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May 10, 2011If Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was confused about his offense last season, imagine how starting center Howard Barbieri felt.
The Scarlet Knights had one of the worst offenses in the country last season, but they may have led the Big East in players taking snaps. There were the quarterbacks, Chas Dodd and Tom Savage. There also were the receivers running the "Wildcat" package, Jeremy Deering and Mohamed Sanu.
All those guys taking snaps contributed to ineffectiveness. Rutgers finished the season among the worst 10 teams in the nation in rushing yards and total yards per game. The Scarlet Knights, who lost their final six games in a 4-8 season, suffered 61 sacks, 10 more than any other team in the country.
"We really didn't have an identity," Schiano said. "We were a [shot]gun-run team, we were a 'Pistol' team, we were a spread team."
With a coaching-staff overhaul led by the addition of offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Schiano hopes Rutgers will rediscover the identity that propelled the program from a doormat to a regular bowl team. Last season's struggles ended Rutgers' streak of five consecutive bowls and marked the first time since 2005 that the Scarlet Knights won fewer than eight games.
Rutgers once was the program of tailback Ray Rice and fullback Brian Leonard, but the Scarlet Knights lost their way when they started toying with a spread offense.
On paper, it may have made sense. Savage was a four-star recruit and claimed the starting quarterback job as a true freshman early in the 2009 season, and with Sanu, Deering and Mark Harrison, Rutgers appeared to have one of the best receiver groups in the Big East.
One problem: Sanu and Deering ended up spending a bulk of their time running the Wildcat, rushing a combined 136 times; they combined for 60 receptions. By the end of the season, Sanu said he was beat up "all over." That meant one of Rutgers' best offensive players touched the ball only 22 times from scrimmage in the last six games of the year.
Sanu's challenge wasn't figuring out where he needed to be. It was fatigue borne of running a route on one play, then taking a snap on the next.
"I always knew where I had to be," Sanu said. "You would have to be a 'Wildcat' and then you'd have to run a route at a certain depth. Sometimes you'd forget something because the pace has changed."
Under Cignetti, though, Rutgers has gone back to its roots. Sanu and quarterback Chas Dodd, who started seven of the last eight games last season, said the "Wildcat" did not make an appearance at spring practice this year.
Instead, Rutgers is returning to the pro-style offense that has been Cignetti's forte at Pittsburgh, California, North Carolina and Fresno State as well as in the NFL as a quarterback coach for the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints.
Given their compatible philosophies, the Schiano-Cignetti partnership would seem to be a natural one, although both of their recent careers have been marked by movement. Cignetti has had six jobs in seven years, and Schiano has had three offensive play-callers since 2006.
After flirting with recent offensive trends - the spread, Wildcat and Pistol - Schiano has returned to a more comfortable offensive philosophy.
"I definitely underestimated how important my philosophical beliefs are on offense and the effect it can have on the entire football team," Schiano said. "The best thing you can do if you make a mistake is to fix it."
Although the core of the offense may be similar to what Rutgers has run in the past, what drew Schiano to Cignetti was the coordinator's ability to adjust to personnel. Pitt was a power run team in 2009, when Dion Lewis rushed for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns. But the Panthers' offense was at its best that season when wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin and tight end Dorin Dickerson were involved.
With a new quarterback and an inconsistent line, Pitt's offense slipped last season, enough to cost Dave Wannstedt and his staff their jobs. Despite the struggles, Lewis still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and backup Ray Graham emerged to rush for 922 yards.
If Cignetti is going to tailor Rutgers' offense to existing personnel, he could take advantage of Rutgers' receivers. Sanu had 44 receptions for 418 yards and two TDs last season, when he also had 59 rushes for 309 yards and four scores. Harrison caught 44 passes for 829 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore. Tight end D.C. Jefferson, who arrived at Rutgers as a quarterback, is one of the team's best athletes, but has caught only 15 passes in two seasons.
Deering was moved to running back during the spring to bolster depth at the position, but he is a good receiver.
"The NFL pro-style system uses multiple personnel groupings, multiple formations, multiple shifts, multiple motions," Cignetti said after he was hired. "What it allows you to do is get your playmakers the ball. [We plan to] create matchups and mismatches, based on personnel flexibility."
One of the keys to running the offensive effectively will be Dodd, a sophomore from powerhouse Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes, where he played with Marcus Lattimore. Dodd became the starting quarterback Oct. 8, and his hold on the starting job tightened when Savage announced in February that he was transferring to Arizona.
One of the reasons Dodd became the starter last season was because of his ability to move in the pocket, which came in handy with Rutgers' porous line. Under Cignetti, though, he'll have a bit of a learning curve: Dodd played in a spread offense in high school, and this is his first exposure to a pro-style offense.
"Certain concepts that we have, I've seen before," Dodd said. "I'm comfortable with that and I'm used to it. I'm just learning the new terminology that comes with a new offense."
Rutgers needs an improved rushing attack. Much of Rutgers' heavy reliance on the Wildcat came because the Scarlet Knights' traditional run game was a mess. Tailbacks Jordan Thomas and Joe Martinek combined to rush for 693 yards and 3.9 yards per carry.
That position received an overhaul this spring; Thomas was moved to cornerback and Martinek to fullback. Rutgers went through spring practice with Deering, Jawan Jamison and De'Antwan Williams at tailback, but the hope is true freshman Savon Huggins can provide a spark. Huggins, who arrives this summer, is a four-star prospect and was the seventh-ranked running back in the 2011 recruiting class.
There also is hope that the offensive line, which returns four starters, will be better.
If the rushing attack improves, Schiano is hopeful the carryover will have an impact on the rest of the team. The poor offense certainly dragged down the whole team last season. The Scarlet Knights' final three games were an all-around disaster. In losses to Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia, Rutgers allowed 1,611 total yards and 20 touchdowns.
"The run game brings toughness to your program," Schiano said. "Being able to stop the run is one of the most highly correlated statistics to winning games. How do you get good at stopping the run? Well, you have a team that can run the ball at you. It all ties together."
Rutgers also hopes solving its identity crisis on offense will yield quick returns. West Virginia will head into the season as the favorite to win the league, but the Big East race truly looks to be wide open and an improved offense would put Rutgers in the title hunt.
Schiano said the benefits showed in the spring.
"You have to know who you are," he said. "Establishing that identity has given them confidence. Cumulative repetition will give them the most confidence."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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