Spend enough time around Greg Schiano, and the Buccaneers’ coach just has a knack for making you feel young again.
His practices, like the ones last week with the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, bring you back to college campus days — which makes sense, of course, given that the Buccaneers hired Schiano last year after 11 successful seasons at Rutgers. The practices begin with a whistle, a bouncing team huddle, and a lot of chanting, like an Under Armour commercial. The players then break into position groups and run through a circuit of five stations, working on old-fashioned Pop Warner fundamentals — low tackling, ball-stripping, diving on mats, and running through padded gauntlets.
A few players acknowledged they didn’t quite understand at first why they had to spend so much time on basic football drills in the NFL.
“The first time it was like, ‘Yo, we know this already, why do we keep going over it?’ ” receiver Mike Williams said. “But those situations come up in games where you’ve got to use your fundamentals. In two-minute [drill], when you get tired, you’ve got to use your fundamentals. We learned that you use them when you’re not even thinking.”
Schiano, 47, keeps Bill Belichick young and alert, too. Belichick is now 61 and has been an NFL coach since 1975, yet he still aligns himself with younger, successful coaches such as Urban Meyer, Chip Kelly, and Schiano, who are all in their 40s.
“I think Belichick is smart enough to not rest on his laurels,” said NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, the longtime personnel executive for Tom Landry’s Cowboys. “He’s not too proud to say, ‘I want to see what some of these other guys are doing. They’re up-and-coming young coaches who might help me.’ ”
It’s easy to see why Belichick is drawn to Schiano, and why he has eight former Rutgers players on the Patriots’ roster, including three drafted this year. For one, Schiano is sharp — he has a degree in business administration from Bucknell, where he was all-conference as a linebacker.
He’s also an outside-the-box thinker. Schiano impressed many in college and the pros with his plan in 2011 to eliminate the kickoff — particularly the onside kick — after witnessing one of his players, Eric LeGrand, become paralyzed on the field. Schiano’s plan was to replace the kickoff with a fourth-and-15 situation for the team that just scored — most teams would choose to punt away, but they would have the choice of putting the offense on the field and trying to convert on fourth and 15.
“I’ve talked to him from time to time since he’s been in this league, and he’s been helpful on a lot of things,” Belichick said of Schiano.
Schiano’s practices aren’t revolutionary, but like Belichick’s are efficient and attentive to small details. The new collective bargaining agreement has strict limitations on contact at practice during a week, and the pace of Schiano’s practices is frenetic yet structured, and planned down to the minute.
“In a short amount of time you can get a lot of the fundamentals repped, and I think that’s one thing that can sometimes drift on you if you don’t stay on it,” Schiano said. “I always talk to our players, I’m never going to waste their time or their bodies, so what we do has got to be very efficient.”
Belichick declined to go much into his friendship with Schiano last week, but it is well-established. In addition to all of the Rutgers ties on the Patriots’ roster, Belichick often visited Schiano at Rutgers in the offseason, and later sent his son, Steve, to be a walk-on long snapper there.
Belichick doesn’t pick his friends lightly. Meyer and Kelly both directed inventive, high-octane offenses and had their teams annually competing for national championships.
Schiano, meanwhile, turned Rutgers into a formidable program, which may be an even more impressive feat than Meyer’s two national titles at Florida. The Scarlet Knights had been to one bowl game since 1869 when Schiano arrived in 2001, but Schiano took them to five straight bowl games from 2005-09, and again in 2011, before leaving for the NFL.
He also produced Rutgers’s first first-round draft picks in receiver Kenny Britt (2009), tackle Anthony Davis (2010), and defensive back Devin McCourty (2010), and produced 16 draft picks over the last five years, including seven this year.
“I think he does a real solid job,” Belichick said. “I spent quite a bit of time with him when he was at Rutgers. He develops players well. He has good schemes, he’s a good football mind, evaluates talent well. I think he does everything well.”
Buccaneers receiver Tiquan Underwood, who played for the Patriots in 2011 and was famously cut the day before the Super Bowl, hasn’t had a problem fitting in with Schiano since signing on last year. Underwood’s fourth NFL season was his best, catching 28 passes for 425 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s a neat thing to see, having played for both of them,” Underwood said. “You can see similarities in their style and the way they approach the game. Very structured, and two coaches who demand excellence and hard work from their players.”
Schiano, who went 7-9 in his first year with the Buccaneers, said Belichick had “quite a bit” of influence on how he runs his program, particularly with the way the Buccaneers practice “situational football.”
“I had the opportunity in the last seven or eight years to get to really know him before I came to the Bucs, and there are a lot of things I gleaned from him,” Schiano said. “When I was at Rutgers and he would come down — I think he’s the best — so there’s a lot of things. Coaching points, and things like that. We’ve always been pretty organized, but just a different way to think of some things.”
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
Some good, some bad in exhibition victory
Some leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ 25-21 victory over the Buccaneers on Friday night:
■ A much better game for the pass rush after a subpar performance in the opener against the Eagles. The starting unit came up with four sacks — two by Brandon Spikes, one each by Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich — and overall the Patriots had seven tackles for loss. Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins had six tackles — one for loss — and showed an impressive ability to wade through the muck at the line, seek out the ball carrier, and bring him to the ground.
■ A couple of interesting developments emerged in the running back competition. First, it was fascinating to see the Patriots use Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden at the same time on third and 4 from their 26 on the Patriots’ opening drive. Both ran swing routes into the flat on opposite sides, and Tom Brady hit Vereen for 16 yards. Bolden led the Patriots in rushing with 38 yards on six carries (including 25-yard run) and had more snaps with the first-team offense than LeGarrette Blount, who had just three rushes for 10 yards.
Second, it was interesting to see the patriots use fullback James Develin in the short-yardage running game. After missing the exhibition opener, Develin converted a couple of third and shorts on Friday. Bill Belichick said Develin “has done a good job for us in camp,” and Develin’s abilities in short yardage could make Blount expendable.
■ Belichick takes a lot of pride in his special-teams units, so he must be less than thrilled about the number of penalties and miscues.
The kickoff team allowed returns of 63 and 40 yards, a week after the punt unit allowed a 62-yard return.
Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal try turned into a 50-yarder after a holding penalty by Michael Hoomanawanui and a false start by Chris McDonald. Gostkowski then hit the left upright, and he’s just 2 for 5 this preseason. Cornerback LeQuan Lewis also had a neutral-zone infraction on a punt.
■ The battle at right guard was supposed to be between incumbent Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon, but it’s starting to look like the job could go to Will Svitek. Connolly is slow to return from shoulder surgery and Cannon has been a no-show at practice for two weeks with an undisclosed injury. Not only has Svitek started both exhibition games, he led the Patriots with 48 snaps played on Friday, perhaps a sign that the team is getting him as much work as possible in preparation for starting in Week 1.
■ Another busy week for the rookie defensive backs. Cornerback Logan Ryan, who had three tackles, a pass breakup, and an interception for a touchdown, played 66 of 71 snaps, plus nine more on special teams. Duron Harmon, who had four tackles, played 56 snaps plus another 15 on special teams. Both have shown flashes in camp, but still need the work — they took poor angles and let Tiquan Underwood get behind them for a 41-yard catch in the closing seconds of the second quarter.
■ Finally, Belichick remains a big fan of joint practices, even with Brady’s knee scare.
“There’s not anything I would change about working with these two teams the last two weeks,” Belichick said of the Buccaneers and Eagles. “It helped us as coaches. We went through a lot of situations. It made us think. It helped us prepare ourselves for the season. We talked about some things that we did out there on the field that looking back on it we should have called or could have handled situations a little bit differently.”
DOLLARS AND SENSE
Roster decisions may involve finances
When it comes to making final cuts, don’t forget that financial matters often come into play. Let’s take a look at some of the Patriots’ key roster battles and two crucial pieces of information — how much the player counts against the salary cap if he makes the team, and how much he counts against the cap if he is cut:
QB Tim Tebow $630k $0
RB Leon Washington $1.2m $360k
RB LeGarrette Blount $680k
RB Brandon Bolden $485k
RB George Winn $405k
TE Daniel Fells $1.583m
TE Michael Hoomanawanui $1.323m
TE Jake Ballard $630k
TE Evan Landi $405k
DL Jermaine Cunningham $939.4k
DL Marcus Benard $630k
DL Jake Bequette $619.9k
DL Justin Francis $482k
DL Marcus Forston $480k
DL Michael Buchanan $418k
DL Scott Vallone $405k
DL Anthony White $405k
DB Steve Gregory $2.18m
DB Ras-I Dowling $1.46m
DB Adrian Wilson $1.33m
DB Tavon Wilson $958.6k
DB Marquice Cole $570k
DB Nate Ebner $504k
P Zoltan Mesko $1.37m
P Ryan Allen $405.5k
The Patriots have about $10 million in remaining cap space, so they don’t have to make any roster decisions based solely on savings. In some cases, having a high number can work in a player’s favor (Adrian Wilson, given just $1 million to sign, probably isn’t going anywhere). And having a low number can work both ways — the player could be saved by his cheap price tag, or could be cut because he doesn’t cost anything.
A couple of tight ends — Hoomanawanui and Ballard — could be in trouble because it won’t cost the Patriots anything to cut either of them (especially Hoomanawanui, who might have to renegotiate to the veteran minimum if he wants to stick). The Patriots could save $900,000 if they don’t think Washington gives them enough on kickoff returns, but cutting Blount or Bolden also comes at little to no cost.
Cunningham looks like a goner, as the Patriots have a long list of cheap backup defensive linemen from which to choose. Dowling has drawn the ire of fans with yet another injury during training camp, but the former second-round pick likely gets one more season to prove himself, while Cole could be the odd man out of a crowded secondary.
And Mesko had better punt well this preseason, because Allen has a bigger leg and is much cheaper.
Cox is making quite a impression
The Giants hit the jackpot with one former UMass player in receiver Victor Cruz, and another Minuteman and Boston product is having himself a solid camp so far.
Running back Michael Cox, a Dorchester native and the second-to-last pick of April’s draft (253d overall), is making a good impression and may have an inside track on Da’Rel Scott and Ryan Torain for the Giants’ No. 3 spot.
Cox had nine rushes for 33 yards in the exhibition opener against the Steelers, including runs of 11 and 12 yards.
“Cox ran the ball hard when he had his opportunity,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “He has continued to impress us with his contributions.”
It’s a nice story for the local product, who played at Avon Old Farms in Connecticut. Cox played at Michigan from 2008-11, but was buried on the depth chart and had just 19 carries for 169 yards and two touchdowns in three seasons. He transferred to UMass in 2012 and was able to play right away after enrolling as a graduate student, and rushed 198 times for 715 yards and five touchdowns for the Minutemen.
“I guess my position coach felt there were other guys who deserved to play more than me. I didn’t feel that way, personally,” Cox told the Newark Star-Ledger. “But I still made it to the NFL anyway.”
It’s never too early to start thinking about the draft, and the scouting services utilized by NFL teams are starting to grade the 2014 prospects.
Among the seniors already being rated as first-round picks, from a league source: Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton, Baylor guard Cyril Richardson, Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, and Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews (son of Bruce Matthews, cousin of Clay Matthews).
The highest-rated senior quarterback is Northwestern’s Kain Colter, ranked as a second-rounder. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, who has won two national titles, is rated a third-round prospect. Georgia’s Aaron Murray is graded as a fifth-rounder, as is Miami’s Stephen Morris.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.