Commentary

Rutgers hopes to beat the odds in 2011

With 17 starters returning, Scarlet Knights have chance to surprise people this season

Updated: September 1, 2011, 12:44 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

Rutgers' entire 2010 football season hinged on a single play on Oct. 16 at the New Meadowlands Stadium.

While covering a fourth-quarter kickoff return against Army, junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand suffered a severe spinal cord injury on a violent collision, and was paralyzed from the neck down. The Scarlet Knights never recovered. They somehow pulled that game out in overtime, 23-20, but then lost their final six games of the season, finishing with a 4-8 record.

After playing in bowl games for five consecutive seasons, and winning the past four, Rutgers finished in last place in the Big East.

"I thought we underachieved," Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano said. "We didn't play the way we were capable of playing, we didn't meet expectations."

Almost a year later, the news is much more positive -- at least for LeGrand. Doctors predicted he would never be able to breathe without a ventilator, but he defied their expectations by breathing on his own five weeks later and regaining sensation throughout his body. In fact, LeGrand is now standing for extended periods of time in therapy, and predicts that he will one day walk again.

As for his team, well, expectations aren't as high -- at least on the outside. The Scarlet Knights were picked to finish in last place once again in the Big East preseason media poll.

But with 17 starters returning, including 10 on offense, Rutgers certainly has a chance to surprise some people starting with its season opener Thursday night against North Carolina Central.

Here are three things to keep an eye on regarding the Scarlet Knights in 2011.


FABULOUS FRESHMAN

Rutgers reeled in arguably the biggest recruit in its football program's history when Savon (pronounced Save-on) Huggins announced he would play for the Scarlet Knights back in January. The 6-foot, 200-pound running back was ranked the No. 28 player overall in the nation, and the fourth-best running back, in the Class of 2011 by ESPNU.

[+] EnlargeSavon Huggins
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Freshman Savon Huggins should be a key contributor to a revamped ground game.

Huggins, who played for St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, N.J., ran for 1,876 yards and 35 touchdowns as a high school senior. He was coveted by big-time programs all across the country and his final decision came down to Rutgers, North Carolina and Notre Dame. In the end, he elected to stay close to home, to try to lead his home-state school to a level of prominence it has never reached before.

The current Rutgers depth chart says either junior De'Antwan Williams or Huggins will be the team's starting running back in the season opener on Thursday. Either way, Huggins will see some action.

"I think it's gonna be a kind of play-it-by-ear-type situation," Schiano said on Monday. "Savon's definitely going to play. I don't know -- depending on what we run the first play of the game, will it be Savon, or will it be De'Antwan Williams, or even [redshirt freshman] Jawan Jamison, I don't know how that's gonna go."

Another player to watch for carrying the ball is Jeremy Deering. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound sophomore played wide receiver as a freshman, but excelled running the ball via Rutgers' Wildcat package, rushing for 352 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Deering was subsequently converted to running back in the spring. He missed significant time in the offseason because of a head injury, but is practicing again and should be a contributor out of the backfield as well.

Still, all eyes will be focused on Huggins, to see whether he can deliver quickly on his immense promise.

"Savon has done a good job in training camp, and I think he's shown why he's the player that he is," Schiano said. "He's a talented guy who's very mature and has worked really hard to get ready. I'm anxious to see him play in a game situation."


NEW POSITIONS

Deering isn't the only Rutgers player who was converted to a different position during the offseason. For instance, sophomore Jordan Thomas -- who as a freshman led the team in rushing last season (417 yards) -- has been switched to the other side of the ball. Thomas will now play cornerback, as well as run back kicks.

[+] EnlargeFrank Cignetti
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesFrank Cignetti was brought over from Pittsburgh to recharge Rutgers' lifeless offense.

Fifth-year senior Joe Martinek, the team's leading rusher in 2009 (967 yards), who was hobbled by an ankle injury last season, will now be the team's starting fullback.

On defense, senior Manny Abreu, who had 48 tackles last season at strongside linebacker, has been shifted to defensive end. Junior Khaseem Greene, who started all 12 games at free safety and had 77 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions, is now starting at weakside linebacker. And senior David Rowe, who has started at cornerback the past two seasons, is now the team's starting free safety.

One more important change is on the coaching staff, at offensive coordinator. Out is Kirk Ciarrocca, and in is Frank Cignetti, who held the same job at conference-rival Pittsburgh the past two seasons.

The Scarlet Knights ranked 110th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in rushing offense last season (100.9 yards per game), 79th in passing offense (194.0) and 101st in scoring (20.8).

Cignetti has installed a pro-style offense more reliant on a traditional running game. The Scarlet Knights relied on the Wildcat formation more and more as the season progressed last year, often with little effectiveness.

"We do want to establish a running game, no doubt," Schiano said. "I think what we want to establish more than anything is the toughness and the hardness that I think our program lives by. That's playing that way on offense, defense and in the kicking game. We are physical; we play with great effort and minimize mistakes."


UNDER CENTER

After dealing with an unexpected quarterback controversy last season, Rutgers has a clear No. 1 in 2011 -- Chas Dodd. The 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore appeared in 11 games with eight starts as a true freshman, throwing for 1,637 yards, 11 TDs and seven interceptions.

[+] EnlargeChas Dodd
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireSophomore Chas Dodd took over for Tom Savage last year and hasn't looked back.

Tom Savage began last season as Rutgers' starting quarterback after an excellent freshman year in 2009. But Savage struggled early in 2010, was injured, and never regained his starting job after Dodd replaced him in early October. (Savage has since transferred to Arizona.)

Dodd, who was lightly recruited despite throwing for 10,292 yards and 81 touchdowns in high school, makes up for his lack of size with poise in the pocket and a strong, accurate right arm. And he definitely has weapons to throw to. Junior wide receiver Mark Harrison had a breakout season in 2010, with 44 catches for 829 yards (18.8 yards per catch) and nine touchdowns -- one away from the school's single-season record. And fellow junior Mohamed Sanu, who struggled with injuries a year ago, should be a more effective receiver now that he won't be counted upon to run the offense as often as he did via the Wildcat.

Dodd's biggest concern will be his protection. Rutgers' offensive line last year was, to put it bluntly, awful -- giving up an NCAA-record 61 sacks. Four of the five starters on the O-line are back, although there has been some position-switching along the line, and Schiano is desperately hoping that another year's worth of experience will serve them well.

"We'll be better," Schiano said of his offensive line. "That's why we play the games. We are definitely better, but like I've said, we have to be. Last year we weren't very good."

•••

After the opener against North Carolina Central (7:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPN3), Rutgers will travel to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 10. Two weeks later, the Scarlet Knights will host Ohio, before beginning Big East play on Oct. 1 at Syracuse.

Other highlights on the schedule include a game against Army on Nov. 12 at Yankee Stadium.

As mentioned above, the expectations of Rutgers this season are rather modest outside of Piscataway. Nevertheless, the pressure is definitely rising on Schiano -- the longest-tenured coach in the Big East -- as he enters his 11th season. The high-water mark of 2006, when Rutgers knocked off No. 3 Louisville and finished the season ranked No. 12 in the country, is now a long ways in the rearview mirror. And Schiano is still searching for his first Big East title.

"We can't wait to get started with the 2011 season," Schiano said. "It's a totally different season. Every year is different. Different people. Different circumstances. These guys have worked very hard to put themselves in a position -- that's all we've done. Through all the hard work from December till now, we put ourselves in a position to give ourselves a chance, and now we've got to go out and do it."

Perhaps these Scarlet Knights will be inspired by their fallen teammate, LeGrand, who will work on the Rutgers Radio Network as an analyst this year.

They need look no further for proof they can beat the odds.

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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