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August 1, 2008

More than ever, Rutgers' fate in Teel's hands

MORE: Preseason Countdown: No. 39 Rutgers

NEWPORT, R.I. Saturday evenings in October and November were tense times for Greg Schiano last season, regardless of whether Rutgers won or lost.

Mike Teel, Schiano's quarterback, was enjoying one of the best passing seasons in school history. However, Teel's season was just as painful as it was triumphant.

In an Oct. 6 loss to Cincinnati, Teel bruised the thumb on his throwing hand when he hit a helmet on a follow through. A week later, he jammed the same thumb on a handoff against Syracuse. To complete the hand-injury trifecta, Teel slammed his right hand on another helmet during a follow through on Oct. 18 against South Florida.

By 11 p.m. on game night, Teel's hand was swollen and throbbing. During many game weeks he was unable to practice. Despite the pain, Teel passed for 3,147 yards and a school-record 20 touchdowns. Two of those scoring passes came in a 30-27 win over then-No. 2 USF the Scarlet Knights' signature win last season.

"I think people underestimated how tough it was for him last year with the pain in his thumb from the fourth game on," Schiano said. "I stayed in contact with he and his dad. I look at these guys like they're my own kids, and if he were my son and he wanted to do it, I'd let him do it."

It's a good thing Teel's hand is healed. Rutgers' immediate future is firmly in his grip.

Over the last three years, the face of Rutgers' renaissance belonged to fullback Brian Leonard and running back Ray Rice. With Rice the school's career rusher leader gone to the NFL, the next logical step is for the mantle to pass to Teel.

"He's the team leader," Schiano said. "He's our quarterback; and he's the guy not only the offense looks to, but the entire team."

Rutgers' philosophy on offense has been the power running game under Rice, who rushed for 4,926 yards and 49 touchdowns in three seasons. However, the passing game was no slouch last season. Rutgers was the first team in NCAA history to have a 2,000-yard rusher, a 3,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.

Even without Rice, Rutgers is one of just two teams to return a 3,000-yard passer and multiple 1,000-yard receivers.

Don't tell Rutgers' boo-birds, however. Though the heat on Teel has lessened over the last two years, Teel remembers the early games of 2006 (a season in which Rutgers finished 11-2) when he was the fans' whipping boy.

"You have to understand the position that the program is in and position you're in," Teel said. "I've grown up in New Jersey and I know how the people are. They want you to be successful and they expect you to be successful. I don't think anyone likes to get booed. I've grown up and understood that's the way it is."

He also sought out former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms for advice. Teel began working out with Simms when the Rutgers QB was a freshman in high school. Simms' youngest son, Matt, who would go on to sign with Big East rival Louisville, was also a teammate of Teel's for one season at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J.

"He told me it's not about what the fans think or what the media thinks," Teel said. "It's about what you do for your team and how you prepare week in and week out. That kind of got me through things."

With his hand healed and ego no longer bruised, Teel hopes to have a career year in his senior season. Schiano lauds Teel as a tireless worker and student of the game. All of that could pay off in 2008. Two superstar wideouts help, too.

Rutgers must replace running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 4,926 career yards and 49 touchdowns. Here are the top candidates to replace him:
Kordell Young - 5-9/185/Soph.
Dynamic back would have been a factor last year if not for injury.
Mason Robinson - 5-10/190/Soph.
He rushed for 202 yards as a true freshman last season.
Joe Martinek - 6-0/215/R-Fr.
The all-time leading rusher in New Jersey history spent redshirt year as DB.
Jourdan Brooks - 6-1/245/R-Fr.
Huge back gives Schiano a battering ram when he needs it.
Kenny Britt (1,232 yards, eight touchdowns) and Tiquan Underwood (1,100 yards, seven touchdowns) are all-conference caliber receivers.

"When you look at the two, I don't know if there's a better duo in the country," Teel said. "They're two tremendously talented athletes. The thing that makes them so special is they do different things. Kenny's a big, physical guy that will go over middle and catch the ball and make plays. Ty is a guy who gets himself open. He finds weaknesses in the defense."

While the 2008 season could offer a changing of the guard from Rutgers' running game to its passing game, Schiano remains optimistic about replacing Rice.

Four backs are in contention for the starters role. Sophomore Kordell Young was slated to be an oft-used backup for Rice last season, but Young missed the final 10 games of the season after knee surgery. If he's healthy, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Young can be a dynamic presence with his ability to factor into the passing game.

Sophomore Mason Robinson instead became the backup, but he carried the ball only 36 times for 202 yards. Jourdan Brooks, a 6-1, 245-pound redshirt freshman, gives Schiano a bruiser. Redshirt freshman Joe Martinek is also in the mix.

Though Rutgers' top four backs have only 83 career carries between them, the shadow of Rice could hang over Teel even more than the replacement running backs. As the Scarlet Knights did with Rice and Leonard, they will look to Teel for the leadership to get them out of tough spots.

"If that's something that comes out of this season, I'm comfortable with that," Teel said. "It's not something that I'm looking for, but if that happens, I'm more than happy to take that role."

MORE: Preseason Countdown: No. 39 Rutgers

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

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