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.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Brandon Coleman Declares for NFL Draft

Rutgers red shirt junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman has declared for the NFL Draft. He announced his intentions before the bowl game, and he is projected to be drafted some time between the second and fourth round. Coleman came into the season as a possible first round pick, but his stock took a hit as he never looked fully healthy coming off offseason knee surgery. Despite the down season, he still should be drafted high enough where you have no problem with him leaving early.

Coleman came to Rutgers as a four star recruit out of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, and he leaves tied for the school record in touchdown receptions with 20. Coleman earned second team all Big East honors as a sophomore in 2012 and he ends his Scarlet Knight career with 94 receptions and 1808 yards, in addition to the 20 touchdowns.

Unfortunately for Coleman, eighteen other receivers are entering the 2014 draft early, making this year's group of wide outs incredibly deep. This may cause him to drop further in the draft than he should, though a big performance at the combine (which I think he is very capable of) could separate him from guys like Jared Abbrederis, Davonte Adams and Bruce Ellington, putting him firmly in the second round mix. I have a feeling some team will fall in love with his size and speed combination and draft him that early. Can't teach that stuff.

Coleman is a big loss, but Rutgers has been well stocked at wide receiver for quite some time, and that will still be the case after his departure. Leonte Carroo took over as the team's go to receiver last year, and young guys like Andre Patton, Ruhan Peele, John Tsmis and Carlton Agudosi appear ready to step up into a bigger role. I wish Coleman would have stayed another year and hoped for better health and better quarterback play to boost his stock into the first round range, but I will never fault a guy who is projected to go in the top 3 rounds for leaving early. Best of luck to him.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Missed Opportunities Plague Rutgers in Pinstripe Bowl Loss

Rutgers dropped the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl to Notre Dame last month, by a score of 29-16. The Scarlet Knights fought hard all day and were surprisingly competitive through out the contest, keeping it to with in one score  for most of the afternoon, but if anything, saying "at least they were somewhat competitive" speaks volumes to the sorry state of the program at the moment and the defeatist attitude a lot of fans have. The loss c(r)apped off a miserable, forgetful season, which is now a losing one. Rutgers had numerous opportunities to take the lead and control of the game, but they blew nearly every one, thanks in large part to some extremely passive coaching.

Offensively, it was a pretty ugly afternoon for the Scarlet Knights. Their game plan seemed to be spreading the Irish out and throwing, while sprinkling in some read option, and it simply did not work. They had little success through the air, and the running game was also a non factor, as Paul James was banged up for much of the game. Rutgers went three and out on their opening series on offense, but they were given a golden opportunity when Notre Dame return man TJ Jones muffed the punt that was recovered by Quentin Gause. But of course, they could not cash in, as Chas Dodd missed a throw to an open Tyler Kroft that would have resulted in a first and goal situation or possibly a touchdown, so they had to settle for a 36 yard field goal from Kyle Federico.

 The only signs of life the Scarlet Knight offense had came late in the first quarter and through out the second quarter. Brandon Coleman finally looked somewhat healthy, and he hauled in a deep ball from Dodd for 51 yards, running past an Irish corner, to set up a 14 yard strike from Dodd to Coleman in the corner of the endzone, tying the game up at 10. Following a Dodd interception, James broke off his longest run of the afternoon, for 13 yards before getting hurt, and Kroft caught a pass for 17 yards to get into Notre Dame territory. Dodd then scrambled for 19 yards to get down to the goal line, but they could of course not punch it in. With James out, Justin Goodwin had to carry the rock in a short yardage situation, and that's not a role he's cut out for as a true freshman. I have no idea why they did not go to Savon Huggins in this situation, or even Michael Burton, but after not punching it in from the one, Dodd rushed a throw to a wide open Burton in the endone, and the ball landed at his feet. Rather than going for it, Rutgers kicked an 18 yard field goal. Why, in an opportunity to take the lead and control of the game they passed on this opportunity as an underdog, I have no idea. But we have come to expect this passiveness after Kyle Flood.

Rutgers again moved the ball on their next possession, thanks to a rare successful read option run, another reception from Kroft, and  an unsportsmanlike penalty called on Stephon Tuitt (shout out to 6'1'' 185 Ruhan Peele for trying to fight the 6'6'' 312 defensive lineman), and had a first down at the Irish 20. Ron Prince then dialed up a trick play, and it went horribly wrong as Goodwin's pass sailed short and into the waiting arms of KeiVarae Russell. Coleman was open in the back of the endzone, but with a defender in the area, Goodwin probably would have been better served eating it. This play drew a lot criticism, since they were moving the ball, but I have no problem with it. They have been very bad in the redzone, and part of "moving the ball" included a 15 yard penalty. A lot of offenses, South Carolina jumps to mind, tried trick plays in the red zone this bowl season and it worked for them. It was a good idea that ended up having a bad result. Rutgers got the ball back with 21 seconds left in the half near midfield with three time outs left and a chance to take a lead into the locker room, with the wind at their back......and they took a knee. I thought they should take a deep shot with Coleman or at least get two completions to get into field goal range, but Kyle Flood's passiveness struck again.

In the third quarter, the offense did absolutely nothing. Seven plays, one yard, that was it. Abysmal. Janarion Grant injected some life into the team early in the fourth quarter with a 54 yard kick return into plus territory, but they again had to settle for a field goal to make it 19-16. James seemed to get going a bit here, but a penalty and a sack stalled the drive out. Federico kicked it through the wind for 47 yards, that was actually pretty impressive. Dodd then threw another interception, and then another one into the endzone as time expired with the Knights down 13.

On defense, the Knights, bent and bent and bent, but did not fully break.They gave up a ton of yards --through the air in the first half and on the ground in the second half, but they tightened up in the redzone and held Notre Dame to mostly field goals on the afternoon. Even with Dave Brock out of the picture, the Knights still sat back in soft zone coverages and let the opposing QB take what ever he wanted. Three weeks wasn't enough time for Joe Rossi to completely over haul the system, but he didn't seem to add too many wrinkles either.

Tommy Rees took advantage of the ten yard cushion Rutgers was giving his receivers, and he led the Irish down to the eight on Notre Dame's opening drive. But when the Knights were forced to play more aggressively in the red zone, he miss fired on a few passes into the endzone, and they were held to only a field goal. Following his fumble, TJ Jones took over the second time the Irish had the ball, bringing down two passes for 33 yards before scoring from eight yards out on a jet sweep. Rutgers run defense stepped up on Notre Dame's first possession of the second quarter, as Darius Hamilton and Ike Holmes both made stops on runs up the middle, forcing a punt for the first time that afternoon.

Following a Dodd interception, the Knights defense was put in a tough spot, but they stepped up. the Irish started at the 22, but they were only able to advance one yard, and were held to a field goal to re-take the lead 13-10. Quentin Gause and Darius Hamilton both made tackles for loss on the next series, but Rees again took advantage of the cushion he was given, and advanced the ball into field goal range yet again, before being shut down in the redzone. But this time, the 44 yard attempt missed. Notre Dame started their final possession of the half at their own one, and they eventually punted.

After having trouble defending the pass in the first half, Rutgers had a big problem defending the run in the second half. The Irish came out of the locker room pounding the rock, taking a lot of time off the clock and putting the game away for good. They ran behind future first round pick tackle Zack Martin, and the under sized Scarlet Knight front could not find an answer. On Notre Dame's first possession of the half, it appeared that they would come away with no points after missing a field goal, but a very questionable roughing the kicker penalty gave Kyle Brindza another shot, and he connected. On the penalty, Nadir Barnwell came in off the edge and laid out like he was supposed to and avoided contact, but Brindza kicked him in his head on the follow through, and put on a pretty good show flopping around after the fact. That gave the Irish the lead, and they would never relinquish it.

Notre Dame continued to run right up the gut behind Martin in the fourth quarter, and they came away with yet another field goal, before plunging in for a three yard touchdown run to put the game away. Rutgers defense had been pretty strong against the run all season, but they really struggled in that department in the second half of this game. Their own offenses inability to pick up first downs and give them a rest was a big factor in this, as was the lack of depth on the defensive line late in the season after beginning the season with a lot of depth up front.

It was an ugly, forgettable day for both the offense and the defense, but Rutgers did not get run out of the building like most people expected. They missed out on plenty of opportunities, but they missed out on most of them. A win over Notre Dame going into the offseason would have given this program some much needed momentum, but they couldn't come through and the program heads to greener pastures in the Big 10 at the lowest point it has been in about a decade.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Rutgers to Face Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl

 It's kind of funny that in the year Rutgers has its worst bowl eligible team ever, they get to face their first marquee opponent in a bowl game. After years of playing 6-6 or mid major programs in the post season, the Scarlet Knights will get to face off against the biggest name in the sport, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on December 28. It will be Rutgers second trip in three seasons to the bowl game in the Bronx.

Coming off the ass whooping Alabama handed them in the national championship game a year ago, Notre Dame went 8-4 while playing a very difficult schedule this season. Since they have no conference tie in and did not qualify for a BCS bowl, the Irish had to settle for an at large bowl berth and they chose New York over San Diego as their destination.

Rutgers is 0-4 all time against Notre Dame, with their last meeting coming in 2002. That is obviously just a factoid and has little relevance now since a lot has changed since then, and the players playing in this game were in like fourth grade back then. The two schools did agree to a ten game series scheduled to begin in 2010, but it was called off all together before it began, since Notre Dame insisted that Rutgers "home games" be played in the Meadowlands after the agreement was reached. The arrogance of that program.....

This match up seems like a mismatch on paper, but the main importance of this bowl season for Rutgers is the additional fifteen practices they will receive in preparation for the game. The extra practice time allows the coaching staff to get a look at the inexperienced players on the team who might contribute next year, specifically at quarterback and on the offensive line. The extra teaching and player development is invaluable, especially since they are such a young team.

This game will be quite a challenge for Rutgers, but it is a good preview for what they will face next year, as Notre Dame plays a Big 10 style of football. Yankee Stadium will be packed with fans from both teams, and who knows, maybe Rutgers can steal this game and have some positive momentum going in to next year.