Rutgers settles in under newest offensive coordinator
Despite becoming the Rutgers football team’s sixth offensive coordinator in as many years, Ben McDaniels calling the plays and designing the schemes at first seemed to be the best way to establish continuity.
Following Ralph Friedgen’s resignation after one year on the job in the Scarlet Knights’ inaugural Big Ten season, now-suspended head coach Kyle Flood decided to fill the void by hiring from within — the offensive guru’s apprentice.
But roughly one-third of the way through the 2015 season, Rutgers (2-2, 0-1) looks completely reinvented.
While part of that comes from the departure of former four-year starter Gary Nova and entry of sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano, McDaniels' philosophy features a mix of old and new.
The familiarity begins with a pair of young tailbacks in Josh Hicks and Robert Martin who have avoided the generic curse of a sophomore slump in the early going. In their second season on the Banks, Hicks and Martin totaled 623 yards on 103 carries for five touchdowns.
“We love running the ball,” Hicks said. “We love hitting the holes, having the O-Line block for us.”
Those numbers were most relevant as recent as last Saturday. The pair of “super sophs” injected life back into the Knights’ bloodstream on offense one week after the ground game stalled with a lackluster 1.34 yards per carry in a sloppy 28-3 loss at Penn State.
During Rutgers’ 27-14 rebound victory on homecoming against Kansas this past Saturday, Hicks broke out for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries to lead the revival of the attack. Martin complemented his running mate by eclipsing the century mark as well with 102 yards on 17 touches.
While the early success on the ground serves as a reminder of the blueprint to the strong finish to 2014 where the Knights closed their first season in a premier conference with three straight wins to an 8-5 season overall, the passing game’s efficiency has done enough to complement that.
Despite the five interceptions countering his four touchdowns in the past three games, Laviano has mainly executed McDaniels’s blueprint.
By no means has Laviano lit it up on the field, but that’s not what McDaniels’s offense calls for. Back on the program’s Aug. 16 media day, the first-year offensive coordinator provided some insight on what to expect with his added wrinkle to the pro-style offense his predecessor, Freidgen, left behind.
“We absolutely intend on playing in multiple tempos,” McDaniels said. “I think it benefits you and it challenges the defense to have to be ready for that. Not dissimilar to a lot of places, we'll have multiple tempos that we'll try and play at.”
Those sentiments came well before the current engineer of his unit, Laviano, emerged as the starting quarterback.
While fellow sophomore and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig’s line of 9-for-11 with 110 yards and a touchdown through the air in the first half of the Sept. 5 season opener against Norfolk State provides a small sample size of how efficient a signal-caller can be in McDaniels’s playbook of high-percentage passes and physical runs, Laviano’s larger body of work likely gives more accuracy to that answer.
Through his four appearances under center this fall, three of which have been starts, Laviano leads the Big Ten and ranks 10th in the nation in completion percentage at 72 percent.
And while the numbers don’t pop out beyond that with a pedestrian 794 yards to go with six touchdowns and five picks, the game-manager blueprint was evident against the Jayhawks as Rutgers racked up 513 yards of total offense.
That recipe, when it leads to a win, is one that Laviano appears quite fond of.
“Coach McDaniels does a great job with play-calling,” Laviano said. “He just puts me in a good position to get the ball to the highest percentage receiver on that particular play.”
As Leonte Carroo awaits his status on his indefinite suspension, the Knights haven’t been able to experiment as much with stretching the field.
Adapting, in a sense, without the senior wide receiver and immersing himself in McDaniels’s mindset, Laviano developed a solid relationship on the field in the passing game with his flanking tight ends.
One safety blanket has been Matt Flanagan.
The sophomore tight end has three touchdowns and 93 yards on 10 catches. Two of those scores came from Laviano on a seven-yard rollout against Kansas and a one-yard strike in the team's 37-34 loss to Washington State on Sept. 12.
Interim head coach Norries Wilson knows that Rutgers hasn’t gone heaving the ball all over the field with Laviano.
But if the latest success in the combination of a heavy rushing attack and the efficient aerial attack is any hint of what the offense can still develop into, Wilson and the Knights are just fine with that.
“Taking completions is a great thing,” Wilson said. “It’s not something that has been unscripted or unpracticed. If we have done it, we’re not trying to put our passing game in the phone booth because that’s gonna limit the things you can do in the run game. Don’t think that we aren’t prepared for (throwing the ball downfield), it just hasn’t happened right now. And as we continue to practice, those things will come about.”
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