Rutgers is coming off a nine-win season and will be a really interesting team to watch in 2010. The Scarlet Knights have a lot of talent, but they will be one of the youngest, if not the youngest, team in the Big East this season.
That makes spring practice all the more important, and I caught up with head coach Greg Schiano this week to talk about Rutgers' spring drills, which begin March 23. This is Part I of my interview with Schiano; check back tomorrow for Part II.
What's the most pressing issue or concern for you going into the spring?
Greg Schiano: We're a really young football team. It's like 62 of our 85 scholarship players, when we report to training camp, will have three or four years of eligibility remaining. It's one of those deals where we've got to develop our younger players, but at the same time, it's not an excuse. That's who we are right now, and we've got to be able to go out and perform the best we can and hope that best is good enough, because we have good players. It's just that some of them are young.
Can you remember having a team this young before in your career?
GS: I don't know so much at Rutgers. Maybe a little bit in '05 or something. But I do remember that at other places. It's funny: Coaches think this is our year, that is our year. I've learned, you know what, you can't predict it. Every year has got to be our year. You've got to go out and believe that whoever is on your starting 11 is going to get it done. That's kind of the approach I take now. Injured guys, whatever, it doesn't matter. You have to win with what you've got.
Let's go position by position, starting with the offensive line. You lost three key starters. How do you see that unit right now?
GS: We have guys there. They've got to come through. You know, we didn't play very well on the offensive line last year, so to me, hopefully it's going to be an improvement. It needs to be an improvement. Not too long ago, we had the best offensive line in the country in sacks, rushing yards and all those things. We need to get that level of performance back.
I look at guys like Desmond Stapleton and Desmond Wynn, guys that haven't played a ton of football here but who are talented players. It's their turn, and they need to step up. A guy like Howard Barbieri, who played for us last year a good amount, he's now become a leader of that line. Art Forst, a guy who was probably forced into action before he was ready, now hopefully he's ready. Now is his time to really shine. A guy like Caleb Ruch, who played some, but he wasn't ready to play. He played because we had to play him. Now he's a junior.
I said earlier we have so many guys who have three years left. On the offensive line, we have a bunch of guys that have two years left. So hopefully that means they've been in our weight room now for three years. Offensive line is a little different position; the Anthony Davises who come and play right away are few and far between. These guys, I think they're good players. How fast they get good is going to have a big say in how fast we get good.
Who are you looking at to replace Davis at left tackle?
GS: I don't know. We'll kind of figure that out as we go along. One of the problems is Desmond Wynn won't be able to practice this spring. He's a guy who I think is talented enough to do it. He was a defensive linemen we moved to offensive line. I think Desmond Stapleton, Devon Watkis -- they aren't exactly household names but they can be good football players. They're all going to get a shot. You put the best guy there and then you move on.
And you moved Antwan Lowery, a big-time recruit a year ago, from defensive line to offensive line?
GS: Antwan's a very talented guy. We're not moving him there to be watching. I hope that he can go and do it. But you don't know until he does it. A guy once told me that potential is a French word for being fired.
Last year, you went into spring with one proven receiver (Tim Brown). This year, it seems a little bit like the same thing with Mohamed Sanu and some question marks. Would you agree with that assessment?
GS: I think the whole group that was inexperienced last year now has a year under their belt, so I think they're ready to perform at a higher level. I know they are. You can just see it in winter workouts; they're stronger, they're faster, they're bigger.
I think a guy like Mark Harrison, who did some things last year but was really wet behind the ears, physically he's got all the tools. Maybe even more so than Mohamed. He just needs to string together some time where he's healthy and he can learn. So I think we have some talent there. I think we recruited well at that position. It's all a matter of getting them some game experience.
But I think when you have a quarterback like Tom [Savage] and a guy like Mohamed who just love to play football, that are constantly in the facility throwing and catching and doing all that stuff, they bring all those other guys along for the ride. So I really look for that position group to take a jump.
It is remarkable how good Savage and Sanu were as true freshmen. How excited are you to see them continue to grow and develop?
GS: I'm really excited, and I think the best part about those guys is that they love the game. They're talented, obviously, but they're constantly wanting to throw and wanting to get together. That's something you can't coach; that's a desire. And it's one of the things that allows great players to become great.
D.C. Jefferson is talented guy who made some plays after being moved to tight end last year. Is he a guy you think is ready to step forward and be a major contributor?
GS: I hope so. I mean, physically there's probably none better in the country, just look at the guy. You talk about a guy who's a good athlete, he never played anything but quarterback his whole career, and we move him to tight end coming out of training camp and he actually contributes in games. And here's a guy who has three years remaining. I don't know if you've ever seen the guy in person, but he looks like he might have just walked off an NBA court somewhere. He really is physically what you're looking for.
So these are all talented guys; how fast they develop is, again, how good we're going to be. We have a bunch of young guys, but I don't use that as any kind of precursor. It's like wine sometimes; you can't rush it.
How about the running game? Joe Martinek rushed for nearly 1,000 yards, and DeAntwan "Rocket" Williams showed flashes of his potential. How do you think the running game stacks up now?
GS: I think it's wide open. Joe did perform well, and he's a tough, consistent guy, but I don't think we have a guy that really makes things happen still. I think Joe is the best of what we have, but I think the competition will be wide open and Joe will be part of that competition. Unfortunately DeAntwan is coming off an injury and probably won't do very much in the spring, and our two freshmen will not start until June.
So I think this will be a training camp competition to figure out who's the guy. And we have choices, we have a proven guy who's done it. We won nine games with Joe at tailback. But, again, that doesn't mean we're not setting out trying to be the best we can be. If Joe is that guy, so be it. If not, it will be one of the other guys.