For first time in a while, Rutgers has success to build on
Posted August 31, 2006 2:28 p.m. EDT
Updated December 14, 2006 4:35 p.m. EST
The questions that surround the Rutgers football team this season are different than they've been in the past decade.
Rather than being queried about when his downtrodden program will finally turn itself around, coach Greg Schiano is fielding questions about how his team will build on its first winning season in 13 years and first bowl berth in 27 years.
Or, he's asked about the Heisman publicity campaign Rutgers is mounting for fullback Brian Leonard, or about how recruiting is improving.
The team's outlook has taken an upswing since Rutgers went 7-5 last season and lost 45-40 to Arizona State in the Insight Bowl.
"There's a lot of difference this year," Leonard said. "We know what to expect, we know how to win games, we know how to get to a bowl game. This camp was the most physically and mentally demanding camp I've ever been a part of. That was just to get us ready, to get our minds right, knowing that if we prepare hard, we'll have a better chance in the games."
Leonard feels that no one is resting on last year's accomplishments, and Schiano agrees.
"I think our guys will be excited and ready to play," the coach said. "From the minute we lost that game out in Arizona, that was a tough locker room to be in. I feel like there's been a drive this offseason that I've never seen here before. I'm not concerned about last year or guys thinking about last year."
Rutgers, which opens its season on the road this weekend against the Tar Heels, has a number of talented players returning on both sides of the ball. A lot will depend on the development of redshirt sophomore Mike Teel - who takes over for record-setting Ryan Hart at quarterback - and on the depth Rutgers can develop in its defensive front.
Teel started three games last year, throwing two touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing 50 percent of his passes.
"Last year was just a step to what our ultimate goal is," Teel said. "This year, we're going to try to finish out what we started last year. We want to go to a bowl game and win a bowl game."
Rutgers' running game should take some of the pressure off the quarterback.
Leonard is one of the most versatile backs in the nation. He led Rutgers with 55 receptions, 1,308 all-purpose yards and 17 touchdowns. Among active NCAA players, he is first in career touchdowns (40), fourth in receptions (169) and eighth in rushing yards (2,352).
Sophomore tailback Ray Rice became Rutgers' first 1,000-yard rusher in over a decade last season when he gained 1,120 yards. True freshman Kordell Young has actually pushed Rice for playing time in training camp.
Teel has his pick of receivers in Leonard, tight end Clark Harris and wideout Shawn Tucker. Harris is the active NCAA leader in tight end receptions (109) and receiving yards (1,522), while Tucker had 32 catches for 484 yards last year.
The offensive line returns three starters, including center Darnell Stapleton, a preseason Rimington Trophy candidate. Place-kicker Jeremy Ito was 20-for-27 on field goals last year and finished 12th nationally in field goals per game.
Defensively, Rutgers must replace defensive ends Ryan Neill and Val Barnaby, who combined for 20 sacks in 2005. Schiano is looking for Jamaal Westerman and William Beckford to step up, and is confident in tackles Ramel Meekins and Eric Foster, who missed last year after knee surgery.
Devraun Thompson is a returning starter at linebacker and Quintero Frierson started six games last year. Brandon Renkart moves up to linebacker from the secondary. Safeties Ron Girault and Courtney Greene and cornerback Derrick Roberson are returning starters at defensive back.
"I'm concerned that we're a little young up front," Schiano said. "Eric and Ramel provide some experience. Behind them, we have a lot of youth. When we roll and rest guys, we'll have some young players out there trying to figure it out on the run."