Rutgers begins spring practice on Tuesday, looking to rebound from a tough 4-8 season. I recently caught up with Scarlet Knights head coach Greg Schiano to preview the team's spring. Here is Part I of our conversation:
You made a lot of changes this offseason, from your coaching moves to personnel switches. Was it just the difficult season that made you think you needed change?
Greg Schiano: Obviously, when you have a tough season like last year, it makes you really examine. The other thing is, it allows you more time to examine. When you're at a bowl game every year and recruiting, there really isn't time until after recruiting to spend just evaluating your program. When we ended in December, and then there wast that break over the holidays, I had a lot of time to evaluate recruiting, to evaluate our football program, to evaluate the things we've been able to accomplish in 10 years and things we haven't been able to accomplish. It was a good exercise in looking at both short-term goals and long-term goals. What are the things that are going to allow us to do what we ultimately aspire to do, and what are the things that can help us immediately? And they are not always the same things.
So we worked real hard to do what I felt gave us the best chance to be good in 2011 and ultimately become the best at some point. Hopefully we did that. I'm excited about where we're headed. We made some position changes to best utilize the talent of our players, and we were able to do that because I think we really redshirted some fine players last year. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn't have redshirted so many of them. But we have a lot of guys who can contribute after being in our program for a year, and it gave us some flexibility in other spots.
You talked about getting more speed on the field when you announced position changes. How much was getting faster one of your main goals this offseason?
GS: Without a doubt. We built this program on speed. When evaluating and choosing who to recruit and who to push to get, if it was really close, we always went with speed as our determining factor. And in watching the video, I didn't think we looked like a fast football team, especially in the second half of the year. That can be attributed to a lot of things, but we did some testing, which you generally can't do when you're involved in bowl practices and recruiting. But when we ended [our season], we went right into a mini-winter program and did some testing to get a baseline. It was the true speed of guys, because they weren't training for it. Guys that were playing certain positions were not at the speed level they had been in the past.
There's not one big thing, there's an accumulation of a lot of little things and a lot of introspection that led me to do the changes we did. Getting the speed in the right positions is the most important thing. We had them on the bus, but we didn't have them in the right seats.
You hired Frank Cignetti to run the offense. How important was it to you to get back to a pro-style attack that you had a few years ago?
GS: We made a decision two years ago -- and I ultimately made the decision -- to go in another direction. And after doing it, I wasn't comfortable with it. Rather than continuing down that path, we're going to go with what we're comfortable with. So we're going back to what I really feel strongly about, and we have the personnel to do it -- I hope we do. We'll continue to recruit for that. The thing you get away from is recruiting a fullback when you're not using the kind of offense we're going to use now. So that may take another year or two to catch up, but I think we have some guys who will fill out and be good fullbacks in what we're trying to do.
How do you think the transition will go to the new offense this spring?
GS: I think it will go smoothly. Frank and the staff involved have done a very good job this offseason with the time we're alowed to meeting them in introducing it. Now we'll get out there on the field and install it all. There's a good mix of three guys on that offensive staff who were here last year and two new guys, and with Frank's leadership, I'm really comfortable there. Now, we'll see how it goes in the spring, but I think when you look at our skill players, we have a lot of guys who have gotten some experience now. Some of them have made a lot of plays while getting their experience, and they're on the other side of the hill now, in that they've played a lot of football. This is a new offense to learn, and I'm anxious to see.
The offensive line, I think, has gotten better this offseason. Now, we'll see how that translates to the game of football. But I do think the things we're going to ask them to do are going to be more in their skill set, and I think the football will be coming out quicker as well. I hope all of those things combined will lead to a much better job on the offensive line, because we were really not good up front on offense last year, and that has to change.
You say the line has gotten better. How do you tell that in the offseason?
GS: With big men, there are two things you need to be able to do. Number 1 is, be strong, and I don't mean the weight room as much as functional strength. And Number 2 is, you need to be able to bend. Our strength was average; I wouldn't say we were overly strong, but it wasn't horrible either. But we really played with our pad level too high. So we really emphasized bending, and I see us bending a lot better. So hopefully those two things, being a little bit stronger and bending better, and in an offense where there's more cumulative repetitions over time, I think we're going to get better.
And we added a guy, in [center] Dallas Hendrickson, I haven't seen him play for us, but I've seen him play in junior college. He's going to be really good in that position, and everyone else is going to be a year older, stronger and drilled just a bit more thoroughly. So hopefully that will lead to better results.
You moved some guys around on that line last year. Do you anticipate doing that again, or do you have set positions in mind this spring?
GS: We moved Andre Civil over from defense, and we moved Antwan Lowery over from defense. I think those two guys, it's their time now. They need to perform. Civil is an extraordinary athlete. He should be able to do this. Lowery is an incredibly strong guy, he should be able to do this. Desmond Wynn and Art Forst have played a lot of football. It's just a matter of getting the best five on the field. We've got a young guy named David Osei that I think has a chance now after being in our program for two years. I think what will happen, finally, is we'll have some competition on the offensive line. No matter how dedicated a guy is, competition is still key, because everybody needs to be pushed.
Moving Jeremy Deering to running back, was that just because you liked the way he ran the Wildcat last year?
GS: That was part of it, plus I think we have some good depth at the wide receiver position. And there will be opportunities -- just because he's called a running back doesn't mean he won't play wideout. It will give you some really good matchup possibilities. I really think De'Antwan Williams has had an exceptional offseason. I'm excited to see him. He was as highly touted a running back as there was coming out of high school. It's been a rocky couple of years, but I think he's in great shape, and he's totally committed to what he's doing.
We moved Aaron Hayward to the position, let's see what he can do. Let's see what Jawan Jamison can do -- he was a very good running back in high school. And certainly with the two kids we signed, Savon Huggins and Ben Martin, I think finally we have a little bit of depth at the position and there will be great competition. I don't particularly care who it is that does it, I just want whoever rises to the top.
GS: I'm excited about our skill. The thing that's lost a little bit about our season last year is that, from Game 3 on, Joe Martinek couldn't perform. Sanu, from Game 5 on, couldn't perform. So you were looking at guys who were hurt all year. Timmy Wright, going into last preseason, he was the guy I was most excited about and was performing the best of all our wideouts, and in the second practice of the year he goes down with a knee. A kid that was really highly recruited out of high school, Brandon Coleman, he redshirted and he's 6-7, 6-6, an incredibly lanky receiver who, when we did our testing, ran very, very well -- for anybody, forget that he's 6-foot-7. Then we were able to recruit well to the position as well, with Miles Shuler coming in.
So I am excited about the skill, and Frank is very good -- having coached against him several times -- he's definitely got an NFL mentality as far as matchups and personnel and all that. I think he'll utilize them very, very well. We've still got to block, though, as you and I both know. And part of blocking is getting rid of the ball. We've got to get rid of the football, and move the launch points and all those things. So we'll see.