Rutgers is a program who’s place in the Big Ten, and the FBS as a whole is difficult to identify. The former is particularly when considering the Scarlet Knights are only entering their second season of Big Ten play. Many people, myself included, believed they would struggle to make the transition, but they surprised in their first year going 8-5. Now, it’s time to see if that was for real or just a flash in the pan.
Leonte Carroo is a bona fide star at receiver for this offense, and is one of the most dangerous deep threats in the conference. Carroo caught 55 passes for 1,086 yards last season. The next three leading receivers, excluding tight end Tyler Croft, also return. That group includes Janarion Grant who is one of the top punt returners in the conference, as well as a solid receiving option.
Rutgers took the “running back by committee” approach to pretty extreme levels in 2014. Five backs rushed for somewhere between 325 yards and 450 yards. Robert Martin led that group in touchdowns with seven, but Josh Hicks and Paul James were the best options in terms of efficiency. Hicks, a sophomore, averaged a solid 6.2 yards per carry last year, and James was at 5.7 yards per carry before tearing his ACL. James is healthy again and expected to be the starting back as training camp opens.
LT Keith Lumpkin and RG Chris Muller have a combined 51 starts in their college careers, but they are also the only offensive linemen on the team with any starting experience. J.J. Denman is a promising option at right tackle as a four-star recruit out of high school, and saw action in eight games as a backup last season.
Three guys are still in the running to start at quarterback for the Scarlet Knights come September. Chris Laviano ought to have entered the spring as the favorite, having been Gary Nova’s backup last season, but considering he was a mere 11-for-28 with 107 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, maybe not. Laviano is still expected to be the guy by plenty of people, but Hayden Rettig and Giovanni Rescigno are also in the mix. Rettig, an LSU transfer, was a highly regarded recruit out of Los Angeles, and has the highest upside of the three. But, there are some concerns about his decision-making considering he voluntarily chose to live in Piscataway, New Jersey over Baton Rouge and L.A.
The Scarlet Knights only return five starters on defense, but two of them are linebackers, which in theory should make linebacker a relative strength. Steve Longa and Quentin Gause are pretty good ones to return too. The outside linebackers combined for nearly 150 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Isaiah Johnson or Brandon Russell will be the new man in the middle for Rutgers, neither of them saw the field last year so it’s difficult to say what they will bring to the table.
We know that Kemoko Turay and Darius Hamilton will bring a strong presence to the defensive line, though. Turay and Hamilton were a force in opponents’ backfields last year combining for 20 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. The other two linemen, Djwany Mera and Sebastian Joseph, were significantly less productive, although both saw playing time in all thirteen games so if nothing else, they do have plenty of in-game experience.
Even with four juniors starting in the secondary, the back end of the defense is the biggest concern on that side of the ball. Safety Delon Stephenson is the only member of the group that is a returning starter. However, he wasn’t much more productive that any of the other guys were in backup roles last season. The cornerbacks have at least exhibited some ability in coverage with Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, the expected starters, recording a combined two interceptions and six pass break-ups in 2014.
I was a huge seller on Rutgers last season, and I was wrong to do so. That doesn’t deter me from selling on them again in 2015, even if it should. The concerns at quarterback, offensive line, and secondary are enough to scare me away from the Scarlet Knights. The non-conference schedule isn’t terrible with the “toughest” games being home dates against Washington State and Kansas, and providing Rutgers a prime opportunity to get to 4-0 in non-conference play and make me look like a real idiot. The conference schedule is a tough one though considering they have to navigate the east with the Michigan schools, Ohio State and Penn State. Plus, they draw Wisconsin and Nebraska as their cross-division opponents. A tough conference schedule, and a non-conference schedule with at least two games that aren’t guaranteed victories have me thinking this season could be a long one, but then again I said that last year too.