I'm just about gearing up for some early looks towards 2010 football season. Consider the following:
1. Rutgers loses its top deep threat, big play receiver in Tim Brown to graduation.
2. No one besides Mohamed Sanu is guaranteed to be a starter next season. There are many other first and second year receivers on the roster, but none of them really panned out in '10. It looks like the staff does have a pretty good group of recruits coming in here (as some of the players already on the roster were), and some of them could possibly push for playing time.
3. Right now it apepars that true freshman Mark Harrison is at least momentarily the favorite to start opposite Sanu. We know that he was very productive in high school, he's tall, and he is very athletic for his size.
Harrison will be pushed by the likes of Tim Wright, Keith Stroud, Eddie Poole and Marcus Cooper, none of whom really stood out in '09. Aaron Hayward and Quron Pratt (if he ultimately ends up at receiver) will be in the mix too, and there's always Julian Hayes coming back for his fifth season.
Clearly, there's an opening for another contributor to this group; especially one who could fill Tim Brown's traditional role as a slot receiver used to stretch the field. Coming into the season, my wish was that Mason Robinson turned into that player. He started his career off at RB, and honestly didn't get much of a fair shake there; but as a speedy athlete without a lot of power, he probably was better suited for receiver or cornerback. Robinson started to get some looks at WR in the spring, but a thin RB depth chart in the fall led him to return to the backfield. I wasn't thrilled at the prospect, because Greg Schiano is adamantly opposed to RB platoons, which has often led the backups there to wither without any reps, even in situations where a starter like Ray Rice was getting far overworked.
As awful as the season opening loss to Cincinnati was, probably the worst aspect of it was that Robinson ended up going down with a knee injury, and taking a medical redshirt (he has two years of eligibility remaining). Now, a lot of what I'm saying falls under the assumption that Mason can come back at 100%, which is far from certain, as illustrated by Kordell Young's ongoing struggles. Yesterday, Greg Schiano indicated in his presser that both players will likely miss the upcoming spring practice session. If M-Rob does come back healthy, I think the need at receiver, combined with a deeper RB depth chart next fall suggest that Robinson should see the majority of his touches at receiver. The offense can be creative with him; I'm not suggestng he's in their class, but players with similar skillsets like Reggie Bush and Percy Harvin received touches all over the field.
The reason that I'm hoping that Robinson can return and fill this role is because speed has always been his calling card. I could see someone like Hayward being very useful in the slot too, but that'd be more in a checkdown, safety valve role, at least initially. Incoming freshmen like Tejay Johnson and J.T. Tartacoff could fill similar roles to what I'm envisioning here, but they'll only be freshmen, and you never know what position someone will end up in until they get to campus.
Mostly, my optimism comes from the belief that, while high profile recruits can and do often bust, talent doesn't just fade away without a trace. Young's case shows that reoccuring knee injuries can sap speed, but I'm not willing to write off a player without at least giving them a chance to succeed or fail on their own merits. There's no indication yet that Robinson has really had the opportunity to prove himself. It's not like he's been in the program for years and wasn't even remotely sniffing the two-deep. That's the same reason why I'm still hopeful that Manny Abreu can be an impact player, being neck and neck with Antonio Lowery (who ended up having a great season) throughout fall camp. Same reason why I'm not going to write off a guy like Wright just yet.
One good example of this phenomenon is what Dorin Dickerson did at Pitt in 2009. Like Robinson, Dickerson was a great athlete without necessarily a set position, who came in as a top recruit. He started out at receiver, and then washed out at linebackers. Never did a thing for three years, and then suddenly he's an all-conference tight end this year, and now probably bound for the NFL next April. Yes, it is one exception in what's probably a sea of high profile recruiting busts, but there are the occasional examples of the light suddenly turning on. That's the model that Robinson. In fact, I'd argue that his situation isn't even as dire as Dickerson's was, as Robinson has only been a relative non-factor for two seasons at this point. Now, if he can't seize an opportunity next fall, whether that's due to injury or other concerns, then it'd probably be fair to looking ahead to a Tejay Johnson.