Thursday, August 28, 2014

Rutgers 2014 Season Preview: Offensive Line

I don't know why Alexander and Lumpkin were cropped out of this picture
The offensive line seemed to be one of Rutgers' greatest strengths heading into last season, but the unit ended up falling well shot of expectations. The big uglies got off to a nice start, but really fell apart down the stretch. The coaching staff made some very questionable line up decisions upfront, benching all Big East guard Antwan Lowrey, moving all Big East left tackle Kaleb Johnson to guard and inexplicably benching Betim Bujari towards the end of the season, and they did not appear to work out at all. This season, Rutgers returns all five starters on the offensive line, but the position seems like a question mark, despite all the experience they have returning.

Betim Bujari has been the anchor of Rutgers offensive line for the last two seasons at the center position. It was when he was injured and subsequently benched when healthy that things started going south for this position group, and I don't think that is a coincidence. Bujari is a very intelligent player and he plays a vital role in making calls at the line and setting up protections. He is solid as both a run blocker and a pass protector and he is adept at double team blocks and getting to the second level. For the second consecutive season, he was named to the preseason watch for the Rimington Award given to the best center nationally.

Returning at left guard is four year starter Kaleb Johnson, and this is the first time he will start at the same position in successive seasons. Although he was very good as a tackle, the coaching staff felt that his best position as guard, and that's where he is a fairly highly regarded pro prospect after another very good season as a junior. Johnson is a well rounded lineman, providing the toughness and strength to move people at the point of attack and the athleticism to pull, execute reach blocks and protect the passer. He is arguably the top NFL prospect on the team, and he very well could earn some all Big 10 recognition with the big season he is expected to have.

Opposite Johnson at right guard is Chris Muller. Muller was a heralded recruit and he had some ups and downs in his red shirt freshman campaign that saw him start 12 games. Muller is a very good run blocker who has the strength, power and nastiness to move big defensive lineman out of the way and create a hole with extreme prejudice. However, he struggled mightily in pass protection and not only allowed some sacks and pressures, but committed a number of holding penalties when he got beat. He played in a run heavy offense in high school, so he was pretty raw last year and should be better this year. Muller has a ton of upside and it's on new offensive line coach Mitch Browning to help him achieve that potential.

At left tackle is Keith Lumpkin, who checks in at a massive 6'8'' and posses rare athleticism for a player that size. His length and athleticism should make him an outstanding pass blocker, but he struggled at times last year with his technique and gave up a few sacks. Like with Muller, this is a guy who has a very high ceiling and will need Browning to push him there to achieve it. If he added some strength to help him in the run game and he worked out the kins in his pass blocking technique, he will be a guy who will catch the attention of pro scouts.

And finally at right tackle is Taj Alexander. The converted defensive lineman has started a bunch of games for the Scarlet Knights the last two years and the coaches really seem to like him. He is a bit undersized for a right tackle, and he doesn't fit the traditional road grater mold,, but he is very athletic and can seal the edges in the run game and provide solid pass protections.

Rutgers does not have a sixth lineman who can back up every position, but they still have some quality depth up front on offense. The trio of red shirt sophomores Derrick Nelson (center), Ryan Brodie (guard) and JJ Denman (tackle) were big parts of the outstanding 2012 recruiting class Rutgers brought in and they figure to get their feet wet at the college level before potentially stepping into starting roles a year from now.
Red shirt freshman Dorian Miller --the lone offensive lineman from the 2013 recruiting class-- could see some playing time as well, and Kyle FLood's biggest recruiting victory in the 2014 period Marcus Applefieldcould be the future at left tackle.

I am cautiously optimistic about the offensive line. Obviously Big 10 defenses are known for having very good defensive lines so they will be challenged week in and week out, but I think they will be up for it. Browning has a ton of talent to work with and if he can polish these players who have strong tool sets, it's easy to envision the offensive line being one of the team's greatest strengths like it was supposed to be last year.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Rutgers 2014 Season Preview: The Runningbacks

It has been quite a while since runningback was a strength for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have had one 1,000 yard rusher since Ray Rice's final season in 2007 (Jawan Jamison in 2012), and their overall rushing numbers as a team since Rice's departure have been down right putrid. Part of that is because of the is because of the offensive line's well documented struggles, but they haven't exactly gotten great play from their runningbacks over the last six seasons either. But things figure to change for the better at the position this season.

Paul James went from walk on to lightly used scholarship player to back up to starter during his first three seasons in Piscataway, and he is on the verge of becoming a well known player across the nation in his red shirt junior campaign. James does not have the flashy size or speed but he is a perfect fit for Rutgers offense. James posses tremendous vision, balance, patience and quickness, giving him the ability to find the hole in the Knights' zone blocking system, make one cut and run. James rushed for 881 yards (5.65yards per carry) last season and scored 9 touchdowns in 10 games. The only thing that could prevent him from being one of the top rushers in the Big 10 this year will be health, which was a big problem for him last season. He suffered a number of leg injuries of various degrees last season, and I wonder if he will reeive a limited number of carries a game to aliviate the durability concerns.

Backing up James should be sophmore Justin Goodwin, but he has been moved to the defensive side of the bll for......some reason. Goodwin had a strong freshman season in 2013, rushing for 521 yards and 5 touchdowns as James' back up, but it is unknown whetether they will use him on both sides of the ball or just on defense, If his offensive days are in fact donw, that will be a shame because he, like James, is a perfect fit for their offense with outstanding vision and shiftiness. Yes, Rutgers needs help at defensive back, but they really arein no position to give up depth at runningback considering James' injury issues. It's just robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Desmond Peoples seems to be the actual back up, and he does not have a ton of experience heading into his red shirt sophmore season, Peoples is a smaller back, but he is very fast. I don't know how much of a load he will be able to carry should James go down or if he will be able to run up the middle like a traditional back, but his speed on the outside and ability to catch the football make him an intriguing weapon.

Two of the few bright spots in Rutgers2014 recruiting class --Rob Martin and Josh Hicks-- could contribute right away as true freshman. Hicks has impressive speed to go along with some power, while Hicks is more  in the mold of James and Goodwin.

Senior Savon Huggins has not been practicing and he seems likely to redshirt this season because of an injury. He has been a disappointment, but you never want to lose depth. He will have one last shot to turn his career around in 2015.

Very few teams in college football use a fullback anymore, but Rutgers is one of them and they have a great one. Senior Michael Burton will be a fourth year starter, and he can do it all. He is a powerful lead blocker who can knock defenders back at the point of attack, and he can catch the ball out of the back field and provide surprising speed as a ball carrier, good enough that he can sub in at tailback on occasion. It's a shame the the fullback position is so unheralded, because I feel that his is one of Rutgers best players and he does not get the attention for it.

Backing up Burton is Sam Bergen and Jacob Kraut, who was one of only 5 fullbacks ranked by Rivals.com in the 2014 recruiting period.

 The offensive line will have some say in this of course, but I think Rutgers is finally in position to have a strong rushing attack again, thanks to their backs. Paul James should eclipse the 1000 yard mark, health permitting, and Michael Burton should clear out the holes for which ever runningback he is lead blocking for. I have no idea what to expect out of Peoples as the back up, but I think either Martin or Hicks could step in as the back up and provide a positive impact right away. James and Burton may not be Leonard and Rice, but they are damn good in their own regard and could carry the Scarlet Knights to their best rushing performnce since the days those two were on the banks.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Rutgers Fills Out Coaching Staff

 Rutgers' seven week search for a defensive coordinator came to its' merciful conclusion shortly after Ralph Friedgen was hired as offensive coordinator, with interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi having the interim tag removed. Rossi was the Scarlet Knights' special teams coordinator the past two seasons, and he was the defensive coordinator at Maine prior to that.

Rossi ran the defense through out bowl preparation, but he really did not change anything scheme wise from what Dave Cohen had been running the entire season. The defense did not play poorly in the Pinstripe Bowl, but they weren't exactly great either. It's not really fair to judge Rossi based on this one game because it was a small sample size, first of all, and two weeks isn't enough time for a complete overhaul.

I think that Rossi is capable of becoming a pretty good coordinator, but this is a pretty risky move for Kyle Flood. Rossi has only coached at the FBS level for two seasons, and there were a few very good coordinators available. Former Rutgers defensive coordinator Robb Smith, former Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani, former Penn State linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden all supposedly interviewed for the position and former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was available as well. Vanderlinden (now at Air Force) and Bradley (now at West Virginia) would have been pretty cheap hires, and passing over Smith seemed like a monetary issue. It was reported that Smith was on the verge of accepting the position, but right after Fridgen was hired, he chose to take the same position with Arkansas, presumably because there wasn't enough money left over to offer him. That's concerning, and an example of Julie Hermann not fully committing to the football program.

I would guess that Rossi was promoted in part to bring back the fast, attacking style of defense that Rutgers has had so much success running in the past and went away from last season. That type of scheme best suits their personnel and there should not be much of a transitional period, as it would be with any of the a fore mentioned candidates. Rossi is a smart coach who will bring a lot of energy back to the defensive side of the ball, but this seems like such a boon or bust hire to me, because of his relative lack of a track record. Then again, I felt the same way about Smith's hiring a few years ago, and that of course worked out for the best. Hopefully this does too, Rossi could be a rising star. I am not a fan of  NJ.com's Rutgers football coverage lately, but this is a very good profile on Rossi.

Replacing Cohen as the linebackers coach and Rossi as the special teams coordinator is former Rutgers assistant Bob Frasier, who left after the 2011 season to join Greg Schiano's staff in Tampa Bay. Frasier was the defensive coordinator (though we know who really ran the defense when he was here) and linebacker coach previously on the banks. He did a very good job coaching linebackers during his first tenure, and I would expect him to do the same this time around. Rutgers has had one of the best special teams unit in the country for a few years now, and Frasier was here for part of that. He doesn't bring a lot of juice recruiting wise, but if he is able to coach linebackers like he did his first time around and continue the great special teams play, he will be a fine hire.

The final addition Kyle Flood made to his staff this offseason was Ben McDaniels as the wide receiver coach. McDaniels --whose brother Josh was the head coach of the Denver Broncos-- was the assistant quarterbacks coach with the Buccaneers last season, and on his brother's staff in Denver prior to that. His only college coaching experience was as a grad assistant at Minnesota from 2004-05. McDaniels has worked exclusively with quarterbacks, but he is perfectly capable of coaching receivers, the two positions go hand in hand. I'm really not sure what to make of McDaniels, but it's easy to be optimistic about this hire. His NFL experience is obviously a plus, and he is a younger coach with very strong ties in Ohio (he coached at a couple Ohio high schools and his dad is a legendary coach in the state), so I think he will be an asset on the recruiting trail.

Additionally, former Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel was added as a graduate assistant and he will work with the wide receivers. Teel coached quarterbacks at Wagner (FCS) and Kean (D3), and he obviously is very familiar with the program and knowledgeable about the passing game. I've always been a big fan of Teel, so hopefully this eventually leads to him getting a full time position on the staff.

I'm going to take a wait and see approach to some of these hiring, but none of them seem bad and Rutgers' coaching staff has pretty clearly improved this offseason. Friedgen is deservedly the headliner of the new crew, but Frasier will no doubt be a solid addition and McDaniels and Rossi are high upside guys (weird writing that about coaches) who will probably be upgrades over the coaches they are replacing. Rutgers is about to take a big step up in competition level, and they made somewhat of a step up on the coaching staff front too.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Rutgers Brings in the Fridge

With Kyle Flood firmly on the proverbial hot seat, he really needed to make a big move in his search for two new coordinators. He did just that on the offensive side of the ball, bringing former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen aboard to run the team's offense. Friedgen will be the fifth Scarlet Knight offensive coordinator in as many seasons, and he will be the highest paid assistant coach in school history as he is set to make $1 million over the course of his two year deal. Friedgen is a brilliant offensive mind, Sports Illustrated once called him the number one mind in college football, and he represents a big time addition that will bring some positive attention to Rutgers as they prepare to complete their transition into the Big 10.

The Fridge had a very successful tenure as the head coach at Maryland, going 75-50 in his ten years with the Terps, winning one conference title and five bowl games along the way. He was the two time recipient of the ACC coach of the year award (won in 2001 and 2010, his first and final seasons), and he led a pretty big turn around for the program that had not been to a bowl game in the ten years prior to his arrival. Despite all that, he was unceremoniously fired by his alma mater following a 9-4 2010 season in which the Terripans finished ranked in the top 25 for the fourth time in his tenure. The reason behind his dismissal was reportedly because Maryland wanted to court Mike Leach and Gus Malzahn, since they were worried about the long term future of the program after head coach in waiting James Franklin -yes that guy- took the head job at Vanderbilt. Maryland of course missed out on both of them and ended up hiring Randy Edsall.

Friedgen has not coached during the three seasons since his firing, and he told Bruce Feldman a few months ago that he had turned down some opportunities to get back into coaching and was waiting for the right situation. One of those opportunities he turned down was actually at Rutgers, after Flood made a run at him before hiring Ron Prince a year ago. It has also been speculated that Virginia Tech was another program that attempted to hire him last year, since he and Frank Beamer coached together at The Citadel and Murray State in the '70's. But as Tom Luicci reported, Friedgen did not want to take a job last year because his daughter was getting married during football season. There is little doubt in my mind that Rutgers is the right situation for him in part because he wants to stick it to Maryland, whom he had a messy separation from (he claims to have burnt his diploma).

Friedgen has not been an offensive coordinator in 15 years, but he has an outstanding track record running offenses. He was the long time coordinator for Bobby Ross, spending 25 years with him at Maryland, Georgia Tech, and with the San Diego Chargers. With the Terrapins in the early '80's, he had strong offenses that featured  future NFL quarterbacks like Boomer Esiason and Frank Reich, whom he had a hand in developing. When he moved on to Georgia Tech he was part of the Yellow Jackets' national championship team in 1990, and won the Broyles Award given to the nation's top assistant coach in 1991. He eventually followed Ross to the NFL with the San Diego Chargers, and he helped guide the Bolts to the Super Bowl in 1994. He then returned to Georgia Tech in the late '90's and coached Joe Hamilton, who finished second in the 1999 Heisman voting. He took over as the head coach at Maryland in 2001.

As the head man at Maryland, the Terrapins went through some extreme highs and lows offensively. They had very good offenses early in his tenure before completely cratering in the middle and bouncing back to being very good towards the end. I'm not really sure why this was the case, but it seems quite odd. The Terps did have a very good offense in his final season at the helm, and that's probably the most relevant season right now.

Schematically, Friedgen is not necessarily married to one particular scheme. He says he like to mold his playbook to the talent he has to work with, and he has thus run a little bit of everything. Spread, pro style, one back, two backs, man blocking, zone blocking, you name it. He's been doing this a long time, so you have to have the utmost confidence in him figuring out the best way to utilize the talent he has to work with at Rutgers. During his final season at Maryland, the Terps were a vertical passing offense in order to feature Torrey Smith's talents, and a few years prior to that they leaned a lot on star tight end Vernon Davis.

No matter the scheme, Freidgen likes to keep his offense balanced. As he so correctly put it, balance does not mean calling an equal number of pass plays and run plays. Balance means having the ability to beat the defense with either the pass or the run at any given time. The Fridge has traditionally tried to establish the run early in order to open up the vertical passing game.

As an old school offensive lineman, Fridgen likes man /gap blocking techniques, but he also realize that because of today's defensive schemes, it is much easier to run the ball using zone techniques. Because of the background coach Flood and offensive line coach Mitch Browning have, I would imagine Rutgers will be a mostly zone running team under Fridge. One interesting thing I found in researching Fridgen is that he likes to run the ball out of one back sets with two tight ends, one lined up on each side of the line. This creates a balanced formation and one extra gap that the defense has to account for, and you can run a stretch play to the outside or a dive inside to either side and outflank the defense, while still being able to throw the ball. (This is something Boise State did a lot when they had Doug Martin).

One question that will remain to be seen for Friedgen is what kind of an impact he will have on recruiting. He is a well respected offensive mind,and should ease most doubts recruits have about the offense, but how much will of an effect will he have going out on the recruiting trail? He is an older coach who probably does not like traveling a lot, but if he can win recruits over when they are on campus, that should be good enough.

Rumor had it that former Rutgers and Buccaneers tight ends coach Brian Angelicho was the front runner for this position, but he decided to stay in the NFL and join the Cleveland Browns staff, leading to the some what surprising hire of Friedgen. Angelicho is an outstanding recruiter and has been a coordinator before, but Rutgers is definitely better off with Friedgen.

Ironically, the Fridge had a big impact on mentoring current Penn State coach James Franklin and former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien. Franklin called the Fridge a genius during his introductory press conference in Happy Valley, and Rutgers hilariously used Franklin's quote in their official press release for Fridgen's hiring. Hopefully the teacher will be able to outsmart his student come September 13.

Fridegen is an absolutely fantastic hire, and I do not think Rutgers could have possibly done any better than him. It's a home run. He is a big time hire that brings name recognition and a great history of running offenses to the banks. This also (somewhat) shows that Rutgers is ready to spend money to compete with the big boys of the Big 10. I had mentioned Friedgen as someone I wanted Rutgers to hire the last couple of years, so needless to say I am absolutely ecstatic with this hire. He will have his work cut out for him developing one of the quarterbacks on the roster into being a reliable passer, but if he does that, I think Rutgers will have a tremendous offense this season and hopefully beyond.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Ron Prince Leaves Rutgers to Join The Detriot Lions' Coaching Staff

Rutgers will have their fifth different offensive coordinator in five years in 2014, as Ron Prince has left to become the tight ends coach and assistant head coach of the Detroit Lions. Prince will re-join new head coach Jim Caldwell in Detroit, after he had previously coached under him with the Indianapolis Colts from 2010-2011.

When Prince was hired, I wrote that while he is a pretty good offensive coordinator, Rutgers needed someone who was very good working with quarterbacks, and that proved to be accurate. Prince did a good job preparing the offense and calling plays, but the quarterback problems were ultimately too much for the unit to over come. The Scarlet Knight offense was great through the first five games of the season, but fizzled out towards the middle and late portion of the season as Gary Nova regressed and there were no viable alternatives to him.

I liked that Prince tried to keep the offense balanced and spread the ball around to different receivers, and was looking forward to see if he could develop someone at quarterback now that he had added QB coaching duties, but it wasn't to be. It seemed like Prince would stick around for more than one year when he was hired, but he was making a pretty low salary for a BCS level coordinator, and it's not terribly surprising to see him leave.

Prince's departure has already hurt Rutgers, as the vacancy at offensive coordinator led to Rutgers' top committed prospect --wide receiver Saeed Blacknall of Manalapan, NJ-- to flip his commitment to Penn State. Often times, you will see college assistants wait until after national signing day to leave for NFL jobs (this happened when Schiano took a lot of Rutgers assistants with him to Tampa), but that unfortunately did not happen here.

Prince was a good coach on the banks, but Rutgers has actually upgraded at offensive coordinator in wake of his departure. More to come on that.....

Philip Nelson Transfers To Rutgers, Two Others Leave, and Ian Thomas?

 -Former Minnesota Quarterback Philip Nelson has decided to transfer to Rutgers. The Big 10 has very strict inter-conference transfer rules, but those penalties do not apply to Nelson, since Rutgers has not yet officially joined the league. Nelson, who will have two years of eligibility remaining beginning in 2015, left Minnesota in order to join a team that puts more emphasis on the passing game.

Nelson was the number two prospect in Minnesota coming out of high school, and he started 16 games for the Gophers over the past two seasons. In his college career, he has completed 50% of his passes for 2179 yards (6.5 YPA) with 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He is also pretty adept as a runner, compiling 548 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground. Nelson will probably be in the mix to start in 2015, but I think he would be best served as a back up. I'm not really sold on him as a passer, though he could improve.

-It has been quite an odd year for Rutgers' football program and the athletic department as a whole, but I'm pretty confident saying the weirdness of this has topped everything else. Corner back Ian Thomas, the redshirt freshman who started four games for Rutgers in 2013 before quitting the team to pursue a career in baseball, has re-joined the football program. Thomas not only quit the team in the middle of the season, but as you may recall, he pretty much called Kyle Flood a liar in the media, causing an even bigger media circus around the program.

It's pretty incomprehensible how weird this situation is, but if Flood and players are willing to accept him back, we as fans should as well. Flood said that Thomas will have to work his way back up from the bottom, and that's how it should be. If he can in fact work his way back, he would provide a tremendous boost to the young secondary that struggled last year and was lacking depth.

-Elsewhere, freshman defensive lineman Josh Klecko and Nick Internicola have decided to transfer. Both players were red shirted this year, and Klecko has decided to go to Fordham in pursuit of a better opportunity to play, while Internicola (a Florida native) wants to be closer to home.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mitch Browning is the New Offensive Line Coach

Shortly after firing three assistant coaches following the regular season, Kyle Flood filled one of his staff vacancies before the bowl game by tabbing Mitch Browning as his new offensive line coach. Browning, who spent the 2013 season at FCS Davidson, was afforded the opportunity to observe his position group through out bowl preparation, just to get some idea of what the group he will be coaching next year will look like. Browning has an unusual resume, having a lot of success early in his career and not so much as of late, but I think this is a pretty solid hire.

Browning began his career spending 21 mostly successful seasons as an assistant under Glenn Mason, coaching a variety of positions for him at Kent State, Kansas and Minnesota. With the Golden Gophers, he coached the offensive line and eventually earned coordinator duties. Minnesota had one of the best rushing attacks in the country while he was there, and they set a Big 10 record for total yards in a season in 2003 with 6,430 yards. He was a finalist for the Broyals award given to the nation's top assistant for his work that year.  His lines were very good, but it's worth mentioning that Marion Barber III and Lawrence Maroney were Minnesota's running backs at this time.

Following Mason's dismissal from Minnesota after the most epic bowl collapse of all time in 2006, Browning has been unable to land a stable job. Since his time with the Gophers ended, he has served one season as the offensive coordinator at Syracuse (2008), one season as the co-offensive line coach at Tennessee (2009), two seasons as the offensive line coach at Akron (2010-11), one season at Division 2 Ashland and the one season at Davidson. That recent history isn't exactly inspiring, but Flood chalked up these career difficulties to his lack of connections in the coaching industry after spending so much time with Mason. That at least makes some sense.

Browning has been a proponent of the zone blocking scheme Flood prefers (which Rutgers actually went away from a lot in 2013), and you can watch some cut ups of his offenses running inside (Demarcus Ware cameo at 2:23) and outside zone plays from his time at Minnesota if you are interested. It looks like he teaches cut blocking. I love that.

For what it's worth, Mason praised his old colleague, calling him "(his) best coach and best recruiter. A rare combination." Browning has been known to be very good in the player development department, and that is probably the most important thing for offensive line coaches, since offensive lineman face the biggest transition of any position going from high school to college ball. And if he can improve recruiting, that would be gravy, since Rutgers has missed out on a lot of their offensive line targets in recent years, with 2012 of course being the exception.

Despite the uninspiring recent history, I think Browning is a pretty solid hire. He was a very good offensive line coach at Minnesota, and that Big10 experience will of course be very valuable moving forward. Rutgers has had trouble running the football for quite a few years now, and Browning's previous work at least provides some hope for improvement this year, even with the step up in competition.