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PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- It seemed appropriate that the Rutgers football team ended its 2010 training camp Wednesday afternoon by running sprints.
With coach Greg Schiano and several assistant coaches egging them on, the players ran at full speed back and forth across the width of the field three times -- this after practicing for a little more than two hours.
And the players were lined up and ready to go a fourth time before Schiano mercifully blew his whistle -- signaling an end to the preseason and, after a couple days off, the start of the Scarlet Knights' proper 2010 campaign.
Rutgers has come a long way in the 10 years since Schiano took over the football program, on Dec. 1, 2000. A decade ago, the Scarlet Knights were considered by some a laughingstock. The team had gone 11-44 the previous five seasons under former coach Terry Shea, including an abysmal 4-31 record in the Big East Conference.
Rutgers had advanced to a bowl game just once in its 135-year history. (Rutgers has the nation's oldest college football program.)
Schiano, a New Jersey product who had previously served as the defensive coordinator at Miami (Fla.), was brought in to rebuild the program, a tall order indeed.
And it did not happen overnight. The Scarlet Knights went 2-9 and 1-11 in Schiano's first two seasons at the helm, including an 0-14 conference record.
But after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, those years now seem like ancient history.
Schiano's first winning season came in 2005, when the Scarlet Knights went 7-5 and lost a heartbreaker to Arizona State in the Insight Bowl.
In 2006, Rutgers reached new heights, knocking off No. 3 Louisville on its way to an 11-2 record. The Scarlet Knights finished that season ranked 12th in the country.
Yet they haven't been able to top that finish.
On the plus side, Rutgers has posted a winning record for five straight years and has gone to a bowl game each time. In fact, Rutgers has won four bowl games in a row -- only four schools in the country can boast that.
On the minus side, Schiano's squad hasn't won a Big East championship or gotten to a BCS bowl game.
Last year, with a freshman starting quarterback, Rutgers went 9-4 overall but only 3-4 in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights went to the St. Petersburg Bowl and beat Central Florida, but their aspirations were higher than that.
Now the question is, how high can they fly in 2010?
The offense will primarily depend, as it almost always does, on the play of the quarterback. Tom Savage, now a sophomore, will be looking to build on an impressive freshman season. Savage (6-foot-5, 226 pounds) completed only 52.3 percent of his passes last season, but he threw for 14 touchdowns against only seven interceptions -- a good ratio for a young quarterback.
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Savage's ceiling is high. He has loads of talent -- in fact, he was listed as one of the top 10 QBs in his recruiting class by ESPN.com and was coveted by some of the biggest programs in the country. But he fell in love with Rutgers when he was on the sideline for the Scarlet Knights' win vs. No. 2 South Florida in 2007.
He was also eager to play for Schiano.
"Coach Schiano just had that dream of winning a national championship here and bringing it to New Jersey," said Savage, who hails from nearby Springfield, Pa. "I felt inspired by that. I loved the fact that it was an up-and-coming program. And we could win a national championship for the first time, start something new here in New Jersey."
Schiano didn't wait long to make Savage his starting QB -- halftime of Rutgers' first game last season. The coach kept the play-calling rather conservative last year but said this season he will give Savage more opportunities to make plays and more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage.
"I feel different," Savage said when asked about this year's preseason camp as opposed to last year. "I definitely feel a lot more comfortable out there. The game really slows down for you after a while."
Schiano said Wednesday he was impressed by Savage's performance in camp. So was Rutgers' No. 1 wide receiver, Mohamed Sanu.
"He's a very confident person," Sanu said of Savage. "His swagger is just taken to another step. That's what we need. We need a confident quarterback back there. And he can make all the throws. He has confidence in his receivers to go make that play."
Sanu (6-2, 218) is a major talent himself. Also a sophomore, he caught 51 passes his freshman year for 639 yards and three touchdowns. Sanu also rushed for 346 yards and five touchdowns while featured in Rutgers' Wildcat formation.
The rest of the offensive unit is less rock-solid. Schiano's top two candidates to start opposite Sanu at wide receiver were sophomores Tim Wright and Mark Harrison. But Wright injured his right knee and is out for the year and Harrison suffered a head injury for the second straight year and his status for the season is uncertain.
Right now it appears a true freshman, Jeremy Deering (6-2, 203), will start at the other wide receiver position. Deering was a top recruit out of Tampa, Fla., but he's still a freshman and there's a lot to learn.
Then again, Sanu was a true freshman last season and look what he accomplished.
The offensive line was arguably the team's biggest concern heading into preseason camp. Last season, the Scarlet Knights averaged only 3.6 yards per rush and gave up 40 sacks -- not exactly impressive numbers. And the team's starting left tackle, Anthony Davis, has departed, drafted No. 11 overall by the San Francisco 49ers. All eyes will be on the linemen to see if they can protect Savage and create holes for the running game.
The primary guy looking to exploit those holes, at least early on, will be junior running back Joe Martinek (6-0, 215), who gained 967 yards on the ground last season and scored nine touchdowns.
He's a solid back, but don't be surprised if you see another true freshman, Jordan Thomas, getting more carries as the season progresses. Thomas (6-1, 205), another top recruit from Endicott, N.Y., is a freakish athlete who broke his high school's all-time rushing record and ran a scintillating 21.5-second 200-meter dash in track. Thomas turned heads in the preseason.
"He's a very talented guy," Schiano said of Thomas. "[But] he hasn't played in a major college football game, so we'll see when the lights come on. What he has shown in scrimmages, which is the closest thing to a game, [is] that he's got some serious ability."
DRAWING THE LINE
There are fewer question marks on the defensive side of the ball. The Scarlet Knights were in the top 20 in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season in rushing defense (15th, at 103.2 yards per game), total defense (18th, at 307.7 yards per game) and scoring defense (16th, at 17.9 points per game) and return several good defensive players.
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The D-line, in particular, is mostly intact from a season ago. That unit was a strength last season and Schiano expects it to be even better this season.
"We're banking on better," Schiano said. "They're a year stronger, a year older, a year better football IQ-wise. It needs to be better."
Senior defensive end Jonathan Freeny (6-3, 250) has a chance to become a star this season after recording a team-high 9.5 sacks as a junior.
In the linebacker corps, senior Antonio Lowery (6-2, 225) will be back in the starting lineup, and the team is also expecting big things from sophomore Steve Beauharnais (6-2, 230), who had 36 tackles and five sacks as a freshman.
In the secondary, the team lost star cornerback Devin McCourty, who was a first-round draft pick by the New England Patriots. But fellow starting corner David Rowe (6-0, 196), who had a couple of interceptions last season, is back. Also keep an eye on senior strong safety Joe Lefeged (6-1, 205), who has a reputation for making big hits.
"I feel like the defense is coming together," said senior defensive tackle and co-captain Charlie Noonan. "We have a lot of chemistry going."
And let's not forget special teams. The Scarlet Knights have two kickers with pretty strong legs in junior San San Te and senior punter Teddy Dellaganna. And they have several good options when it comes to returning kicks and punts.
"I think this team can be very good," said Freeny. "We still gotta go a long ways, but we're most definitely a team that's on the rise."
'A WORK IN PROGRESS'
Rutgers opens its season with two relatively easy games: Division I-AA Norfolk State at home Sept. 2, and Florida International on the road Sept. 11. Then comes its first big test of the season: hosting No. 18 North Carolina on Sept. 25.
If the Scarlet Knights can find a way to win that game, they have a pretty good chance of being undefeated heading into their first conference road game of the season, Oct. 23 against Pittsburgh. If Rutgers arrives in Pittsburgh 6-0, that would turn into a huge game 'round these parts, considering Pitt was dubbed the preseason Big East favorite.
Rutgers was pegged to finish fifth in the Big East preseason media poll. But there appears to be no dominant team in the league this year, so it should be a pretty wide open race between Pitt, West Virginia, Cincinnati, UConn and Rutgers. Anything could happen.
Is this the year Rutgers finally wins its first Big East crown? Not likely. The roster is littered with talent -- but much of it is freshman and sophomore talent. Especially considering the preseason injuries to the wide receivers, the Scarlet Knights are probably a year away from truly contending.
"We're a work in progress, we're a young team," Schiano said. "We've got a long way to go. But we'll be a much better team in November than we'll be in September. I hope that what we are in September is gonna be good enough.
"We can't control anybody else. We try to be the best we can be."
After all that running, all that hard work, the best Rutgers can be is actually pretty darn good. Big East titles and BCS bowl games are within reach -- if not this year, sometime in the near future.
Just goes to show, a lot can happen in 10 years' time.
Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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