Every football coach in America talks about the importance of special teams. But only a few coaches in America have special-teams units that are truly special.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is one of them.
Throughout his tenure, Rutgers has produced one solid unit after another. This season is no exception. Rutgers has seven blocks in 2011, tied for second nationally. Only Fresno State (10) has more. Since 2002, Rutgers has 54 blocks to tie for second in the nation as well.
The importance of special teams is emphasized to every player at Rutgers from the day they set foot on campus. Not only is it a way for players to get extra playing time, special teams also is a way to make a huge impact in a game. Just ask starting cornerback Brandon Jones.
It was Jones who blocked the go-ahead field goal against Navy late in the fourth quarter, a play that allowed Rutgers to win 21-20.
"It was probably one of the greatest experiences I had playing football in my whole career," Jones said in a phone interview. "I knew the timing of it, and it was a game that was on the line. I knew somebody was going to block it. The fact that I was able to come through for my brothers, it meant a whole lot to me."
Rutgers has had special-teams wizards in the past, guys like Devin McCourty and Joe Lefeged. But Schiano says this year has been more of a group effort. Five different players have blocked a field goal, punt or extra point this season. Jamal Merrell leads the team with three.
"A culture has developed here," Schiano said. "We spend a lot of time on it. It's emphasized, and we really do play a lot of starters on our special teams."
Jones estimates the special-teams units are made of 75 percent starters. One of the big points of emphasis for Rutgers' special teams is speed. So there are some younger players who get an opportunity because they can be difference makers. Rutgers works on punt and field goal blocks during practice every day, so it gets to the point where Rutgers does not just hope for a big play to happen. Players go into the game expecting a big play on special teams to happen.
"We make our luck," said Jones, who is on the punt block, kickoff return and kickoff coverage teams. "The preparation throughout the week is you're going to get a block, we're going to get it done. If everybody does the details and technique correctly, it will happen."
As for the message Schiano sells on playing special teams, Jones said, "Coach puts a big emphasis on it because it's a way you can win a game. Every guy that's on the team wants to play on special teams. It's not a punishment, it's something everybody wants to do because it's another way we can go about winning a football game."
Indeed, when you look at some of the blocks this season, they came at opportune times. Jones saved the day against Navy. Merrell had a blocked extra point and a blocked field goal against Syracuse, a game Rutgers won in overtime. Without those plays, the Scarlet Knights might have lost. Rutgers ended up scoring a touchdown off the blocked field goal, so that was a huge turning point in the game.
The most recent was a blocked punt by Wayne Warren last week against Army, with Rutgers holding a slim 13-12 lead. Jordan Thomas picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown to swing momentum.
Aside from the blocks, Jeremy Deering has returned a kickoff for a touchdown and Rutgers has scored off a fumbled punt. The Scarlet Knights rank 11th nationally and lead the Big East in kickoff returns (25.5 yards per return). About the only part of the unit that has struggled has been kicker San San Te, who has missed 10 field goals this season.
"Sometimes it's kind of like a golfer in the middle of a round," Schiano said. "You can't fix it, but if you get on the range and you work the kinks out ‑‑ he knows what the problem is, he's just got to get it grooved out."