Greg Schiano has evolved since his first tenure at Rutgers, and he may have football team close to a breakthrough

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Greg Schiano has discovered that the minor details that once gnawed at the 34-year-old Rutgers coach no longer trouble the 54-year-old Rutgers coach, who has adopted more of a widescreen approach as he heads into the second year of his second tenure with the Scarlet Knights.

Case in point: Schiano’s office inside the program's football facility has remained sparsely decorated since his return, with largely empty shelves and no rush to perform any major interior redesign given the limitations on recruiting imposed by the NCAA since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Stuff like that would’ve driven me nuts in the past," Schiano told USA TODAY Sports. "Now I just want to coach my team and improve our team. That’s what gets me going. It’s made it more fun to coach."

There are several apparent differences between Schiano’s first tenure, which ran from 2001-11 and transformed Rutgers from laughingstock to major-bowl contender, and his second, which began last winter and has quickly seen the Scarlet Knights climb out of the basement in the Big Ten.

Coach Greg Schiano and Rutgers won at Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland last season playing a conference-only schedule.
Coach Greg Schiano and Rutgers won at Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland last season playing a conference-only schedule.

One is Schiano himself, with a calmer and more nuanced attitude toward program construction and maintenance relative to the hard-charging style that once led him to exert control over every nook and cranny of the Scarlet Knights’ existence.

Another is in Rutgers’ willingness to lean on transfers to “jumpstart it off the ground,” Schiano said. Last year’s roster had transfers starting at tight end, offensive guard, defensive tackle, safety, wide receiver and quarterback; coaches had existing relationships with every new addition but quarterback Noah Vedral, who came highly recommended by his former coaches at Nebraska and quickly brought consistency to an unsettled position.

Most of all, the situation Schiano took over upon his return is dramatically better than the program’s landscape in 2001, when Rutgers would lose recruits in the winter and games in the fall to Football Championship Subdivision competition. In terms of overall talent level, the deeper financial investment in the program and the roster's buy-in with the new staff — after spending time with the Scarlet Knights, Schiano told his predecessor, current NFL assistant Chris Ash, that “the guys knew how to work" — Rutgers is far closer to competitiveness than in the first years of his previous tenure.

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“I think it was just some chemistry things, some stability things, that allowed them to kind of unlock their skills,” Schiano said.

The differences are dwarfed by the one obvious connection between one tenure and the next: As during the 2000s, when Rutgers reached six bowl games in seven years and nearly broke into the Bowl Championship Series, there is a sneaking suspicion that Schiano has Rutgers on track to reverse years of frustration and impact the Big Ten's balance of power beyond perennial conference powerhouse Ohio State.

"You look at what we did and what we could’ve done, and I think that’s what guys like me take into consideration — that the sky’s the limit for this team," said senior defensive end Mike Tverdov. "We’re really experienced, we’re a veteran football team, and if we just trust Coach Schiano and his plan and the coaching staff, then we’re going to do things that we’ve never done here."

Impressive recruiting class

Last year's team went 3-6 against a Big Ten-only schedule, matching Rutgers' combined win total across the previous two seasons, the program's number of conference wins across the previous four years and the number of true road wins across the previous five years. (The Scarlet Knights were 7-45 in Big Ten play and 21-52 overall from the program's entry into the conference in 2014 through 2019.)

Rutgers won at Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland. There were narrow losses to Illinois and Michigan, the latter in triple-overtime. Even without the benefit of non-conference play, the Scarlet Knights scored twice as many points per game as in 2019 and improved 24 spots in the national rankings in scoring defense.

"I certainly would’ve liked to win more of them," Schiano said. "But they worked really hard, they got better. They won more than they’ve been accustomed to around here, but not what we set out to do. So I look at it as a positive. Plenty of room to improve, right? That’s our goal."

Recruiting has picked up, and not just within New Jersey, where Schiano and his staff carry significant clout. While in-state prospects form the backbone of the program's recruiting efforts, Schiano and the Scarlet Knights hold verbal commitments from players in Kentucky, Ohio, Florida and Illinois, as part of a 2022 signing class that currently ranks 10th nationally and second in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports.com.

"We've made a lot of progress in that area," Schiano said.

The 2022 cycle will be his third, joining a 2021 class that ranked ninth in the Big Ten and a recruited-on-the-fly 2020 group that has exceeded expectations. Several starters inherited from the previous staff have blossomed into all-conference contenders, including Tverdov, running back Isaih Pacheco and linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi.

In total, the roster is stronger than the Scarlet Knights' recent record might suggest — a testament in part to Ash, who was fired midway through the 2019 season, and to the rapid merger of key holdovers and incoming recruits by Schiano and his staff.

"There were several good players on our roster that I think really developed," said Schiano. "We really have to leverage those guys, because some of those guys play on anybody’s team in the Big Ten. And that’s what you need to get to, obviously. When you say, ‘I wouldn’t trade many of mine for yours,’ that’s when you know you’ve got a roster that you want."

Once the 2022 class is signed, "I think from there we can really go," he said.

Ahead of the curve

When the program takes the next step is hard to predict, as is just exactly what that step might resemble. In the long run, anything but consistent trips into the postseason might be considered a disappointment given Schiano's track record; projecting the Scarlet Knights to truly contend for the Big Ten championship might be overly optimistic given Ohio State's stranglehold on a very deep East division.

Even short-term projections are complicated by the impact of COVID-19 on last year's slog of a regular season, making it difficult to gauge how teams will look in September after being able to conduct full spring and offseason workouts. The Scarlet Knights close spring drills with Thursday's final scrimmage, which was moved deeper into May after a COVID-19 outbreak led to a brief shutdown of team activities.

"Coming from where we were last summer, with all the hiccups, the stops, the starts, the difficulties we faced there, it’s a lot smoother," Vedral said. "We’ve been able to take off and get a running start."

Against even more challenging on-field circumstances, it took four full years in Schiano's first tenure before Rutgers turned the corner. In comparison, 2021 Rutgers is already ahead of the curve, with a breakthrough potentially coming sooner rather than later.

"Internally, I’m encouraged where we are," Schiano said. "I don’t know if it’s ahead of schedule, on schedule or behind. I’m encouraged because I think the buy-in from our team is what’s most exciting.

"These guys really believe that we’re capable and if we do what I’m asking them to do, we’ll have an opportunity to win every week. That may be the difference. I’m not sure if they believed that before."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Greg Schiano, in second Rutgers football tenure, nears breakthrough