Khaseem Greene won the Big East's defensive player of the year award last season. The Rutgers linebacker broke his ankle in the Pinstripe Bowl, prompting offseason surgery and rehab. Then coach Greg Schiano left for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with assistant Kyle Flood taking his place.
Greene has responded with an All-America-type season, notching 96 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, six quarterback hurries, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
He is coming off a 22-tackle performance in a victory over Army, the fifth-highest tackle performance in Big East history. Rutgers is 9-1 and controls its conference-title destiny. And his brother, Pitt running back Ray Graham, has been not too shabby since recovering an ACL tear a year ago, rushing for 835 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
ESPN.com caught up with Greene this week to talk about all that and more as the Scarlet Knights head into Cincinnati for a Saturday showdown.
Still feeling the effects from 22 tackles Saturday?
Khaseem Greene: Yeah, I was trying to be everywhere. (laughs)
I'd imagine it's a slightly better feeling giving the pounding instead of taking it.
KG: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Most definitely.
Every senior ever says the light clicks on for them going into their final year, wanting to make the most of it. You already had a pretty decorated resume coming into this season. What did you do to ensure that this season would be a memorable one?
KG: I just worked my tail off to just get back to 100 percent coming off the injury. I knew coming into this season that we were going to have a special team and if I could just be the player I was last year, and a little bit better, contribute a little bit more, it would definitely be special. Just from my rehab and everything like that, I was dedicated to coming back and being the best teammate and best player I could be for my team and for my coaches.
Can you take me through that rehab process a little bit?
KG: It was a long process. It was just very hard because I had never been injured where I had to miss time before. I never had a surgery or anything like that. Those things were new to me and just not being able to do things that I do so easily was kind of frustrating. But just the training staff we have here and the coaches I have in my corner just talking to me every day, working me out, not letting me get down on myself and not letting me doubt myself and things like that. And a big credit to my family, who stayed behind me 100 percent and made sure I was doing the right things, whether it was getting up early in the morning to go to treatment and a workout, or my brothers staying on top of me saying I had to be back to the player I was last year, just to be the greatest player I could be for the Rutgers family because I owed it to them. All those things came into play and they all helped me become the person I am now.
It seems like you're added to a new watch list every week. Do you pay attention to that stuff?
KG: I really just take those accolades and let my family run with them and credit my teammates, because a lot of those individual recognition and award things have to do with people behind the scenes: my defense, my guys up front, the secondary and the mike and the sam (linebackers) that I play alongside with. Not only those guys, but the offense that I play with, the coaches that coach me. I'm happy when I'm honored but I really don't like the fact that it's an individual award because so much goes into it besides just me doing things. But at the same time I just take it and just credit it to my teammates because those guys deserve the credit and my coaches deserve the credit and my family deserves the credit. Everybody who's helped me get to this point or helped me do what I do deserves credit, but it's also an amazing feeling to know that people recognize you for the things that you do.
Your coach actually said this week, yeah, you had a great game, but you were also the beneficiary of a defense that was in the right place at the right time a lot, against Army. That's not a conventional offense to prepare for. What did you see from them? How did the defense perform the way it did this past Saturday?
KG: The one thing that's unique about playing the academy schools is that no matter how good the scout team looks during the week, you'll never simulate the exact speed that those guys play at, and that was the one thing that happened for us after the first series. And for the rest of the game, it just started to slow down. Those guys came out very strong, very fast and that's what we expect for them to be doing, is coming out fast. We got a great look this week but it was nothing compared to the speed at which those guys go because they train for it all year as opposed to us, for one week. The game just slowed down for us after the first series and we got a great feel of it and we started to relax and trust our keys, and that's when we started playing Rutgers defense the way it's supposed to be played. We were able to get some key turnovers and stops and get the ball back to our offense so that they could put points on the board and things like that.
What has Kyle Flood done to ease the transition? It wasn't an ideal situation in the offseason. How have you guys come together under him?
KG: The one thing he's done a great job of is getting 100-plus men to trust him, trust in his vision and his goal, his plan for this program. He's done a great job of that. There's never been a moment or a time where me or any of my teammates felt like this guy's a first-year guy and we don't think this is the right thing he's doing. We never doubted him. From Day 1 he came in with a goal and a vision and he told us what it's going to be. And till this day he's been sticking to his word and everything's been going as planned minus the one loss. We have really taken his word and just ran with it. He's a great leader. Everything this program stands for he exemplifies in his everyday characteristics and just to see a guy come in as a first-year head coach and see what he's done with this team, with this program is amazing. It's special. It's unique. We all really appreciate it here at Rutgers, but it's just being his first year and making a program that's known, that has become a winner, and now trying to take it to the next level, having that challenge in itself, and just not even taking it as a challenge, taking it as a another day at the job, it's been real special.
Cincinnati has a great running back in George Winn. What has made him so successful?
KG: He's a great running back. He's big, he's strong, he's fast. He catches the ball. He does a lot of things very well. Credit to that program over there. They do a lot of things really well in their scheme and just the coaching staff. That's a great program over there. They have my respect, but the game has to be played on Saturdays. That's pretty much what it comes down to. He's a great running back, he does some great things and they have a great program over there, but at end of the day, we just go to practice, worry about the things that we do, go out on Saturday and do those things that we do well, and hopefully that gets us the win.
Switching gears a bit, how much do you talk to Ray during the season? What do you think of his performance so far?
KG: I talk to my brother every week. We talk multiple times during the week. I just encourage him outside of football. I just encourage him as a big brother to continue to stay humble, pray, communicate and rehab -- everything that he has to do to make himself successful outside of football. And on the field I always tell him to just play hard, do what he's been doing all his life to get him to this point and that's what he does really well. That's just play football, but outside of football, just being the person that he is and tell him to try to stay out of trouble. Stay away from the things that are not going to benefit you as a person, and that's pretty much it.
You both went through rehab. You both went through coaching changes this offseason. How much did it help to go through that together?
KG: That helps us a lot. Just us both rehabbing and being able to communicate with each other or send each other pictures or videos, push each other, motivate each other to get back from our injuries was big. For me, I had the same coach for all my four years of being here until this year. For Ray, he had a number of coaching changes, so he helped me from that standpoint, just to know that things are going to change, but if you get a coach that understands and things like that, it'll all be the same. What he told me is starting to stick and I'm starting to see that. From that standpoint he helped me when it comes to coaching changes. But other than that we really help each other, we motivate each other and we compete with one another when it comes to rehab and things like that.