Get ready folks, because after yet another eventful football season, the best sport in the universe is about to go away again for half a year. Sure, we have the NFL playoffs, recruiting, spring practice, and the draft to hold things over for the next few months, but things are about to get real antsy, really fast, for the hardcore football fans that simply can only take so much of other sports, or substitute forms of entertainment. As such, before reflecting on the season that was, it only makes sense to quickly look ahead to 2012.
Like it or not, Rutgers football had valid reasons for not winning the Big East conference in 2012. That is not to excuse the UConn debacle, which remains completely indefensible. However, the primary causes standing between Rutgers in a Big East title did not have much to do with coaching: or more accurately, did not have much to do with decisions from the 2011 calendar year. These roster limitations included:
1. Not having a legitimate starting quarterback. Tom Savage transferred away after being brutalized by Kirk Ciarrocca's horror show, leaving the team perilously thin under center. After the 2009 recruiting class signed, it seemed like 2011 would be the year where everything came together. Savage's transfer pushed back that timetable.
2. As good as the defense was, not having Eric LeGrand (who would have been in his final year of eligibility) did hurt their depth on that side of the ball. Think of how good Justin Francis was at defensive tackle (notwithstanding the other Big East coaches being idiots and/or having assistant SIDs fill out their ballots.) Francis was just invited to the NFL Combine, even though his likely position in the pros is at defensive end. With LeGrand at nose tackle, Scott Vallone could have focused more on pass rushing, and Francis turns into a pure terror on the outside. The Rutgers defense would have been upgraded from good to out of this world. Francis and Abreu are graduating, but now the depth chart on defense should go roughly according to plan.
3. One lingering after-effect from transitioning back from the spread is that Rutgers isn't just short on QBs; they need a few more true fullbacks and tight ends too. Adding in last year's recruiting class will help to salve some of these depth issues.
4. It's no secret that the team's OL recruiting was spotty for a few years. Adding in R.J. Dill as a transfer bridge to the team's younger players will go a long way towards solving those woes, even if there's a case to be made that the OL problems also owe a fair bit to points one and three.
With all that being said, how will the football team's roster look in 2012? Is there a fair case to be made for Rutgers being a legitimate Big East contender next fall?
Quarterback: as bad as the running game looked at times in 2011, Rutgers was so good on defense that they could have overcame that lack of productivity. No, what killed them was QB play that did not even muster up to average. Gary Nova and Chas Dodd showed plenty of promise, but that was mixed in with a large amount of unforced errors. Frankly, the team would have been better off if both had merely retreated into game manager mode. If one of them could just cut down on the turnovers, never mind turn into an asset, then Rutgers would have had a good chance of winning the conference. The key is for one of these guys to make the Mike Teel-style leap to that level. It's unlikely that Mike Bimonte or Blake Rankin will be ready to play yet, but at least next year's quarterback depth will be something other than perilously thin. Now, if Tom Savage can manage to get a waiver from the NCAA, all bets are off.
Running back: Jawan Jamison certainly isn't Ray Rice, but he didn't have Rice's offensive line to run behind either. Jamison is a shifty runner who likes to cut back, and has good vision. That should be a good compliment to Savon Huggins, who looked to be more of a straight-ahead, power runner. Huggins didn't look great as a freshman before getting hurt. You still have to believe in his talent, but you wonder if Jamison isn't a better fit for what Rutgers wants to do with zone blocking. Jeremy Deering is a dangerous returner; at RB, he's more like Huggins than Jamison, with even more of an upright style. He's clearly a natural WR, and would be playing there if not for the five million (approximately) other receivers still on the roster. Michael Burton had a very strong freshman campaign at fullback in all facets, and Paul Canevari should add another traditional option there.
Wide receiver: On one hand, if Mohamed Sanu stays, then the team really is out of excuses. He caught everything in 2011, and was nigh-impossible to tackle. Brandon Coleman is a physical freak who needs to cut down on the drops, and started to put it together as the season went on. That's about where Mark Harrison is too, but he also battled injuries down the stretch. Tim Wright (who will be a year removed from his injury) and Quron Pratt seem to have dependable hands, and will play a bigger role if Sanu doesn't return. What's crazy is that there are plenty of bodies left to go. Miles Shuler has true gamebreaking speed. J.T. Tartacoff has good hands and runs solid routes, but is buried behind the depth here, as is project Jawaun Wynn. The rich are just getting richer next year, with a top recruiting class committed.
Tight end: D.C. Jefferson and Paul Carrezola had their moments, but neither emerged into a consistent receiving threat. There will plenty of opportunities for Malcolm Bush and Tyler Kroft in the spring if either is up to the task. Recruit Michael Giacone is more of a blocker, so it remains to be seen whether Rutgers will have enough free scholarships to sign a second recruit here.
Offensive line: departing are seniors Desmond Stapleton (who was a reserve in 2011), Art Forst, Caleb Ruch, and Desmond Wynn. Guard Betim Bujari should be locked into a spot. You can say the same for Kaleb Johnson, who played right tackle in 2011, and Maryland tackle transfer R.J. Dill, but where exactly they play on the line remains to be seen. Andre Civil started for most of 2011 at left tackle before losing his starting job late, and you figure there will be a battle between Dallas Hendrikson and David Osei at center. Antwan Lowery lost his starting job at guard early in 2011. Conceivably, some of the incoming freshmen could be possibilities to crack the two-deep as well.
Defensive line: Francis and Abreu graduate, with Francis being a gigantic loss, but the team otherwise returns a lot here. Jamil Merrell and Michael Larrow effectively shared a starting job in 2011, with Merrell hurt the first half of the season, and Larrow hurt the second. It seems simple enough to have Merrell and Ka'Lial Glaud at WDE, with Larrow and Marcus Thompson at SDE. Conceivably Larrow could move inside and one of last year's DE redshirts or Marvin Booker plays more. There are a lot of options here. Besides the Larrow question, does Vallone stay at NT with Ken Kirksey starting, or switch back to under tackle next to Ike Holmes? It'll be interesting to see which of the young DTs earns that fourth tackle spot, even through the lines rotate enough that the third teamers do see the field here.
Linebacker: Khaseem Greene on the weakside and Steve Beauharnais in the middle are givens, making this an overwhelming team strength. Jamal Merrell nominally started on the strong side in 2011, and played well even, but true freshman Kevin Snyder just looked too good to keep off the field. You figure that Merrell is the top sub next year, followed by Dave Milewski (if healthy), and a mystery backup to Greene (Steve Longa? Nick DePaola?) Like on the OL, there are a fair number of depth guys here who are probably entering make or break campaigns. Reserve Edmond Laryea will not have any more eligibility.
Defensive back: all of the top 2011 corners return, including the Big East's best pure coverage man in Logan Ryan. Brandon Jones is steady on the other side, leaving Marcus Cooper and Gareef Glashen to fight over nickel duties. Mason Robinson is a wild card here if he can return healthy. Jordan Thomas was mostly limited to special teams duty in 2011. Duron Harmon has one safety job on lockdown. Presumably, the other candidates to replace David Rowe are blitzing specialist Wayne Warren, and promising underclassmen Lorenzo Waters; although don't sleep on Rashad Knight coming back from injury. It'll be fun to get first looks at Tejay Johnson and John Aiken too. Given Greg Schiano's emphasis on defensive speed, this group is usually a way station for position switches - whether shifting over here from offense, or bulking up into linebackers.
Special teams: kicker San San Te has no more eligibility left, meaning that Rutgers gets to play kicker roulette with true freshman Kyle Frederico. Projecting kickers is basically impossible, so your guess is as good as mine. Justin Doerner had a solid first season, and Anthony DiPaula is coming off a redshirt. Sanu returned punts this year because had had the steadiest hands on the team (as Rutgers prefers to emphasize punt blocks over the return game.) Robinson, Deering, and Thomas all shared kick return duties, with Deering looking very strong in that role.
Rutgers, as usual, looks to be in terrific shape on defense. They lose a breakout star in Justin Francis, and solid contributors Manny Abreu and David Rowe, but there's more than enough talent to make up for those personnel losses. As has been the chief concern for the past few years, the issues and question marks remain on offense. Coordinator Frank Cignetti has that side of the ball moving in the right direction again, but it remains to be seen whether they will make enough progress to bridge the gap between Rutgers and a BCS bid. All they have to do is find a QB, RB, offensive line, and hope Sanu doesn't declare for the draft. No pressure, guys.