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March 29, 2011

Rutgers quick to change after 4-8 season

Give Rutgers coach Greg Schiano credit: He's not going to allow his team to stand still after a 4-8 season, the program's worst since 2002.

Spring practice will begin with a slew of position changes on both sides of the ball. The most notable changes include leading rusher Jordan Thomas moving to cornerback, wide receiver and "Wildcat" back Jeremy Deering moving to running back and returning starters David Rowe, Manny Abreu and Khaseem Greene moving from one defensive position to another.

Chas Dodd will have to learn a new system after passing for 1,455 yards in the final eight games of last season.
Coach: Greg Schiano
Last season: 4-8 overall, 1-6 in the Big East
Spring dates: March 29-April 30
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (9): QB Chas Dodd, T Art Forst, WR Mark Harrison, TE D.C. Jefferson, RB Joe Martinek (moving to fullback), WR Mohamed Sanu, T Desmond Stapleton, G Caleb Ruch, G Desmond Wynn.
Defense (5): LB Manny Abreu (moving to end), LB Steve Beauharnais, FS Khaseem Greene (moving to outside linebacker), CB David Rowe (moving to safety), T Scott Vallone.
Special teams (1): K San San Te.
While Schiano normally deals with a change or two among his assistants, this offseason brought more pronounced changes. Former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti took the same position at Rutgers. He's one of three new assistants on the staff who came from the Panthers (tight ends coach Brian Angelichio and secondary coach Jeff Hafley are the others).

All of the moves are designed to help Rutgers be what it was when it went to five consecutive bowl games from 2005-09: a team with a physical, pro-style offense and a speedy defense.

Here's a look at Rutgers as it prepares for what should be a busier-than-usual spring practice.

Positions of strength

Rutgers has a deep wide receiver group that should flourish in a more conventional offense. Mark Harrison returns after catching 44 passes for 829 yards and nine touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu and Jeremy Deering combined for 756 yards and three touchdowns, but their numbers were deflated by Rutgers' over-reliance on the "Wildcat." Deering moves to running back for the spring, meaning there will be more opportunities for Brandon Coleman, a four-star recruit who redshirted last season. For the second consecutive season, Rutgers will return a quarterback who started as a true freshman. Chas Dodd took over Tom Savage at midseason and passed for 1,455 yards in the final eight games. Savage has since announced his intention to transfer to Arizona. The defense has some holes to fill, but the Scarlet Knights have a reliable anchor at every level -- T Scott Vallone, LB Steve Beauharnais and S David Rowe.

Help is needed

Deering and Sanu finished with a combined 136 carries out of the "Wildcat." Meanwhile, RBs Jordan Thomas and Joe Martinek carried a combined 180 times. Whatever Rutgers tried, it rarely worked: The Scarlet Knights were 110th nationally in rushing at 100.9 yards per game. For the spring, Thomas is moving to cornerback, where Rutgers needs his speed. Deering will be the tailback for the spring, while Martinek will play fullback. Don't expect running back to be a finished product until Rivals100 RB Savon Huggins arrives in the summer. But who will block for a retooled offense? The line was atrocious last season, contributing to the paltry rushing numbers; in addition, Rutgers allowed a staggering 61 sacks, 10 more than any other team in the country. The Scarlet Knights will look to junior college transfer Dallas Hendrikson to take over at center, but they still need to settle the right side of the line. Three starters on the defensive line are gone. The position switches are designed to improve the defensive speed, but will all the experiments pan out? Starting LB Manny Abreu is moving to end, Beauharnais moves from the middle to strongside linebacker, FS Khaseem Greene moves to weakside linebacker, Thomas moves to cornerback and Rowe moves from cornerback to safety.

3 guys to watch

RB Jeremy Deering: He was one of the best freshmen in the Big East last season, even if he didn't have a set position (352 rushing yards, 338 receiving yards, 3-of-4 passing). He may be in the same boat as a sophomore. He starts the spring at running back after playing receiver and taking direct snaps last season. Huggins could be the primary running back when he arrives on campus, so Deering's best position might remain utility man.

DT Kenneth Kirksey: He appears to be physically ready to compete after spending the fall in prep school. He should move into the rotation immediately and has a chance to be a starter when the season begins.

S Lorenzo Waters: Waters, a redshirt freshman, can play both safety spots, which is good news for a defense that's experimenting with so many position changes. He can run and looks like he has the tools to be a playmaker. With Green moving to linebacker, Waters will get a long look at safety.

The pressure is on

TE D.C. Jefferson: He arrived at Rutgers as a quarterback but moved to tight end two years ago. He has all the physical tools, but he has yet to be a major factor at the position (15 catches, 274 yards, one touchdown in two years). Dorin Dickerson, another good athlete who struggled to find a position, flourished as a tight end at Pittsburgh under new coordinator Frank Cignetti and new tight ends coach Brian Angelichio. The pieces finally may be in place for a breakout season for Jefferson.

The buzz

After a 4-8 season, Schiano wasted little time in changing his approach. Spring practice will be a key time for players to learn new positions and adjust to new coaches. Some experiments may work and some may fail, but Schiano appears to be trying every available option to make the team competitive again.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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