by Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (July 7, 2014) – Joe Rossi understands the challenges Rutgers’ defense is facing this football season better than anyone. But he also has plenty of reasons for optimism that the unit will improve dramatically following a nightmarish statistical season – even if the competition will be ratcheted up in the Scarlet Knights’ inaugural Big Ten season.
Talent, depth, much-needed experience – and a drive to be good that is reflected in the players’ work ethic. That’s what Rossi is banking on for producing better results in his first season as defensive coordinator (he was Rutgers’ special teams coordinator last year).
Scarletknights.com recently caught up with Rossi to get his thoughts on the defense, his expectations for it and what it means to be a Big Ten defensive coordinator:
Q. Before you were named defensive coordinator in the offseason you served in that capacity on an interim basis for the Pinstripe Bowl. What was that experience like for you?
JR: “It was exciting. Obviously, you never want those to be the circumstances. But it happened and coach (Kyle) Flood made the decision. It was great to get back and do it again because I really enjoy doing it. I love coaching defense. It was exciting to get the opportunity to do it in the bowl game.”
Q. What was it like to then go through an entire spring as the new defensive coordinator?
JR: “Every place that you coordinate is slightly different, just because it’s a different head coach. It is a different level of football from when I did it last time (at the University of Maine from 2009-11). But it was very similar. The people were different. The players were different. The pieces are different. But that’s how it is every year. So there were some slight differences. For the most part it was similar.”
Q. What jumped out at you about this defense after going through the spring?
JR: “We have guys who care. We have players who want to be successful. There is not an issue with effort. There’s not an issue for want with our players. When you have that you have a chance to be successful.”
Q. After seeing the defense roughed up at times last year how will you measure improvement this year – and how much improvement is reasonable to expect?
JR: “At the end of the day it’s about how many points you give up. That’s ultimately what a defense is gauged on, because the fewer points you give up the better chance you have to win. So that will ultimately be the gauge. For the bowl game one of the things we strived for was to not give up big plays in the pass game – and we were able to do that. Now we want to take that further by saying `okay we’ve established that, now let’s be able to defend the passes better.’ But it isn’t a yardage thing. It’s an overall feeling of `what do we have to do to limit points?’ ”
Q. After points allowed, what else do you emphasize from a statistical standpoint on defense?
JR: “Our philosophy is: No. 1 to stop the run, No. 2 to limit big plays and No. 3 to create takeaways. That’s our defensive philosophy. When we talk to our players we don’t necessarily talk to them about points allowed. We talk to them about what actually allows you to not give up points. Through statistical analysis we feel if we stop the run, limit big plays and create takeaways we ultimately won’t give up points.
“Last year we did a good job stopping the run. But we gave up too many big plays and we didn’t create takeaways. During the spring those things were emphasized and I think our guys heard the message.”
Q. How much growth do you expect the secondary to make?
JR: “It’s a gradual process. As a freshman you’re not going to get to where you would perform as a senior off one off-season. But I expect a good amount of growth because they’ve had a year in the weight room, they’ve had a year in the same defense. So there’s some carryover for them and some issues that maybe were issues for them last year won’t be issues going forward.”
Q. What do you hope to gain with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder switching linebacker spots?
JR: “Longa is a guy who has proven he’s a playmaker. He made a lot of plays for us last year. He runs well. He’s explosive. So the will (weak side) position kind of lends itself to his attributes. Snyder is a bigger kid. He’s got more size. Playing in the middle, at mike, he has to take on more blocks. The size is something that will help him at the mike position. The other thing is the mike in a lot of ways quarterbacks our defense with a lot of calls and checks and Kevin is one of the smartest -- if not the smartest – guys we have on defense in terms of knowledge and understanding things. So that role kind of fits him.”
Q. How do you see the defensive line shaking out with at least two new starters?
JR: “We’ve got a lot of depth there. I see us playing eight or nine guys a game. That part of it will help keep us fresh and help keep us from getting worn down. There’s depth now. As we move into a new league we’d like to get longer (bigger) along the defensive line and we’ve started to get longer there. You look at the guys we have on our roster now and they’re longer than the guys we had three or four years ago. I’m talking about the Sebastian Josephs, the Kemoko Turays, the Julian Pinnix-Odricks. And then guys we’re bringing in this year. Those are longer-type players, which will ultimately allow for a bigger frame.
“But at the end of the day we are who we are: We’re a movement-based defense. We’re going to move our defensive line, we’re going to blitz, we’re going to stunt. So we’re never going to be a team that has 330-pound guys across the board and going to sit two-gap. That’s just not who we are defensively.”
Q. Personality-wise, what do you bring to the defense?
JR: “I like for us to practice hard and I like for us to play hard. I think if that’s what you expect then that’s what you have to bring yourself. I also feel I bring attention to detail and making sure what guys really understand what they’re being asked to do.”
Q. Is there something different about being a Big Ten defensive coordinator?
JR: “For me, I’ll say this and I’m serious when I do: For me, there’s not. I think for other people there is. People who look at it from the outside, yeah. For me, I’ve always been a guy who felt wherever I am that’s always been the most important job to me. When I was coordinating defense in front of 2,000 people at a Division 3 school (Thiel College), that was big time to me. Then having the chance to do it in the bowl game (last year), that was a little bigger stadium. Now it’s going even bigger stadiums in the Big Ten. To me it’s not a big deal.”
Q. What will the opener against pass-happy Washington State tell you – since you may not see another offense quite like that the rest of the season?
JR: “I’m excited for the opportunity, and the reason is this: Obviously we know where our weaknesses were last year. We’re going to get an opportunity in our first game to put that to rest. So I view it as a positive. Just the chance to go out and face that offense, which I view as very similar to the SMU offense in some of the things that they do – they come from the same family, the Air Raid family – is a great challenge. They’re well coached. Coach Mike Leach has done it for a long time at a high level. So it’s a big challenge.”