Most of the work had already been done by the time the traditional National Signing Day arrived Wednesday.
Rutgers locked in 23 players back in December, adding the newest members of a program looking to continue an upward trajectory under Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights coaching staff.
On Wednesday, Schiano and Co. welcomed in 10 more players, including three transfers and seven preferred walk-ons, capping off a recruiting process that was unlike any other before, filled with virtual meetings and virtual tours as the COVID-19 pandemic stripped away so many traditional aspects of recruiting.
“It’s huge that we’re having these 33 guys but I think it’s even bigger the buzz that’s going on around Rutgers football,” Schiano said. “That’s the most important thing to me. To me, 99 percent of destination is direction. If we can just keep heading in the right direction, we’re going to get there.”
Ever since he returned to Rutgers, Schiano has made it clear that recruiting New Jersey, attracting players throughout the state who not only possess talent but also fit the sort of culture and program he wants to build, would be a priority.
That’s how he turned the program around during his first stint in Piscataway, and now he needs to do it again.
Consider the 2021 recruiting class a step in the right direction — or several steps.
Of the 33 new players that Rutgers has welcomed in, whether they’re scholarship players or preferred walk-ons, 16 are from New Jersey, including two ranked in the top 10.
While there’s still progress to make up, it’s a sign that Rutgers is at least a factor for in-state recruits.
Certainly the Scarlet Knights’ 3-6 finish last season, after going winless against Big Ten competition the previous two years, helped that cause.
It’s momentum that Rutgers, which had fallen considerably and struggled to find footing in the Big Ten in the past, badly needed.
“That pride in New Jersey,” Schiano said, “that pride in Rutgers football is something tangible.”
A lot of that is reflected in recruiting.
Rutgers improved throughout Schiano’s first go-round with the Scarlet Knights as recruiting picked up steam, and some of New Jersey’s top players began seriously considering the Scarlet Knights.
The Class of 2012, which Schiano built before leaving for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shortly before signing day, included players like Darius Hamilton and Leonte Carroo — two players out of Don Bosco Prep in Bergen County who were top-five prospects in the state.
That class finished No. 23 in 247Sports’ team rankings, but Schiano said Wednesday that it could’ve been a top-10 class until the coaching changes led to some movement.
It showed the program was moving in the right direction.
“Do those rankings mean anything? Not really,” Schiano said. “But you know what, they mean something or they wouldn’t have them. Just the perception was that we were there. We now were being able to get the top (players). I think that’s where we’re headed. We’re headed back to that.”
That’s what Schiano and Rutgers have to hope for.
There’s still plenty of work for the Scarlet Knights to do before they become a significant factor in the Big Ten East.
The rebuild remains steep.
But the 3-6 finish to the 2020 season and some recruiting momentum has pointed Rutgers in the direction it needs to continue to move in.
“There’s big steps and then there’s baby steps,” Schiano said. “Today’s a big step.”