July 19, 2005

Will 2005 be Rutgers' breakout year?

Newport, R.I. -- The athletic administration at Rutgers has been patient with football coach Greg Schiano through his four years, patience that is warranted.

Despite a 12-34 record in his tenure with the Scarlet Knights, Schiano's teams have shown signs of improvement with each passing season.

Last year, Rutgers was in position to qualify for a bowl game with wins against Connecticut and Navy in its final two games, but the defense faltered and the result was two losses and a 4-7 campaign.

But this season, with nine starters back on offense and eight on defense, expectations are high for the Scarlet Knights, who could qualify for their first bowl game since 1978 and only their second in school history.

Those expectations also mean that Schiano's performance in 2005, in his fifth campaign, will be thoroughly examined.

"The program has come a long way since Coach Schiano has come here," senior quarterback Ryan Hart said Tuesday at the Big East media days. "The wins and losses column isn't where we want it yet, but I believe this is our season."

There's no question that Rutgers will feature one of the most dynamic passing attacks in the nation.

The Scarlet Knights finished sixth nationally in passing a year ago, Hart passed for more than 3,100 yards and 17 touchdowns, while setting school records for attempts (453) and completions (295). But he also threw 19 interceptions in 2004, a number he and Schiano hope to decrease this season.

Receiver Tres Moses and tight end Clark Harris also return after combining for 134 catches for nearly 1,800 yards. Also set to return is wideout Shawn Tucker, who had 726 receiving yards in 2003 before missing last season with an injury.

That's the good news for the Rutgers offense. The bad news is that the running game accounted for just 918 yards all season and ranked 113th nationally.

Fullback Brian Leonard, who also caught 61 passes for more than 500 yards, is back after gaining 732 of those rushing yards. But a reliable tailback must emerge if the offense is to have more balance.

"We have to cut down on our turnovers, and part of that will be running the ball better," Schiano said.

The other area of concern for Rutgers is a defense that allowed plenty of yards and points a year ago. In the aforementioned season-ending losses to UConn and Navy, 1,100 yards and 96 points were the totals allowed, and the unit finished 104th nationally in total defense.

One major change will be that Schiano, formerly the defensive coordinator at Miami, will take over the defense in 2005 following the departure of Paul Ferraro.

"It's been fun," said Schiano of his new responsibilities with the defense. "I'm excited to do it and it's good to be in the meetings and more involved on the field."

Ryan Neill, an All-Big East choice last season after racking up eight sacks, will bolster a solid defensive front, while six linebackers who have started in their careers return. Improvement in the secondary, however, will be a must if Rutgers is to fare better on the defensive side of the ball.

"We're a lot deeper defensively, and we're a lot more mature," senior linebacker Will Gilkison said. "We have a lot of guys who have been in big games, and if we can keep improving the way we have since the spring, we'll be a lot better."

The other thing the Scarlet Knights have going for them in 2005 is a favorable, if not soft, schedule.

Rutgers will face Illinois, Villanova, Buffalo and Navy in nonconference action, and it gets Pittsburgh and West Virginia at home.

The opener on the road against the Fighting Illini and new coach Ron Zook on Sept. 3, will be critical for the Scarlet Knights' bowl hopes. A win in Champaign and a 3-0 start is a near certainty.

October also will be a critical month as road games at Connecticut and Syracuse will be sandwiched by home games with West Virginia and Navy. Anything worse than a 2-2 record in those games will make it difficult to secure a winning season and leave Schiano's future in jeopardy.

The Rutgers coach, however, believes he has the team to get it done.

"I think what's happened at Rutgers is that we have a lot of guys who have been in the program for three or four years. We have senior leadership, and that's exciting," Schiano said. "There are a lot of teams in our league that believe they can win the league. We certainly believe we can win it, and that's our goal."

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