Intuitively the Rutgers football program looks to have strong upward momentum. Last year's stadium expansion pushed capacity at games up to 52,454. Ticket revenue is up five-fold in the past decade, with athletic donations also hitting record levels. On the heels of a once-unfathomable prospect of four straight bowl victories, there are more Scarlet Knights than ever in the NFL, and including three first-round draft picks over the past two years. Greg Schiano and staff now have the credibility to bring in numerous high caliber athletes.
With these successes have come rising expectations, causing a growing impatience among the Rutgers faithful. While happy with all progress made up to this point, there is also frustration, and an insatiable hunger for a Big East title. Coach Schiano has preached patience, with his emphasis on building rosters the right way through character, chemistry, and academics over the temptation to go for quick fix and cut corners. After missing BCS berths by a hair in 2006 and 2008, Rutgers fans understandably want to take the next step, and break through into the bowl championship series.
They point to what is lining up to be a top defense this year, and a promising young quarterback in Tom Savage, and wonder what could possibly be the hold up. Unfortunately, the program may still be a season away from that goal. Rutgers has around 70 scholarship players with two or more years of eligibility remaining on the roster. While the defense is expected to have a wealth of talent and experience, the offense will be young and green, with most of its top starters only sophomores.
Rutgers runs a mostly-pro style vertical passing attack, which has not emphasized the run as much since the departures of Ray Rice and Brian Leonard. Leading the charge will be 2009 Freshman All-Americans Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu. Savage, a top prep quarterback from suburban Philadelphia, combines a stout frame, considerable arm strength, pocket mobility, and surprising poise. Despite being thrown into the fire as a true freshman last fall, Savage enters into 2010 as the Big East's most experienced returning passer. The team's passing coordinator actually coached Joe Flacco at Delaware, so expectations are high that the training wheels come off this year, and Savage can turn all of his promise into production.
The versatile Sanu, originally a native of Sierra Leone, brings a dizzying array of multifaceted skills to the field. He actually enrolled early for spring practice as a safety, before switching on a whim of desperation to wide receiver. That did not stop him from turning in a standout performance in last year's spring game, en route to a breakout freshman season. Mohamed was then used as a starting receiver, in addition to playing quarterback in the Wildcat and punt return duties, to the tune of 1,063 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns.
Rutgers still had one of the worst offenses in the country last year. The primary causes were a general lack of experience and poor offensive line play, and those remain two top concerns entering the season. There is so little depth at quarterback that a true freshman is expected to serve as the primary backup, meaning that any injuries at the position would be devastating. While the entire line was inconsistent at best in 2009, they will have to break in several new starters, and prove that last season was an aberration. While this side of the ball should be generally much improved, it will still be rather shaky, especially considering the loss of receiver Tim Wright to a season-ending knee injury during training camp.
An aggressive, attacking, blitz-heavy pass rush has characterized Schiano’s defenses at Rutgers, and this year should be no exception. The former defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears likes to sacrifice size for speed. That is an approached derived from his mentors Dave Wannstedt and Butch Davis, which goes all the way back to Jimmy Johnson with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Hurricanes. Rutgers wants to bring in defenders from all angles and disrupt a passing game's timing.
Defensive backs become linebackers, linebackers ends, and ends turn into tackles, all with the intended goal of getting the defense's eleven best players on the field regardless of traditional personnel usage. That is why no one individual player usually wracks up eye-popping statistics or develops into an elite pro prospect. This team-oriented approach has proven effective at the college level, and the Scarlet Knights have finished second, fifth, 12th, 40th, and fourth respectively in the NCAA's sack rankings over the past five years. They like to go after opposing quarterbacks early and often, which has led to a reputation for knocking them out of games.
The only contested defensive battle at training camp is at corner, where senior Brandon Bing is looking to hold off heralded redshirt freshman Logan Ryan in the competition to replace Devin McCourty. There are few, if any, questions about the front seven, with a deep and talented pool of players at linebacker and in the defensive line rotation.
It is hard to choose any standout contributor when the team has proven apt at plugging in talented underclassmen right into its system, but keep an eye on sophomores Scott Vallone and Steve Beauharnais. Vallone looked unblockable at times as a redshirt freshman starter at defensive tackle last year. Beauharnais impressed after being thrown into action due to injuries last fall, and stood out during spring practice after moving to middle linebacker.
The Big East has an unbalanced home and away schedule due to only having eight total teams. Rutgers has the misfortune of only drawing three league home games this year, and two of those teams in Syracuse and Louisville are expected to be rebuilding. Most of the tougher league games are on the road, which could be another large obstacle on the path to winning the Big East. Rutgers has had the number of league favorite Pittsburgh and South Florida over the past few years, but has struggled with Cincinnati as of late, and has not beaten West Virginia in over fifteen years.
The out of conference slate is largely favorable, highlighted by a showdown against North Carolina on September 25th. The Tar Heels are expected to be very good this year, with the only question mark in their vaunted defense being concerns about the amateur eligibility of DT Marvin Austin. Rutgers will also play the first ever collegiate game in the New Meadowlands Stadium on October 16th. The matchup against Army will feature the two bowl subdivision teams from the New York City metropolitan area.
With such a young team, Rutgers is very fortunate to have three of its first four games this year be at home. North Carolina is the only real test before league play starts against Connecticut. It will be of utmost importance to use their early tune-up games to work out any kinks, and build momentum in preparation for the rougher second half. If they can get on a roll, then there is no reason why the Scarlet Knights cannot be right in the thick of this year's Big East race. In all likelihood, they will open up the inaugural New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in December, if only because no other team could be expected to pay the exorbitant ticket prices.
One of these days, "wait 'til next year" is no longer going to cut it, but they are probably a year away, though. A strong finish would poise Rutgers as the odds-on favorite to win the conference in 2011, and make them likely to start off next season ranked and with a ton of pre-season hype. Scarlet Knight fans will have to wait for now, sifting through a campaign fraught with peaks, valleys, and wildly inconsistent swings in between; all in the promise of a better tomorrow.
Rutgers opens the season on Thursday, Sept. 2nd in Piscataway, N.J. against Norfolk State. Tickets can be purchased directly from the athletic department's website, or at the Rutgers Stadium ticket office on game days.