PISCATAWAY, NJ – After 13 days of training camp, encompassing 19 practices, the Rutgers football team is now faced with its greatest challenge of camp - fighting through the common minor injuries that accompany so much physical exertion.
"Camp has taken its toll on our football team," said head coach Greg Schiano. "You have to be mentally tough enough to play a season and push through this period right now where we are bumped and a bit mentally tired. You need to be able to stretch yourself and get through it."
Today's practice session was filled with intensity and effort, much like the previous 18 thus far. While there are very few major injuries from camp (Clint Dato's knee and Markis Facyson's hand are the only major injuries), several are battling through some pain as camp heads towards its close and game week preparation for the season opener for Buffalo begins.
"It's that time of year," said Schiano, referring to the list of knicked up players.
Today's practice featured a scary moment when starting cornerback Nate Jones and safety Jarvis Johnson collided on a deep ball. The two left the field, but appeared fine by the end of practice.
"It's a good thing that they are so focused on the ball," said Schiano. "You'd like them to have a bit more awareness there and understand that it is only practice, but they are both competitors and want to make the play."
With the potential of injuries so prevalent in college football, it is comforting for the Rutgers coaching staff to have depth at several positions this season. Schiano noted that several back-up players are playing well and ready to step in and play should the opportunity present itself.
"Whenever you have a competitive football team, guys are going to get hurt," said Schiano. "The key is having other guys who are ready to step in and take advantage of the opportunity. If they feel like just fillers, they won't get the job done."
Among those who have aided in the creation of depth are 13 newcomers classified as walk-ons within the program. Walk-ons have become a major part of the program's development and this year's class is as good as any in recent history.
"Ramel Meekins has done a very nice job, has climbed the depth chart and I am excited about him," said Schiano. "He and Joe Giacobbe are competing for the fourth tackle spot. I found out about Ramel late it sure is a nice surprise."
"I think our staff has done a tremendous job," said Schiano, referring to the identification of talented walk-ons. "We put a huge, huge emphasis on it and they will never be more important than in the upcoming recruiting season because we won't have as many scholarships to give out. This past year, we filled out our class with 13 while this year, we may have to fill it out with 20. That isn't easy, but fortunately, our state has a lot of players who are I-AA/I-A kids and Rutgers provides an affordable education."
"Just as important, these kids have an opportunity to earn a scholarship. We have already put on five kids who were walk-ons since we've been here, so we have a track record that if you come here and do the right things, you have a realistic opportunity to earn a scholarship."
Today's practice marked the informal return of senior linebacker Brian Bender, who has been limited in previous sessions following arthroscopic knee surgery before camp. Schiano praised his desire to return to action, as well as the performance of freshman tailback Justise Hairston.
"We're pulling the reins back right now," said Schiano. "Brian wants to do more than (our trainer) feels he is ready to do and I agree. He has been in every meeting and every walk-through, so he just needs to get himself into game shape. He is capable of giving us 35-40 plays by our first game."
"I though Hairston ran the ball the best (of the tailbacks) today," said Schiano. "He ran the ball like a college back."