown and four interceptions.
The Knights bring back a pair of starters at running back, including leading rusher Dennis Thomas, a 6-1, 225-pound senior. If Thomas can pick up where he left off at the end of last year, when he rushed for 331 yards in Rutgersí final three games, the Knights will be in good shape.
The main receiver lines up at tight end. Although senior L.J. Smith (6-4, 225) sat out during the spring to work on his grades and to fight a minor injury, he will be ready come fall and should give Rutgers a big weapon in the passing game. Smith caught 34 passes for 374 yards and scored once last year.
Defense and special teamsThere are some familiar names up front, although no one should get comfortable, not with freshmen Davon Clark (6-4, 285) from Paterson (N.J.) Catholic High School and Ryan Neill (6-3, 225) from Wayne Hills (N.J.) coming in. Both could play right away.
Among the holdovers, the most interesting player is senior Torrance Heggie (6-5, 230), who has been moved from rush linebacker to left end. Heggie played the last part of the 2000 season with a painful groin injury but still made 64 tackles, 10 of which came behind the line, and posted five sacks.
ďThe linebackers are the strength of our team,Ē Schiano said. ďWeíve got some depth there.Ē
Start with junior middle man Raheem Orr (6-4, 240), who made it through spring drills without any academic incidents, a good sign, because he missed the last two seasons concentrating on the books. Orr smacked people around last year as a member of the scout team and would like to bring that nastiness to the varsity this season.
The cornerbacks return to their customary positions. Juniors Brandon Haw (6-0, 180) and DeWayne Thompson (5-9, 185) started last year but need to be more productive. The tandem accounted for just one interception (Thompsonís) all year.
Rutgers fans had to smile when Schiano said he would be overseeing the special teams personally. The Knights had four punts and a placement try blocked last year. That canít happen again.
Bottom lineThe decision to hire Schiano was great one by Mulcahy. Even though he doesnít have the name recognition of some of the other candidates out there, and he hasnít been a head coach before, the 34-year old has all the ingredients (and then some) to lead the Knights to prosperity.
Just donít expect a whole lot this year. The quarterback situation is shaky, the offensive line needs work, and there are precious few playmakers on offense. The defense will be better, but the front four lacks a monster capable of mandating a double team every play.
If Rutgers somehow makes it to five wins this year, Schiano deserves serious coach-of-the-year consideration. But heís not looking for that kind of acclaim. Heís thinking big, and that means the big picture. If Rutgers plays right and hard this year and eliminates some of its historical gaffes, he will be happy -- for now.