Greg Schiano doesn't want any of his players to see Rutgers' 5-7 record last year for anything except what it was: A good season that wasn't quite good enough. After engineering the nation's fourth-best turnaround last fall and generating excitement in Rutgers football, the Knights' fourth-year coach spent the offseason toning it down.
The reason? "We haven't done anything," he said. "We've improved by Rutgers standards, by what's happened here in the past, but we're not even close to where we should be or can be.
"We have to guard against a little bit of success and everyone telling the kids they've done a great job. A 5-7 season is not a great job. It's just a small step along the path. But as we've said all along, if we keep going in the right direction we'll get there."
Schiano couldn't have picked a better time to have a team brimming with returning talent and a program building momentum. The revamped Big East is in a transitional year and has been reduced to seven schools for the 2004 season. National powers Miami and Virginia Tech have moved on to the ACC.
Expectations are that Rutgers will produce its first winning season since 1992 -- and receive just the school's second bowl bid.
"We're building on the 5-7, but we're definitely not satisfied with that," quarterback Ryan Hart said.
OffenseCraig Ver Steeg made just one mistake in his first year as Rutgers' offensive coordinator last fall: He left little room for improvement for his second year. Ver Steeg oversaw a unit that produced the second-highest totals in school history for total yards, points and first downs while setting the mark for passing yards.
Hart was the triggerman, setting school records for passing yards (2,714), attempts (398) and completions (234). He'll have nine returning offensive starters to work with this year. Wide receivers Tres Moses and Shawn Tucker both caught 50 passes or more, as did running back Brian Leonard, who led the team in receptions (53), rushing yards (880) and touchdowns (14) as a redshirt freshman.
Hart needs to stay healthy, and the offensive line has to avoid any down time among the starters for the Knights' to have continued success.
DefenseThe Knights' front seven could be the school's best in more than a decade, even with the graduation of standout defensive end Raheem Orr. The return of Ryan Neill to the position, after he missed all of last year following knee surgery, should ease Orr's loss.
Val Barnaby and Piana Lukabu made major strides at the end spots last year. Gary Gibson and Luis Rivas return to their starting tackle spots but will be pushed by Nate Robinson and David Harley. Rutgers is deep and experienced up front.
Five of the top six linebackers return, and if they can stay healthy -- which they couldn't do last season -- the Knights should show marked improvement. William Beckford returns after missing the final five games with a knee injury. DeVraun Thompson and Will Gilkison are both proven and experienced starters now. Thompson started four games at middle linebacker as a true freshman last year. Berkeley Hutchinson, Brad Cunningham, Terry Bynes and Quintero Frierson provide quality depth.
The secondary is a concern despite the return of strong safety Jarvis Johnson, who led the team in tackles last year with 97. Eddie Grimes and Derrick Roberson are the frontrunners for the open cornerback spots. As was the case all of last year, free safety is again up for grabs -- with the same trio of players competing.
SpecialistsJoe Radigan is entrenched as the punter for the next three years after a solid season as a redshirt freshman. The Knights hope true freshman Jeremy Ito will be the answer to their erratic placekicking.
Moses was second in the Big East in punt returns last year, but the team is without a proven kick returner.
Final AnalysisSchiano has been pointing to this season since he arrived four years ago and vowed to do what only one other Rutgers coach has done -- deliver a bowl bid. The program hasn't had a winning season since 1992, but last year's promising 5-7 season with a young team has the Knights poised for a breakthrough year. Proven talent abounds and the schedule is reasonable -- helped by a revamped Big East that no longer includes Miami and Virginia Tech. This is a team capable of having a winning season and playing in a bowl.