By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Aug. 8, 2014) – For a while at Rutgers practice today there seemed to be as much of a commotion for what was happening off the field as on it.
A day that might normally have been one the players would have to fight through as preseason camp hits the dog days of summer became a more spirited session because of a slew of high-profile visitors – including the Big Ten Network, which had a game day-style set stationed at the northeast corner of the F-3 practice field.
Gerry DiNardo, Howard Griffith and Dave Revsine, part of BTN’s on-air talent, took in the entire two-hour practice, as did Tom Dienhart of BTN.com. Their observations and interviews from the day first air at 6 tonight on the Big Ten Network and then again at 9 p.m.
Several former Rutgers stars were on hand as well, including Brian Leonard, Marco Battaglia, Raheem Orr and Eric LeGrand. Orr was accompanied by the Elizabeth Packers, a youth football group he coaches.
“I thought we had a really energetic practice. I’m really excited about that,” head coach Kyle Flood said. “It was great to have BTN on set. We had some guests – a lot of guests, actually today – some I can talk about, some I can’t.
“The one group I can talk about, Raheem Orr, a former player here, brought down the Elizabeth Packers and it was awesome to see the excitement they had to watch practice. I think it’s a program that produced not only Raheem, but Khaseem Greene as well, and I think Ish Medley may have played in that program. (There has been) a lot of production in that program for Rutgers football so I thank them for coming and wish them the best of luck as they get their season started.”
Flood didn’t deny that the presence of Big Ten Network cameras and the larger-than-usual crowd motivated his players to work through what could have been an uninspired session in practice nine
“The cameras are on. I think it would be disingenuous to say the players don’t like that,” he said. “Players at this level get used to playing in front of big crowds and in front of cameras and to have a great crowd at practice and the Big Ten Network and Eric LeGrand and Raheem Orr on the sidelines … I saw Brian Leonard out there. I saw Marco Battaglia out there. They know they’re watching. Those are guys that played at a very high level and they’re trying to impress them.”
While Flood isn’t allowed to comment specifically on recruits he can speak in general terms about what those prospects and their families were watching as they took in practice as well.
“The recruits that you can’t talk about, those recruits that are here today, what they see in person is what we talk about, which is family,” Flood said. “It’s family for life. That’s why you see the former players coming back and being part of our program, whether it’s L.J. Smith at the Big Ten media days or Marco, who is officially a part of our family again on a daily basis, and guys like Raheem Orr and Brian Leonard, who love being around Rutgers football. It speaks volumes without saying a word.”
INJURY UPDATE: Starting guard Kaleb Johnson (lower body) injury is expected back Monday, Flood said, and there is no update on wide receiver Ruhann Peele (upper body injury), who remains for the opener against Washington State on Aug. 28.
“You guys noticed that Kaleb Johnson wasn’t out there today,” Flood said. “I think he’ll be back Monday, ready to go, so that’s a good thing. (Reserve offensive tackle) Bryan Leoni had to leave practice today so we’ll take a look at him and talk to the trainers and see what that’s about but I don’t expect that to be something that will go into the season.”
The temporary absence of Johnson and today’s loss of Leoni has one silver lining: The offensive line depth is being tested and showcased.
“It really forces it to happen,” Flood said. “You’re certainly not hoping that players get injured even if they are minor injuries. You’d rather stay completely healthy if you could.
“But injuries are a part of it and I said all along I knew we were going to need more (offensive linemen) than we had. To have a couple of these things happen in training camp it has really pushed a couple of these guys up the ladder and has given us a better look at them.
“A guy like J.J. Denman, Bryan Leoni up until today, a guy like Dorian Miller, Derrick Nelson. All of them are getting a significant amount of reps right now. It’s just like I said about the defensive backs yesterday. I’m pleased with the progress but we’ve got a ways to go still, but we’ve got three more weeks to do it.”
As for Peele, Flood said “I think it’s going to be a couple of weeks then we’ll have some updates for you.”
“As I said, he is doubtful for the first game,” he added. “Anything beyond that I would think it would be tough to judge it right now.”
Tomorrow's practice is open to the public as part of Fan Appreciation Day, with gates opening at noon and practice running from 12:45 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. Following that will be an autograph session with the players at High Point Solutions Stadium from 4 to 5 p.m. The redesigned Scarlet Knight mascot will be unveiled at 4:30 there.
True freshman defensive lineman Kevin Wilkins (Mahwah, N.J.) was finally approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse, which allowed the 6-3, 290-pounder to participate in his first practice on a limited basis.
"It’s something that took a little longer than we had hoped," Flood said. "But he’s here and he’s with us right now and he has to go through the acclimation period so today he’s (only) in a helmet and tomorrow he’ll be in a helmet and then he can put the pads on."
Wilkins starred at St. Joseph's (N.J.) High School.