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.

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.