As Rutgers head football coach Greg Schiano enters his 11th spring practice as the leader of the Rutgers football program, the Scarlet Knights are eager to get back on the field after a disappointing 2010 campaign. A program accustomed to winning – as evidence by five consecutive bowl trips from 2005-09, including four straight bowl championships – is ready to return to its winning ways. The first step back is the commencement of spring drills on March 29.
With 17 starters returning, the key parts are in place for the Scarlet Knights for a successful 2011.
The Rutgers offense returns to its roots as new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and the coaching staff will install a Pro Style attack this spring. With a returning starter at quarterback in Chas Dodd and an explosive group of wide receivers led by Mohamed Sanu and Mark Harrison, Rutgers has as much talent as any program at the skill positions going into spring drills.
Ten starters return on offense, including over 95 percent of the rushing and receiving yards from 2010 as the Scarlet Knights return a key core of talented players with experience.
Sophomore quarterback Chas Dodd returns as the team’s starting signal caller after appearing in 11 games as a true freshman, including seven starts. The South Carolina native showed uncanny poise and moxie as a rookie, leading Rutgers to two consecutive fourth-quarter victories versus UConn and Army. Dodd ended the season with 1,637 yards passing and 11 touchdowns, including two 300-yard performances under his belt.
The other lone scholarship quarterback for the Scarlet Knights in the spring will be junior Steve Shimko. He missed all of 2010 with a shoulder injury.
Running back will have a new look in the spring with promising sophomore Jeremy Deering making the transition from wide receiver to running back. Deering, who looked terrific as a ball carrier in the Wildcat formation in 2010, rushed for 361 yards and two touchdowns. The 361 yards were second on the squad and he averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
Junior De’Antwan Williams has averaged over 5.0 yards per carry over his first two years in Piscataway, but will look to become a more consistent back this spring. Last year, Williams rushed for 111 yards on 19 carries.
Joe Martinek, who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in 2009, injured his ankle in the second game of the 2010 season and the injury affected him the entire year. He rushed for 276 yards and four touchdowns in 2010. This spring, Martinek will move to fullback as the Scarlet Knights look to feature the position again in their Pro Style attack.
Another player to watch at fullback this spring is sophomore Marcus Thompson. The converted linebacker has tremendous strength and athleticism and could provide Rutgers with a physical presence at the fullback position.
Wide receiver must be a position of strength when you are able to move a promising player like Deering from wideout to running back. Rutgers has a stable of skilled wideouts, led by juniors Mohamed Sanu and Mark Harrison. Sanu was another player who battled nagging injuries a season ago, but he still managed to rank second on the squad in receiving yards (444) and third in rushing yards (309).
Harrison was perhaps the biggest breakthrough performer in 2010 for Rutgers as he finished the season with 44 receptions for 829 yards and nine touchdowns. His nine receiving scores ranked second in Rutgers’ single-season history.
In addition to Sanu and Harrison, Keith Stroud showed flashes in 2010 of becoming a big-time wide receiver and will look to continue his growth from last year. Another player to keep an eye on this spring is redshirt freshman Brandon Coleman. The Maryland native gives the Rutgers offense a different style of receiver – a tall, rangy 6-foot-6 athlete who could cause serious matchup problems for opposing defenses. Junior Tim Wright will also return to the field this spring after missing all of 2010 with a knee injury.
The offensive line struggled a season ago as four of the five starters earned major playing time for the first time in their careers. With the loss of just one of the team’s top 10 returning linemen, that group returns four starters and six players who logged significant minutes in 2010.
Senior left tackle Desmond Stapleton returns as the starter and had a solid first-year at left tackle for the Scarlet Knights. Other returning players with multiple starts under their belts include senior Desmond Wynn, senior Caleb Ruch, senior Art Forst and sophomore Antwan Lowery. Sophomore Andre Civil, a converted defensive lineman, started the season-finale at West Virginia at right tackle and looks to be another player who can be counted on in 2011 along with junior Devon Watkis.
Junior college signee Dallas Hendrikson replaces the only starter not returning – Howard Barbieri – at center. Hendrikson enrolled at Rutgers in January.
Tight end is a position that should be more involved in the new Pro Style offense. Junior D.C. Jefferson has all the tools to become an elite player in the nation at his position. A one-time quarterback for the Scarlet Knights, Jefferson has all the physical skills to become a force at tight end for RU. Last season, Jefferson caught 10 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. Sophomores Paul Carrezola and Malcolm Bush enter the spring with a golden opportunity to show the coaches they are ready to make a major impact at tight end and push Jefferson as the starter.
On defense, Rutgers must replace six starters, including the team’s top two tacklers in Antonio Lowery and Joe Lefeged, but the plethora of young talent is evident in scanning the roster.
The defensive line lost three of its four starters – along with co-starter Eric LeGrand – so this spring will be critical for some new faces to step up for the Scarlet Knights.
Junior defensive tackle Scott Vallone returns for his third year as the starter at his position and he has shown why he was such a highly-regarded recruit out of St. Anthony’s High School on Long Island. Vallone has started all 25 games of his two-year career and totaled 44 tackles (6.5 TFL) in 2010.
Senior Justin Francis looks to seize the opportunity of his first-year as a potential starter at defensive end. The Floridian has played both tackle and end during his career in Piscataway, but he makes the move full-time to defensive end this spring. He is coming off a 21-tackle season in 2010 with four tackles-for-loss and two sacks.
Another senior who has played a ton of football for the Scarlet Knights moves to a new position this spring as Manny Abreu moves from strongside linebacker to defensive end. Abreu totaled 48 tackles and five tackles-for-loss last season in 10 games, including eight starts. A knee injury versus Army forced Abreu to miss two games.
The position battles on the defensive line should be the most entertaining to watch this spring. Several players with vast physical talent and potential will have the opportunity to become full-time players. Sophomores Mike Larrow, Jamil Merrell, Isaac Holmes along with two freshmen who enrolled in the spring – Kenneth Kirksey and Djwany Mera – are all players to keep an eye on throughout spring drills.
Junior Steve Beauharnais returns to spearhead the linebacking corps for the Scarlet Knights. A starter for all 12 games at middle linebacker in 2010, Beauharnais is the team’s leading returning tackler after 79 stops last season. As a true freshman, Beauharnais played strongside linebacker, and could see time back at that spot this spring.
Fellow classmate Ka’Lial Glaud played in 12 games last year with two starts for an injured Abreu and should look to become a full-time starter in 2011. The South Jersey product had 19 tackles a season ago and will battle for a starting assignment at middle linebacker this spring.
Junior Khaseem Greene, who started all 12 games at free safety in 2010, moves to weakside linebacker this spring. The Elizabeth native finished with 77 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions last season and was known as one of the hardest hitters in the BIG EAST.
In the secondary, senior David Rowe returns as a two-year starter at cornerback, but could see time at safety this spring. In 2010, Rowe produced 38 tackles and five pass breakups in 12 starts for the Scarlet Knights.
Junior Marcus Cooper moved from wide receiver to cornerback a year ago and blossomed at his new position. The Connecticut native showed the ability to a be a big-time performer at corner for the Scarlet Knights in 2010 and should be a player to watch this spring as he looks to nail down the full-time starting assignment. Sophomore Logan Ryan played in 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and is another potential impact player at corner for the Scarlet Knights.
Cornerback will feature two new faces in senior Mason Robinson and sophomore Jordan Thomas. Thomas, who led Rutgers with 417 rushing yards last season, has top-flight speed and could make an immediate impact at the new position.
Two true freshmen who redshirted last year – Gareef Glashen and Rashad Knight – are two other enticing cornerback prospects to watch during spring drills in addition to junior Brandon Jones and true freshman Johnathan Aiken.
The safety position features the return of several players who have logged significant minutes during their careers. Juniors Duron Harmon, Patrick Kivlehan, Darrell Givens and Wayne Warren will all vie for playing time at safety along with promising redshirt freshmen Lorenzo Waters and Jawaun Wynn, who moves from wide receiver this spring.
Three-year starting place-kicker San San Te returns for the Scarlet Knights to give Rutgers one of the most experienced kickers in the nation. With the loss of three-year starter Teddy Dellaganna at punter, incoming true freshman Anthony DiPaula looks to secure the starting job this spring after enrolling in January. Robert Jones, who started all 12 games at long snapper in 2010, returns this spring along with redshirt freshman Rob Horrell, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury.