Greg Schiano often says that rebuilding a college football program is “never linear,” and each time he does, he’ll use his arm to make an up-and-down motion to illustrate that point.
“It’s always that little bit of that mountain range until you really get all the pieces in place, and when you get the pieces in place, then it kind of goes like that,” Schiano said around this time last November, and as he did , his arm was pointing straight up. “But we’re not there yet.”
Well, as we reach the end of his third season, the arm — or, figuratively, the arrow — is pointing downward for the first time since he retook the Rutgers job in 2019. That certainly doesn’t mean it will stay headed in that direction, but the Scarlet Knights took a step back this season.
They won five games, including two against Big Ten competition, in 2021.
They won four and one, respectively, this year.
Maybe that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. This program was, after all, near the bottom of Division 1 in virtually every way when Schiano was rehired, and Rutgers was breaking in at least a dozen of young players in key positions this season against a brutal schedule. Then, days into camp, presumed starting quarterback Noah Vedral broke his hand, leading to a string of injury problems that Schiano said he had not encountered in his coaching career.
Still: This is a results business. Rutgers was blown out by the best teams on the schedule and failed to pick off winnable games against Nebraska and Iowa. The offense was so anemic that Schiano fired his coordinator midseason, and the program’s highest-rated quarterback recruit ever has struggled in his transition as a full-time starter.
And Schiano’s oft-repeated line about being better in November? After getting curb stomped by Maryland, 37-0, in the final season, those are just empty words.
The team has some promising pieces in place, especially on defense, which bodes well for the future. This report card, however, is about what happened right now, and even Schiano himself can’t be satisfied with the performance of the team — and that, by extension, reflects on the performance of the head coach — in his third season.
“I promise our fans, we will get there,” Schiano said. “As long as we don’t get tired of doing good, we will get there. Just can’t grow weary and say, ‘oh, I can’t do it.’ We can do it. Rutgers can do it. New Jersey can do it. We can do it. We just need to keep plowing ahead. And I promise you that’s what we’ll do.”
Here is how Schiano grades out in his third season:
OFFENSES: The Rutgers offense is broken. It was broken when the season started, and the midseason dismissal of coordinator Sean Gleeson did nothing to change that. Oh, sure, the offense itself changed under interim coordinator Nunzio Campanile, with the quarterbacks stepping in behind center and the focus on a physical running game. But the results, especially against good defenses, did not. Schiano not only has to figure out what he wants philosophically from this unit in the offseason. He has to hire a coordinator who can execute that vision and, most importantly, find the Big Ten caliber playmakers who can finally elevate this unit from the bottom of the national statistics. And, whoever takes over, still doesn’t know if Gavin Wimsatt is a good enough quarterback to get the job done. GRADE: F.
DEFENSE: If Schiano has one area where he can show marked improvement — and signs for a better future — it is with his defense. Under the direction of coordinator Joe Harasymiak, the Scarlet Knights had an aggressive, attacking unit with a deep and talented defensive line. Best yet, most of its best players, including defensive lineman Aaron Lewis and linebacker Tyreem Powell, have multiple years of eligibility remaining. The trick with being keeping all of those players out of the transfer portal while continuing to develop depth in the defensive backfield, and the Scarlet Knights still have a long way to go before they can compete with the elite Big Ten offenses. Still: Schiano, a defensive coach his entire career, has built the foundation for a defense that could give his team its identity. GRADE: B.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Special teams were a mixed bag in Schiano’s third season. He had what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called “maybe the best punting outfit in the history of college football” thanks to a fifth year from the irreplaceable Adam Korsak, and the Scarlet Knights blocked a pair of punts against Nebraska and Michigan that led directly to points . But Rutgers made way too many mistakes on kickoff coverage, allowing a 100-yard touchdown return against Penn State, and field goal kicker Jude McAtamney missed three kicks under 40 yards in his first season. It seems clear that Schiano should hire a full-time special teams coordinator to handle this phase of the game. Will he? GRADE: C.
GAME COACHING: The loss at Michigan State was a microcosm of Schiano’s struggles on the sidelines this season. Not only were the Scarlet Knights flagged for a ridiculous 14 penalties, but the head coach flushed a full 90 seconds of game time and three time outs at the end of the first half because he feared that quarterback Gavin Wimsatt would make a mistake. The gameplans were sound at times, and Schiano deserves credit for having his team ready against better competition, including a 17-14 halftime lead against Michigan. But that certainly isn’t enough to tip the scales when the Scarlet Knights threw away winnable home games against Nebraska and Iowa. GRADE: D.
RECRUITING: Rutgers has the 54th ranked recruiting class in the country, according to 247Sports, which places them behind the likes of Vanderbilt and UCF. Even if you hold your nose up at rankings — remember, the 2020 class was ranked in the 50s and had current defensive stars Tyreem Powell, Max Melton and Wesley Bailey — that is obviously not good enough to close the gap with the Big Ten’s best. Schiano did have a strong recruiting class last year, however, and it is hard to fully judge until we see which players are added through the transfer portal. For now, though, this is another area that needs to improve. It is worth asking: When will Rutgers truly reestablish the talent pipeline from the North Jersey parochial powers? GRADE: C.
CULTURE: Remember when it was not uncommon to have an off-the-field issue embarrass the university? You should, and you should note — knock on wood — that it’s been a while. Schiano has three years now to set his culture and, if the sheer number of times the word “CHOP” is used during interviews is any indication, it is well established. The big question: Is that culture strong enough that players who might have offseason opportunities through the transfer portal will want to stay? We’ll have that answer soon. GRADE: A.
HIRING/STAFFING: It appears that Schiano made his biggest hire of the offseason with Joe Harasymiak, who in his first year as defensive coordinator improved a unit that was regularly gashed a year earlier. That success, however, was overshadowed by Schiano’s decision — unprecedented in his career — to fire his hand-picked offensive coordinator at midseason. Sean Gleeson was kicked to the curb, and while Nunzio Campanile made noticeable changes in the interim role, the change in leadership did not result in a major level of improvement. The decision on the next OC could have a big impact on whether or not Schiano 2.0 is successful. Will Schiano lean on familiar faces for the job? Will he seek out new blood and ideas? GRADE: D.
PLAYER DEVELOPMENT: The Rutgers roster is loaded with players who have taken significant steps forward this season, and they’ll make up the foundation of the program going forward. Those names are familiar: Aaron Lewis, Wesley Bailey, Tyreem Powell, Samuel Brown V, and many more. But the player at the most important position did not, and that overshadows everything else. Remember, Gavin Wimsatt left high school early to give himself what amounted to a season-long headstart on his first collegiate campaign. Schiano handed him the reins with four games remaining, and while that valuable experience should help his development, it remains unclear whether or not the Scarlet Knights really have the quarterback who will take this program to the next level. GRADE: C.
PROGRAM BUILDING: The gameday experience at Rutgers, between The Boardwalk and the light show at night games, has never been better. Schiano, who has his hand in everything, deserves credit for that, and Rutgers finally has the staffing level to make improvements like this a reality. Rutgers has $25 million towards the construction of a practice facility, courtesy of the program’s friends in Trenton, but the more pressing question will be whether or not Rutgers can compete in the NIL landscape. “I don’t know,” Schiano said recently when asked if Rutgers was ready to play portal defense. “I know we have some things going on, but it’s going to be a critical part in the continued growth of our program.” GRADE: B.
OVERALL: Before the season, I wrote this sentence: “Typically, you have a good idea where a college football program is headed after Year 3.” Well, the Scarlet Knights better hope that isn’t true. Rutgers finished that pivotal third season with five consecutive losses and an offense that was barely functional. Schiano can point to injuries as a reason for the struggles, but there’s no excuse for the product fans had to watch in November. Bottom line: This isn’t remotely good enough, and that falls on the head coach. GRADE: D.
MORE FROM STEVE POLITI:
The untold story of how Rutgers crashed the Big Ten
How an ex-Rutgers athlete ended up charged with murder in Tijuana
I was a bird-flipping Little League menace — and it’s time to come clean
The search for Luther Wright, once NJ’s greatest hoops talent
I played Augusta National and had my own Masters meltdown
Ranking the 99 greatest athletes in New Jersey history
Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust. Please consider supporting us with a subscription.
Steve Politi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.