As the birthplace of college football starts the 2011 season, there are a surprising number of optimists about this year’s Rutgers team. This time last year, hopes were high coming off a St. Petersburg Bowl win over Central Florida and featuring two standout sophomores on offense in Mohammed Sanu and Tom Savage.
By the end of the year, Rutgers had finished 4-8 and for the first time in five seasons, missed a bowl game. Savage, a former U.S. Army All-American, had transferred to Arizona and the specter of Eric Legrand’s devastating spinal injury left the football program in a daze. The offensive line was a wreck, the defense had lost its hard-hitting identity and Rutgers games felt eerily like the losing program from a decade ago.
Head coach Greg Schiano certainly had his work cut out for him.
But after a solid spring season, including the signing of a top-30 recruiting class highlighted by St. Peter’s Prep running back Savon Huggins (listed by famed recruiting analyst Tom Lemming as the second-best player in the nation), there is a sense that Rutgers has turned the corner.
Winning the Big East -- something Rutgers has never done -- might be a bit much for this year’s group, but can Rutgers flip last year’s record and be a winner once again?
Rutgers Will Make a Bowl Game If
1. The Chas Is On
Not much was expected of Dodd last year, as the incoming freshman was supposed to redshirt behind Savage and be slowly developed. As Rutgers was the only college to officially offer Dodd out of high school, the perhaps generously listed 6-foot-1 Dodd was seen as a project. He starred for perennial powerhouse Byrnes out of Duncan, S.C. and Dodd carried that into his freshman year. He wrestled the starting role from an inconsistent Savage and threw for 1,637 yards and 11 touchdowns. If Dodd can adjust to the new pro-style offense implemented this spring -- and the style should fit his quick release well -- then Rutgers can flip last season’s record and start a new bowl streak.
2. The D-Line Steps Up
The only known quantity along the defensive line is Scott Vallone, the powerful and long tackle who was a four-star recruit out of high school and has definite NFL potential. But the defensive line is young right now, with up and comers like Michael Larrow, a redshirt sophomore, looking to get worked into the mix and linebacker Manny Abreu being converted to an end. There is a 2006 feel to the front four -- reminiscent of the season when Schiano used a smaller line and lots of movement and blitzes to overcome their size disadvantage. It worked then -- producing an 11-2 season and the program’s first ever bowl win. But the shifty line only works if there is speed coming off the edge, which Rutgers may not have this time around. If they can’t get that bit of explosiveness then the line could get pushed around, which could lead to field days for rushers like Pitt’s Raymond Graham.
3. The New Coaches Work
In the winter of 2005, Rutgers capitalized on Syracuse’s firing of Paul Pasqualoni to swoop in and get a commitment from a recruit out of New Rochelle, N.Y. named Ray Rice. Three years after he signed that letter of intent, Rice left Rutgers for the NFL with two bowl wins and the program firmly established in the Big East. Now, after a disappointing if not dismal 2010 season, Schiano and company capitalized on Pitt firing Dave Wannstedt this past January to grab several recruits and a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti and secondary coach in Jeff Halfey. The offense was horrible a season ago and led the nation in sacks conceded, relying mainly on gimmicks out of the Wildcat to move the ball. Cignetti’s use of the tight end and a talented receiving corps should revive the offense. Hafley is a bit of a project as a coach, but is a master recruiter and helped shore up last year’s crop of incoming freshmen. He has helped shape this year’s commits into a potential top-25 class.
Follow Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.