NCF Nation: Chas Dodd
Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:
It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.
Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.
Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).
Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)
What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.
What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.
To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.
Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.
What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.
Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).
Kyle Flood is back in Piscataway, N.J., for his second season at the helm of the program, and his ninth overall with the school. We caught up with the head coach Wednesday, with one practice in the books and the Scarlet Knights looking to leave a lasting impression as they ready for their final season in the Big East.
What are you looking for Gary Nova to improve upon this spring? What do you want to see from the guys behind him?
Kyle Flood: I think Gary's got a unique advantage coming into this spring that we haven't had a quarterback have in a long time around here, in that he got a chance to play in 13 football games last year as a starting quarterback and essentially played in the entirety of every one of them. So I think there's an experience advantage that he has that hopefully we can capitalize on. I think the fastest ways we can capitalize on it is if we can keep the highs and make them consistent, and then take some of the low points and take some of the games where maybe he wasn't as pleased with his performance and move him up a little bit, so you don't see the big swings between the really positive games and the games he wasn't happy with. So I think that in and of itself, if we can get to that point -- and I don't know if that happens in just 15 practices in the spring; I think that's the combination of everything he's done since the bowl game, spring practice and then what's going to come afterwards -- but going into next season that's hopefully what we can do.
You guys obviously have a challenge without Brandon Coleman this spring. What are you looking for from the receiving corps during these practices, and is there anyone you're looking to see rise to the occasion?
KF: I think they're all fighting to find out what their role is going to be. Guys like Miles Shuler, who has got a tremendous skill set and really has come a long way in terms of being a receiver the last year. I'm excited to see what kind of spring Miles is going to have. A guy like Quron Pratt, who has been an excellent player here — statistically maybe that hasn't shown up, but he really has done a lot of things for us over the last two years. He can now have a much bigger role. When guys like Timmy Wright and Mark Harrison graduate, it provides opportunity, and with Brandon Coleman not there this spring it'll be even more opportunity for him to showcase himself. And then you've got some younger guys also, guys like Ruhann Peele and Carlton Agudosi, who are fighting right now to show the coaching staff how big of a role they should have next year.
There's no Coleman, and we know about Savon [Huggins]. Who are some of the other playmakers you are hoping to emerge from spring?
You guys are breaking in two new coordinators this spring. Offensively with Ron Prince, do you expect this spring to be a little bit of a feeling-out period, or do you think things will go over relatively smoothly with him in charge of the offense?
KF: It'll go over smoothly from coach Prince's perspective and from mine. I think that the bumps in the road are going to be some of the young players who now are going to have a lot more on their plate than they've ever had, and that'll create -- even yesterday in our first practice, some of the young receivers and running backs not having been in the fire, so to speak, are out there and they're struggling to get lined up. They're not as quick as maybe you would like them to be or maybe the group of receivers would have been last year because they were used to doing it. Those are all going to be things that are part of the learning curve as we go forward. I think there are going to be some rougher patches this spring at every position, but generally when those things happen it's much more about the younger players being allowed and given more opportunities than anything else. When you get to the season you're really only repping your starters and your ones and one-and-a-halves, as we call them. So right now everybody's getting reps, and at times that can make it a little bit slower or a little bit more choppy than you'd like it to be, but it's a necessity because you've got to find out what they know.
Defensively, you lose an all-timer in Khaseem Greene and another really good linebacker in Steve Beauharnais. Are those players really replaceable, or do you look for a collective effort from the group?
KF: I don't think you replace players really at any position. Football is the ultimate team game, and to think that you're going to replace a Khaseem Greene or a Steve Beauharnais, that's really not the way we think about it. We've played defense at a high level here for a long time and we've done it with a lot of different pieces. And I think now what the staff is looking to see is who are the pieces going to be. And at linebacker we've got two guys in Jamal Merrell and Kevin Snyder, who, in my opinion, have already established themselves as players in our defense. We're trying to figure out who the third piece of that puzzle's going to be. Is that going to be a new Mike? Is that going to be a new Will? I'm not sure I can answer that question just yet. But I'm confident with what we have coming back that we'll be able to continue our tradition here of playing defense at a high level.
Three new starters in the secondary. Jeremy Deering is back there full-time. What do you see from him and that position group as a whole? What makes you feel more comfortable with him back there?
KF: As coaches I think we'd better always be trying to get our best athletes on the field. And if there is a guy on your team you think can be a starter on defense but he's on offense, and he has a significant role on offense but maybe it won't be showcased the way he could be on defense, I think it's our responsibility to see if that player would have an interest in it. And I approached Jeremy with that decision and he was really excited about it. And it was certainly something that we tinkered with a little bit last year trying to build some depth in our sub packages, and we weren't really able to really put it in as far as we wanted to, but now with having an offseason and needing a guy with the departures of Duron Harmon, Wayne Warren and some of the other defensive backs, it's really a position on our team that will have more new faces than any other. And we really thought that Jeremy Deering, even though he is going into his senior year, he's got the right skill set to do that. He's got the right frame of mind to do it and he has the desire to do it, and I think Jeremy's going to do very well back there for us.
Big-picture, the Big East has been going through a lot of changes. The conference welcomes in four new teams this fall. I was just curious from your standpoint if there's anything different that you have to prepare for when you're seeing fresh staffs and fresh players on your schedule this season?
KF: I think with the way the Big East was constituted in the past, we've seen a good variety of pro-style offenses, spread offenses. We have played the academies, so we've seen the option. We had West Virginia in the conference for a long time, so we played against the 3-3 defense. I don't know that there will be anything in this new collection of teams that will be significantly unique. Now I do know that each one will bring very specific challenges and they'll have strengths and weaknesses to their teams just like we do. But those will be things we'll address after spring practice. Right now we're trying to figure out what we are. We're trying to figure out who are going to be the playmakers on our team that are going to be out there. Who are going to be the people in the sub packages, and really what is our football team going to look like? And that's what I'm most concerned about, and I think that's what spring practice is for. We have the schedule, so we know who the first four games are going to be now. We'll get a little bit involved into doing some early game-planning for them, but we won't do that until after spring practice is over.
Flood was asked once again whether there would be an open competition this spring, given the way Gary Nova performed in the second half of the season. At his Russell Athletic Bowl news conference, Flood adamantly stood behind Nova. Flood stood behind Nova again during the call, saying, "One of the things I’m most excited about this spring is to have somebody coming back for the first time in a long time at that position who’s going to get the reps that a starter gets."
"The thing that maybe got lost in the postgame press conference, but this is always the case and I think the players know this -- if there’s ever a situation where there’s a player who’s clearly the best player at the position, then they’ll start. There are no endowed positions at Rutgers," Flood said. "But Gary has a unique opportunity coming in as a starter and getting starters’ reps this spring. That’s something neither he nor Chas (D0dd) had last spring. The experience of having the season, the opportunity to get reps in the spring, I’m really excited to see where Gary’s game can go."
Nova seemed to regress as the season went on, but Flood never benched him in favor of Dodd. Flood was asked whether he had any concerns about Dodd transferring, considering the one-time starter threw one pass all season and seems likely to go into 2013 as the backup again.
"I spoke with Chas, and am I concerned about it? No, I’m not concerned about it," Flood said. "Do I understand those things happen at times? I do. It’s a part of Division I athletics and a position at quarterback where only one guy gets to play generally, those things tend to happen.
"I know Chas has done a tremendous job the entire year as the backup in terms of his preparation and his work ethic and his leadership. Players looking for other options, they don’t do that. You don’t see that kind of commitment to the program. I never once doubted Chas’ commitment to the program."
Everyone is counting on you now, Louisville.
The Big East is down to one unbeaten team after Rutgers imploded in a 35-23 home loss Saturday to Kent State.
Yes, Kent State.
Yes, from the Mid-American Conference.
The same MAC that has now beaten the Big East four times this season, including two wins that ruined perfect seasons.
One week after watching Cincinnati fall at Toledo, the Scarlet Knights turned the ball over seven -- yes, seven -- times in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated.
Gary Nova, the conference's reigning offensive player of the week, had a nightmarish performance, throwing six interceptions -- including four in the first half -- that put his team in an early 21-3 hole. Mark Fackler picked off two of those first-half throws, returning one 25 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Nova finished with 313 yards and two touchdowns on 25-of-46 passing, and coach Kyle Flood will surely get questions about not switching to Chas Dodd.
Jawan Jamison carried the Rutgers' offense with team bests of 15 rushes, 84 rushing yards, eight catches and 88 receiving yards.
The Golden Flashes got 131 yards on 22 carries from Trayion Durham, and Dri Archer added 136 all-purpose yards and a rushing touchdown on what was a rather quiet day for the do-it-all phenom.
Like Toledo, Kent State is a very good team, one that improved to 7-1 on the season. And, well, Rutgers' conference title hopes were not ruined with a MAC loss. But the Scarlet Knights did the conference absolutely no favors, as the Big East will now likely be left with just one ranked team come Sunday night's unveiling of the BCS standings.
A seven-turnover performance like this one is simply inexcusable, and Rutgers now gets an extra week to think about what it just did before facing Army in two weeks.
AA season record: 26-9.
Louisville at Pitt, 11 a.m., ESPNU. Pitt has won four straight games in the series and pulled the upset last season a week after Louisville upset West Virginia. Whoever can run the ball better will win this game. Louisville has been fairly consistent on the ground, averaging 169 yards rushing. But Pitt has been really inconsistent. Last week against Syracuse, the Panthers only had 27 yards rushing. Pitt back Rushel Shell has been banged up and Ray Graham had his worst game of the season last week, averaging 2.4 yards per carry. Though I am tempted to pick Pitt, Louisville has advantages at just about every position, so I am going with the Cardinals -- early start and all. Louisville 27, Pitt 20.
Matt's pick: Louisville 21, Pitt 17
Syracuse at Rutgers, noon, Big East Network/ESPN3. The game between these two teams last season was really ugly, as they combined for nine turnovers in a Rutgers double-overtime win. Chas Dodd lost his starting job midway through that game and Gary Nova led the Scarlet Knights to the victory. Nova goes into the matchup this year looking much more polished at quarterback, and he has an excellent back in Jawan Jamison to shoulder the load. Syracuse coach Doug Marrone was effusive in his praise of the Rutgers D, and I think the Scarlet Knights' edge there gives them the win. But it won't be easy. Rutgers 23, Syracuse 17.
Matt's pick: Rutgers 20, Syracuse 7
Temple at UConn, 1 p.m., ESPN3. The Owls are riding high after their win over USF last week, as they should be. They finally got a good look at a healthy Montel Harris, and their offensive and defensive lines played really well. But the UConn defense is just a bit saltier than the group Temple just played. OK, a lot saltier. UConn has the No. 1 defense and No. 2 rushing defense in the Big East. That gives the edge to the Huskies. UConn 17, Temple 13.
Matt's pick: UConn 17, Temple 10
Fordham at Cincinnati, 7 p.m., ESPN3. The Bearcats are in the middle of a stretch of five nonconference games after starting off the season with a Big East game against Pitt. This current stretch is not exactly thrilling, with FCS Fordham this week and then Toledo next week before they jump back into league play at Louisville. Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead is familiar with Cincinnati, after arriving from UConn, but I don't foresee any problems for the Bearcats in this one. Cincinnati 40, Fordham 10.
Matt's pick: Cincinnati 45, Fordham 7
1. Has Nova learned enough from his up-and-down freshman season to truly be "the man" behind center all year long?
2. If Nova does falter, will Flood stick to his word and remain behind his quarterback despite having an experienced backup waiting in Chas Dodd?
Both are major storylines to watch for this Rutgers offense this season. When Flood took over for Greg Schiano, he vowed to put an end to the game of musical quarterbacks that had become almost routine for the Scarlet Knights going back several years. Dodd lost his starting job last season in the middle of a bad performance against Syracuse. Then Nova took over, and lost his starting job after five straight games filled with too many mistakes.
So what happens if Nova throws a few interceptions in the season opener against Tulane? Loses a fumble? Does he have to worry about looking over his shoulder, even though Flood has declared him the starter?
It is extremely important for Flood to instill as much confidence as possible in Nova, and making sure he avoids the temptations of doing the quarterback shuffle if his young quarterback hits a rough spot. Teddy Bridgewater had his share of growing pains last season, but Charlie Strong stuck with him. It is how young players learn.
But if Rutgers is in the middle of the Big East race and Nova has another stretch like he did last year -- throwing seven interceptions in five games -- what happens?
For his part, Nova says he feels much better going into this season than last.
"Last year, I felt I was tentative," Nova told local reporters in New Jersey on Monday night. "I made some freshmen mistakes. This year, I feel I have a good understanding of (the offense) so I felt like I was relaxed out there, playing loose and guys fed off that. Just confidence, stuff like that. Coach believes in me and I'm glad he made the decision he made."
You cannot discount the value of having an experienced backup in football, when injuries to quarterbacks happen so often. Flood has to strike a delicate balance between Dodd and Nova to keep them both happy. But he has to do his best to stick to his word and give Nova the chance to make this his offense, even if it means living with a few mistakes along the way.
Rutgers has settled its quarterback competition.
Coach Kyle Flood announced Monday that Gary Nova will start for the Scarlet Knights this season, winning the job over Chas Dodd. Though the two appeared to be neck-and-neck throughout camp and in the scrimmage Saturday, Flood said in a statement:
“We are fortunate to have two talented quarterbacks who have won big games for us. This has been an excellent competition, but Gary’s body of work ultimately earned him the job.”
Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano made a habit of playing musical quarterbacks over the past several seasons. Both Dodd and Nova started and won games for the Scarlet Knights last season. Both struggled with consistency and turnovers. But Nova does have a better arm and perhaps more of an ability to help engineer some big plays in the passing game.
Flood has said that he will not treat his quarterbacks the way Schiano did. It will be interesting to see how his philosophy develops throughout the course of the season should Nova struggle in the early going. Rutgers opens the season Sept. 1 at Tulane.
1. Louisville: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater looked better than ever this spring, giving me renewed confidence the Cardinals are going to be the preseason favorite in the league. The secondary should be exceptionally strong, and the offensive line should be better. Questions remain at running back and with depth in the front seven. But of all the teams in the league, I think the Cardinals have the most stability headed into the season. Plus, it hugely helps to have Charlie Strong entering Year 3.
2. USF: Big jump for the Bulls. I know I said I refused to buy into USF until the Bulls actually do something. But what they have returning is hard to ignore. Generally speaking, teams with 18 returning starters -- many of them seniors -- do really well. So do teams with veteran starting quarterbacks. While USF still has some major question marks on paper -- can B.J. Daniels develop, what happens at running back, where is the depth at linebacker -- the Bulls look like they have a shot.
3. Rutgers: At one time, I had Rutgers as my preseason favorite. But I am a little nervous about the situation at quarterback. I thought there would be a resolution this spring, but neither Chas Dodd nor Gary Nova did much to impress. Mohamed Sanu is gone, there are more shifts on the offensive line, and the running game has to prove something. I think the defense will be the best in the Big East. The offense is scaring me right now, which is why I moved the Scarlet Knights down.
4. Cincinnati: The Bearcats do return talent, and players who saw some significant action last season. But they also lose 21 seniors, including Big East Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead and Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe. I don't have any doubts that the Bearcats will have a good season. I just don't know if they will win another championship.
5. Pitt: If there is any team with "ifs" all over the roster, it is the Panthers. They have a new head coach. They are returning Tino Sunseri at quarterback. Nobody knows how Ray Graham is going to do after major knee surgery. The offensive line has to be better. There is not much depth on the defensive line. If all of these come together, the Panthers could be really good. If they don't, they could be really bad.
6. UConn: The Huskies will be good on defense. But what about quarterback? I feel like a broken record saying the same thing over again. Quarterback uncertainty always makes me hesitant to rank a team in the top half of the league. I was hesitant last year, and I am hesitant again this year.
7. Syracuse: I have said this before, but it bears repeating: I think Syracuse is the hardest team to gauge in the Big East. The Orange have to be more consistent on offense. They have to find a running game to help ease some of the burden off quarterback Ryan Nassib. Does Ashton Broyld give them enough to get them more explosive plays? The defense still has depth concerns in the front seven.
8. Temple: I worry about how the Owls will make the transition to the Big East in Year 1. I think Temple has a good team, but the Owls also lost a lot of their best players and have depth concerns on the offensive and defensive lines. That is enough to worry any coach in Year 1 in a major conference.
Four Big East teams leave the spring with open quarterback competitions.
So much for spring practice resolving some major question marks.
Cincinnati, UConn, Pitt and Rutgers have not declared starters at the most high-profile position. While it appears front-runners have emerged at Cincinnati (Munchie Legaux), Pitt (Tino
Sunseri) and UConn (Chandler Whitmer), none of the head coaches at those respective schools have made any definitive announcements.
At Rutgers, there appears to be no true front-runner after spring practice, as neither Chas Dodd nor Gary Nova was consistent enough to win the job. Dodd has more game experience but Nova has all the physical tools you want your quarterback to have. Both started games last season, as former coach Greg Schiano continued what has been a recent trend of his -- playing musical quarterbacks.
UConn has had quarterback instability over the past several seasons as well. Last spring, the Huskies essentially went through the same routine, with four quarterbacks competing for the starting job. Nobody won it after the spring and the competition lasted until the season opener.
Johnny McEntee ended up becoming the starter, but he was largely ineffective and in over his head last season. UConn ended up playing three quarterbacks and posted its first losing record since 2006.
Those three players -- McEntee, Michael Nebrich and Scott McCummings -- were back in the spring competing to win the starting job.
Added into the mix were two early enrollees -- freshman Casey Cochran and Whitmer, a junior college transfer. It was Whitmer who had the best performance in the spring game, throwing two touchdown passes.
But coach Paul Pasqualoni was not ready to declare the competition over.
Immediately after the spring game last month, Pasqualoni said, "We'll come back in four weeks to start their summer program. Then we get to start this process all over again. Once we get into preseason camp and it's clear, then we'll make a decision. We won't make a decision right now."
The quarterback group as a whole in the Big East is not particularly strong this year, though Louisville freshman Teddy Bridgewater is on the rise. But the league goes into the year without a marquee name at the position for the first time in a long time. The Big East is the only one of the six automatic qualifying conferences without a returning 3,000-yard passer.
Look at recent history -- most everybody expected Geno Smith at West Virginia to have a breakout season last year. Folks knew about Zach Collaros at Cincinnati. Going further back, the Big East had nationally recognizable big names like Tony Pike, Pat White and Brian Brohm back to 2005. That was the first year of the reconfigured Big East.
Marquee quarterback names generally translate into more national attention, whether that involves debates, comparisons or even Heisman talk. The Big East is sorely lacking in that department. Even if the open quarterback competitions were resolved this spring, this is a position in need of a breakout star.
Unless coach Kyle Flood makes a last-second decision following the Rutgers spring game Saturday, four schools will go into the summer without a starter at perhaps the most important position on a team. Here is a quick look at how those competitions stack up:
Cincinnati. Munchie Legaux and Brendon Kay are the top two players vying for the job. Coach Butch Jones has decided not to name a starter, but all indications point to Legaux as winning the job once the fall rolls around. Legaux said during an interview this spring he had been taking most of the reps with the first team.
UConn. Five players remain in the competition -- Junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer, freshman Casey Cochran, Michael Nebrich, Scott McCummings and Johnny McEntee. Nobody distinguished himself through the spring or in the spring game, though Whitmer had the "best" performance of the three. Don't be surprised if Whitmer is the starter, Cochran is redshirted and McCummings continues in his role as Wildcat quarterback.
Pitt. Coach Paul Chryst has not named his starter, either, but he has indicated that incumbent Tino Sunseri has separated himself from Mark Myers and Trey Anderson. Now we'll see what happens when true freshman Chad Voytik enters the mix when he arrives in the summer.
Rutgers. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova went back and forth at quarterback last season for the Scarlet Knights, and neither one has really stood out this spring. Defense has dominated the scrimmages so far. Flood has said he would not make a decision until one player stood head and shoulders above the rest, but would like a starter in place a week to 10 days before the start of the season.
Not Tuesday morning.
Hip-hop music blared as players began their pre-practice warm-ups, one of the subtle changes new coach Kyle Flood has made to the practice routine. The music only plays Tuesdays, but so far it has been a bit hit.
"I just think it's a good way to start the week," Flood said. "We had a little music in the meeting room as the players were coming in. I think they enjoy it. I told them everything we play comes off my personal iPod. ... I think they were a little surprised when they came out for the first time, but it's been good."
Just ask running back Savon Huggins.
"He wants us to be alive before practice," Huggins said. "It definitely boosts the offense and defense up. We go out there to have fun. We walk into the team meeting room and he plays music. It's 7 in the morning, and you're getting pumped up for practice."
Another change has been the way black jerseys are used. Under former coach Greg Schiano, injured players wore black. But Flood has now designated one period in practice where the black jersey is up for grabs. The unit that wins the competition gets to wear the black jerseys for the next practice. So far, the defense has won the black jersey three of four times.
"I know they like the black jerseys, but I also thought it creates a little friendly competition during practice as well, " Flood said.
There is a definite difference in coaching style. When most players are asked to pick one change between Flood and Schiano, they respond that Flood is "not a screamer." But that does not make him more laid back. Neither does the music blaring from the loudspeakers.
It is simply a different approach to the job, with a new leader in charge for the first time in 12 seasons.
"I wouldn't use the word laid-back because I think our players are very intense and practice very hard," Flood said. "I think the program now is at a different stage than it was before. We've proven we can win games, we've proven we can win bowl games, so I think everybody understands the expectation level is a little higher for us now. And I also think the confidence level has risen. They think we have a good football team. I think we have a good football team."
There are still some questions that must be sorted out. Flood says the defense is a ahead of the offense, and there is good reason for that. Though several key players are sitting out this spring with injuries, the defense was the strongest part of the team last season. Plus, there are more positions up for grabs on offense, including quarterback and running back.
Flood has no timetable for making a decision at either spot. He expects either Chas Dodd or Gary Nova to separate himself at quarterback, whether it is between now and the end of spring, or during fall practice. At running back, he expects to rely on Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins, regardless of who is designated the starter.
Answering those questions are the first challenges Flood must face.
With West Virginia gone, the Big East is left with just seven FBS schools entering spring practice -- and some would say a wide-open, if lackluster, field to take the crown. Cincinnati has won at least a share of the Big East title in three of the last four years, but your expected preseason favorites for 2012 are now Louisville and Rutgers.
The last time either team was featured in the final AP Top 25 was in 2006, when the Cardinals finished seventh after making it to the Orange Bowl, and Rutgers finished No. 12. If you want to consider Big East preseason polls, Louisville has been picked to win the league just once, in 2005.
Rutgers? The Scarlet Knights have never been picked as the preseason favorites. Their highest preseason Big East ranking: third in 2007. Of the schools staying in the Big East for the foreseeable future, only Louisville has been tabbed as a preseason favorite. Projections aside, the Cardinals, Cincinnati and UConn have won at least a share of the league title and made it to a BCS game.
With a chance now to remake the image of the league, this spring is a huge opportunity for the five remaining Big East schools to assert themselves. After Miami left in 2005, West Virginia stepped to the forefront. When Miami was in the league from 1991-2004, West Virginia finished the season in the AP Top 25 just twice. From 2005-2011, West Virginia failed to make the final AP Top 25 just once (2010).
So who is "next" with West Virginia out of the picture? Cincinnati has proven it can win league championships on a consistent basis, though the Bearcats have to answer some major question marks this spring. Losing quarterback Zach Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead, leading tackler JK Schaffer and Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe could mean a rebuilding season.
So the spotlight has turned to the Cardinals and Scarlet Knights. There is reason to understand the optimism.
Louisville won a share of the Big East title in 2011 with a true freshman quarterback and more than 20 true or redshirt freshmen contributing, making the Cardinals one of the youngest teams in college football. There were some moments of immaturity and some head-scratching losses, but there is no question about the potential of this team. Add in some excellent recruiting classes and a solid head coach in Charlie Strong, and you understand how the foundation has been built.
But Strong understands there is more that goes into winning championships than talent, and he perfectly summed that up after a loss to NC State in the Belk Bowl.
"There's going to be a lot written about this team," he said. "Is this a team that's going to be full of themselves? Is this a team that's going to let complacency set in because there's so much coming back? This is a team that has to work hard. So much is going to be said, but what is going to be the true character of this football team?"
Rutgers, meanwhile, returns nearly everybody on a defense that ranked No. 1 in the Big East, including Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene. It took 11 years, but former coach Greg Schiano got this program in position to compete for its first league championship. More eyes may be on Rutgers this spring, though, because there is a new coach, Kyle Flood and perhaps a little more uncertainty about the future than there was in December.
There also is the matter of an unsettled quarterback competition between Chas Dodd and Gary Nova. Plus, Rutgers has to replace the productivity of leading receiver Mohamed Sanu. But Flood has not shied away from the heightened expectations, saying in his opening news conference, "I think the time is right for Rutgers to win championships."
With West Virginia gone, the time is right for everybody.
1. West Virginia. Geno Smith went about shattering school, Big East and Orange Bowl records during his career year for the Mountaineers, throwing for 4,385 yards, 31 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. His development under Dana Holgorsen was about what we expected. Preseason ranking: 1.
3. Louisville. True freshman Teddy Bridgewater really helped anchor this team once he replaced Will Stein in the starting lineup. He set a school freshman passing record with 2,129 yards and won Big East Newcomer of the Year honors. Without Bridgewater, I'm not sure this team wins a share of the Big East title. He showed poise and maturity beyond his years. Preseason ranking: 7.
4. Syracuse. Ryan Nassib had a career year for the Orange, setting highs for completions, attempts, yards, completion percentage and touchdown passes. There is no doubt he made some significant strides for Syracuse, but the biggest knock is that he never really was able to make the plays to get his team in position to win just one game in the final stretch of the season. Preseason ranking: 6.
5. USF. Coach Skip Holtz rightfully points out that the Bulls offense was improved in 2011 vs. 2010. But I think most of us were waiting on B.J. Daniels to take that next step and become an elite quarterback in the Big East. We are still waiting. He barely improved his completion percentage and threw just 13 touchdown passes -- though he did have a career-high with 601 yards rushing. What sticks out most are critical mistakes against UConn and West Virginia that cost his team wins. Preseason ranking: 4.
6. Rutgers. Greg Schiano went with musical quarterbacks again, switching back and forth and then back again from Chas Dodd to Gary Nova to Dodd. Neither was particularly effective, and both had a penchant for making bad mistakes. It's a true credit to receiver Mohamed Sanu that he was able to have such a great year with such inconsistent quarterback play. Preseason ranking: 5.
7. Pitt. How much more can be said about the way Tino Sunseri played this season? The further removed we are from the year, the more I'm convinced that his coaches let him down. Still, he was not very good in 2011 -- 38 yards passing against Utah was the low point. It was a disaster of a season. Preseason ranking: 3 (Gulp!)
8. UConn. Three quarterbacks in contention, but the Huskies really had no true quarterbacks. Johnny McEntee ended up winning the right to start, but he was completely overmatched. Scott McCummings came in for Wildcat duties and Michael Nebrich was an afterthought. No surprise that this was the worst passing offense in the Big East. Preseason ranking: 8.
- Settle on a quarterback. If 2011 was any indication, then Munchie Legaux seems a sure bet to start next season. He showed flashes, but he needs to spend the bulk of his offseason developing a nice rhythm and chemistry with his receivers. That was one of the biggest roadblocks for him when he took over for Zach Collaros. Cincinnati has some good talent at receiver -- with Anthony McClung, Kenbrell Thompkins and Alex Chisum coming back -- so this must be a top priority.
- Develop senior leadership. The Bearcats are losing the best senior class in school history, filled with leaders left and right. With guys such as Collaros, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer gone, who is going to take the responsibility of leading this team? That is something that must be worked on throughout the offseason.
- Find a quarterback. Sounds the same as last season, right? The Huskies never really found one in 2011 and that is a big reason why they struggled. Spring practice has the potential to have five different quarterbacks taking reps in Johnny McEntee, Scott McCummings, Michael Nebrich, Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran. Somebody has to emerge to take a hold of this offense.
- Work on improving the secondary. The weakest part of this team last season ranked No. 113 in the nation, so this is a clear area that has to get better. The Huskies were hurt when starting cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury, and they also had to rely on freshmen in Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown. This group will be much more experienced, so you have to hope they will be much better, too.
- Mature. The Cardinals were one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, and their immaturity showed at times. But now they enter the offseason with exceedingly high expectations. Many preseason lists have them ranked in the Top 25 and challenging for the Big East title. This team will still be young in 2012, so it will be imperative for coach Charlie Strong to help get this group to mature quickly and stay focused.
- Work on the run game. Strong wants the run game to be the bread-and-butter of the offense, and this was an area that took a step back in 2011 with Bilal Powell gone. Louisville went from being ranked No. 1 in the Big East to No. 5 in the Big East, averaging 121.5 yards per game. That is down over 50 yards per game. Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright are back, but they have to be consistent and the Cardinals probably need somebody else to emerge.
- New identity. A new coach means a new identity, so it will be interesting to see how the Panthers look under Paul Chryst and his new staff. We will find out when spring practice opens in March. There is plenty of talent on the roster, but the big question is how will the talent be utilized?
- Is Tino the man? This is starting to sound like a trend, right? The Panthers have quarterback issues as well after Tino Sunseri had a season to forget. Much of his performance can probably be laid at the feet of former coach Todd Graham, who stubbornly tried to run an offensive system that was not suited for the players he had. You can be sure Chryst will open up the quarterback competition to see who emerges.
- Handle expectations. The Scarlet Knights have not been so good in the past when the pressure is on. All you have to do is look back at what happened this season, with a shot to win a share of the Big East title. Now they are getting some preseason love and probably have their best team since 2006. So coach Greg Schiano is going to have to do a good job of managing preparation and focus because expectations were raised off a successful 2011 campaign.
- Quarterback derby. Yet another Big East team with a quarterback question mark. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova ended up splitting the starts this past season. Now there is the possibility that former quarterback Tom Savage transfers back in. I don't know if Schiano can afford to keep playing musical chairs with his quarterbacks every season.
- Re-focus. The Bulls have to put 2011 behind them and focus on the future. This is still a team that has the talent to win. Coach Skip Holtz has to find a way to get that done. This is going to be a veteran team that has been through good times and bad. He needs leaders who will their teammates to victory, who know how to win close games and are determined to get this team back on top. Who are they?
- New defense. USF brings in new defensive coordinator Chris Cosh from Kansas State, its third different coordinator in the past four years. Getting the players adapted to his scheme as soon as possible has to be a point of emphasis in the spring and throughout the offseason.
- More offensive consistency. To be sure, Ryan Nassib and Alec Lemon both had career years and made strides for the Orange. But a lot of that was because the run game was inconsistent, and Syracuse found itself trailing late in several games. This team has to find a way to sustain drives and score -- Syracuse was No. 7 in the Big East in scoring offense (24.2 ppg).
- Shore up the defense. The Orange lose some of their best players on the defensive line, and have to get better in the secondary, which was a major problem for most of the year. Syracuse ranked No. 98 in the nation in pass defense, and they lose some key contributors. Shamarko Thomas is really going to have to step up and take control of this group.
- Big 12 or Big East? The Mountaineers are bent on leaving for the Big 12, regardless of any court outcomes. On-field issues have nothing on trying to figure out where you are going to be playing. And who you are going to be playing.
- Defense. Coach Dana Holgorsen has hired a few defensive assistants, but still no word yet on who is going to run the show. That, of course, will determine the future course of this defense. It appears an inevitability that they will no longer use the 3-3-5 that former coordinator Jeff Casteel ran. Plus, players such as Keith Tandy, Najee Goode, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are gone. Shoring up this unit has to be tops on Holgorsen's list.