Scarlet Knights ready to resume progressing

Rutgers opens on Saturday at UNC


Staff Writer

With the memory of last season’s success still fresh, the Rutgers University football team is ready to take the program to the next level this fall.

Last year’s Scarlet Knights went 7-5 and earned an invitation to the Insight Bowl, where they lost a shoot-out to Arizona State, 45-40. While the loss certainly left a somewhat of a sour taste in the mouths of Rutgers’ fans, coaches and players, it did little to disrupt the notion that the Rutgers program took a giant leap forward last season.

And anyone who has been around the Rutgers team over the last few years, knows that head coach Greg Schiano and his staff have been working around the clock to improve last year’s team and make sure that the progress carries over to this season, when the Scarlet Knights hope to compete with the top teams in the Big East Conference.

Rutgers will get tested right off the bat, as they travel to Chapel Hill, N.C., on Saturday to take on the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. The Scarlet Knights enter Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff as a six-point underdog, but based on what he has seen from his team throughout training camp, Schiano fully expects his team to emerge victorious.

“Things are going well,” he said. “The kids are working extremely hard. The coaches are working extremely hard. I am pleased with the efforts the kids are putting forth.

“We are a focused team,” he added. “Our players, coaches, the university, the fans and the administration had the opportunity to taste a little bit of what success is [last year]. We understand what it takes to get back there. Our team also understands how hard it is to win. The team understands what is at stake. We are not a rah-rah team. We are a focused, serious group.”

Following Satur-day’s opener, the Scarlet Knights will play their home opener on Sept. 9, when they host Illinois at noon.

Some of the familiar faces returning from last year’s team include defensive ends Milan Rudanovic and William Beckford; defensive backs Brandon Wood, Manny Collins, Derrick Roberson and Joe Porter; linebackers Quinter Frierson and Devraun Thompson; defensive tackle Joe Giacobbe; defensive lineman Ramel Meekins, punter Joe Radigan; wide receivers Remi Njosi, Shawn Tucker and Willie Foster; fullback Brian Leonard; tight ends Clark Harris, Anthony Cali and Sam Johnson; and offensive linemen Mitar Rudanovic, Darnell Stapleton and Camern Stephenson.

All of the aforementioned players are seniors and are looking to make their final seasons at Rutgers another breakthrough year for the program.

“These kids realize that this is their last year to make something happen. They are all extremely focused,” said Schiano.

Leonard, sophomore running back Ray Rice, and junior quarterback Mike Teel should lead the team offensively, with Harris, Njosi and Foster hopefully providing key targets to open up the field.

“Ray Rice and Brian Leonard should be a great one-two punch this year. Leonard does it all. He is an exceptionally gifted player and is a great teammate,” said Schiano.

Leonard will not be sneaking up on anyone this season, as several respected football publications have listed the talented back as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, though he is generally listed as a dark horse.

Schiano knows that for Rutgers’ rushing attack to work, its passing game must be effective as well.

“Mike [Teel] is our guy. He learned the college game,” Schiano said. “Last year, Mike was able to get experience at the quarterback position. He has improved and matured at quarterback. We keep telling him we need to, ‘play another down.’ If he makes smart decisions, throwing the ball away, etc., we will be able to score offensively. We don’t want to give the ball away. We want to play another down. Mike understands the offense. He has been leading our offense.”

It seems that Schiano’s decision to get Teel reps at the quarterback position last year, even though last year’s starting quarterback, senior Ryan Hart, was a mature, qualified leader, will play a huge part in how matured and polished Teel will be this year.

“The most unknown element is the quarterback position. But I think Mike is totally capable,” said Schiano.

With injuries to two key wide receivers, freshman Shamar Graves, of Woodbridge, has taken reps with the first team and has looked like he belongs.

“Shamar has worked with first or second group. He has had good quality reps, which will only make him better,” said Schiano.

But like all good coaches, Schiano knows that the offensive line is extremely important in how much time the quarterback has to pass and opening holes for the rushers. Schiano has good depth on the line this year, and he seems rather confident that his linemen can get the job done.

“Our offensive line is going to be good,” Schiano said.

Defensively, Schiano has taken over the reins of defensive coordinator. The coach feels that the defense he introduced last year will be much more effective this year.

“We created a new scheme last year. This year, it hopefully will all come together,” he said.

Although this year’s team has many talented returning players, the freshman class of players probably is the best that Schiano has ever had. Or at least they look to be very promising on paper.

“When I first got here, it was about filling up the depth chart,” Schiano said. “Now, if the freshmen want to play, they have to beat out other guys. We now have talent at all positions.

“Lots of guys have impressed me. The entire class looks strong. They are getting the opportunity to show me what they can do.”

One of those kids making the most of his opportunity on the field is freshman linebacker Andres Morales.

“Andres is going to be a real fine football player. He is a big kid that can run. He is intelligent. He has a bright future,” said Schiano.

Another exciting player to watch this year will be freshman Kordell Young.

“He can do so many things,” Schiano said. “He can do things in the return game. He can do things at running back. He is a fine receiver. He is a special athlete.”

Aside from those two kids, Schiano is also excited with the play of two other young players – James Townsend and Mike Ziarnowski.

Townsend is a junior wide receiver who is still recovering from an unfortunate foot injury, which required surgery last year.

“It is like having bad tires on a racecar,” Schiano said. “Strong engine but no traction. He hasn’t been healthy yet. Man is he fast. It’s an unfortunate situation. He is a great teammate. He plays the game at a high rate of speed. He can take kickoffs, punts and play wide receiver. We hope to get him back down the road.”

Ziarnowki is a defensive tackle who has also had his college career marred by injury.

“Mike is doing well. He has shown some flashes of what he is capable of doing,” said Schiano.

Oftentimes a coach’s mood in training camp can dictate how the season will go. With that said, Schiano seems to be optimistic and eager to get the season rolling. He seems to have his team focused and ready to go.

“I am excited. We seem to have good chemistry this year and a good understanding of what we want to accomplish,” the coach said.

“We’re all on the same page. That is a hard thing to get, and a hard thing to keep. Everyone is working together in one direction to reach our goal.”