- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here is Part II of my conversation with Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano. You can read Part I here.
How has Chas Dodd been this offseason?
Greg Schiano: Real good. He's a hard guy not to love. He's a gym rat, he's a guy who loves the game of football, and he has a great way about him. He relates to everybody -- the linemen, the running backs, the wideouts, the coaches. He's a happy kid, a fun guy to be around.
You talked last year at this time about Tom Savage's leadership skills. Does Dodd have the same attributes?
GS: I can see it, no doubt. You could see it last year. He's a fiery sucker, now. He really loves playing the game. People kind of take his energy and use it. He's a pistol.
How about the depth at that position?
GS: I think the freshmen will be critical -- Gary Nova and Mike Bimonte. They've been here a lot this spring already, just visiting with coaches. We practice in the morning now so they're not going to be missing school to come to spring practice. They'll be around us as much as we can get them around us. Steve Shimko is returning from rotator cuff surgery; I think he'll be OK, but I don't know. So those freshmen, whoever's the best will probably end up being the backup. We have a couple of walk-ons in the program who have a chance, but it definitely is lean. That's why those freshmen are critical.
You look at D.C. Jefferson, and physically he looks as good as any tight end you'll see. Where is he in his development?
GS: You're right, physically, I don't know if there's a better physical guy in the country. Let's see what he does this spring. I think he really made some extraordinary blocks and extraordinary catches, and he missed some. He made some mistakes. It's a big year for him. He's got experience now under his belt. He and I have talked, and we really need him to become a key performer for us -- a clutch performer is probably a better way to say it -- and he's capable of it. And espcially in this offense, because the tight end is such a big part of it.
Let's move over to defensive line, where you lost three starters. Where do you see that group this spring?
GS: We've still got Scott Vallone and Justin Francis, who have played a lot. But we're going to be young up there. Talented, maybe as talented as we've been, but young. We've got to harden them up and toughen them up this spring. Moving Manny Abreu to the defensive end will help us. He's an experienced player -- that will be a new position for him, but a lot of the things he did at [strongside] linebacker aren't very different than what we'll ask him to do at defensive end.
We're going to find out. You look at Michael Larrow, who's been in the program now for two years, he's physically exactly what you're looking for in that position. Guys like Kenneth Kirksey, Djwaney Mara, Jamil Merrell, Isaac Holmes, all those guys. It's their time. They need to step up. Vallone is there as a real leader. That's what we need, someone to take that thing and lead these guys, and I think he will.
What about linebacker, with Abreu gone from there?
GS: Manny moves to defensive end and will be one of the better athletes up there. But at linebacker, his speed was just OK. So now you take a safety like Khaseem Greene who has very good speed and move him down to the [weakside] linebacker, and I think he's really going to bring something to the table there. Especially in our league. You know, it's interesting when you look at the schedule. You have some teams that will get into two-back and then some teams that will get into spread and then teams like Connecticut where you don't know what it's going to be. So it's going to be interesting. But I think, without a doubt, this defense is built on speed. I think we've helped ourselves by doing that, not only on the line and at linebacker, but making changes in the secondary as well.
GS: We moved both to corner, we moved David Rowe into safety, and we moved over a guy I think is really talented in Jawaun Wynn -- a big, talented guy who was a wideout -- he'll be playing safety as well. We also redshirted a guy who I think was an exceptional recruit from DeMatha in Lorenzo Waters, he's got a chance to be really good. So it will be interesting to see because, again, there's great competition at this spot.
Speaking of redshirting, how tempting was it to play some of those young guys last year as the losses mounted?
GS: You know what, last year was so weird with everything that happened here ... sometimes you'll take a shirt off a kid if you think he can really help us, but our issues were a lot more than a player. We had some serious issues. So I think that would have been foolish -- it wouldn't have made any difference.
How have the players moved past all that?
GS: I think Eric [LeGrand's] situation was one where it's just, we're a close family here. Part of me is proud how much it affected us, because it showed how much our guys do care about each other. There wasn't a player or anything that was going to change that. Maybe if I had done a better job leading ... that's something I have thought about many times. But at the end of the day, it happened, and we're going to be there for Eric to help him, and we're going to put this thing back together and get back to playing football the way Rutgers is accustomed to playing it. I can't wait to do it. I really haven't been this excited to get back to practice in a long time.
How much will Eric be involved with you guys this spring?
GS: He's still in Kessler [Rehab], and when he gets out, which I think is going to happen pretty soon, he'll have a busy schedule. He still has to go to rehab and do all that stuff, just now he'll have to drive up to the place all the time. But hopefully he'll be around. He took a class this semester online, and I fully expect him to come back to school here and get his degree. So, yeah, he's every bit as big a part of this family as he ever was, and I expect him to be around as much as he can possibly be around.
Looking at special teams, you have to replace your punter. Where does that stand?
GS: We recruited Anthony DiPaula, and he started in January. One area we'll really emphasize this spring is punting and putting him under the gun, because where we stand right now, the plan is for him to be our punter. And that's a true freshman punter, so hold on to your hat, baby. With San San Te returning, we have returning long-snappers, returning holders, so I'm comfortable we'll be comfortable in all areas. And hopefully we'll get DiPaula to a point where he's comfortable. But again, until you go out and punt in front of 60,000 people, you haven't really experienced it. But he has a good way about him, so I'm confident in him.
Last year at this time, you talked about how young your roster was, and how the vast majority of your players were underclassmen. Looking at things now, do you think this is a group that can do some special things as it grows up?
GS: I'm going to hold judgment on that. Are they over everything from last year? I hope they're not over it, but I hope they're dealing with it better. I think we're going to see where we are every step of the way. We only have 12 scholarship seniors on this team, so our bigger classes are our juniors, sophomores and freshmen. With our 12 scholarship seniors, we do have strong leaders and character guys there. But I think it's going to be a group effort. And you know what? Some of the best teams I've had kind of scratched and clawed and at the end of the day they'd look up and not be too bad. Hopefully, that will be us.