This week will be signing day in the college football world, although Rutgers fans could be forgiven for not paying much in the way of attention for once. This year's class largely produces a collective meh; it will probably be the best in the Big East (Louisville has better quality, but won't sign as many players), and likely rank in the middle of the Big Ten depending on how some of the remaining chips on the board pan out. It's by no means a bad class, especially in that many critical needs are filled, and it's certainly better than another mixed reaction class from 2010. Still, it's hard to shake the sense that this is very much a transition class. Rutgers got fat on top recruits the past few years, and now relatively has been going on a diet.
A lot of New Jersey's top recruits had early eyes on going out of state this year, which certainly was not helped by the challenges of getting a new coaching staff so close to signing day last season. It'd also likely help if they had a proven New Jersey recruiter along the lines of Joe Susan or Jeff Hafley on staff, but again, it's by no means a disaster. Just a relative disappointment, and still better than the majority of regional and Big Ten conference peers. The question then though becomes whether or not Rutgers can continually recruit on the levels of 2009, 2011, and 2012; e.g., a level that would make them perennial contenders in a continually weak and overrated Big Ten conference that should be ripe for the taking by a hungry upstart.
A lot has been made about all of the 2012 starters for Rutgers that will not be returning in 2013. Celebrated defensive standouts like Scott Vallone, Khaseem Green, and Duron Harmon graduated, Logan Ryan unsurprisingly declared a year early for the NFL, and Jawan Jamison surprisingly decided to head to the pros as well. Phil Steele cites this fact in ranking Rutgers 112th in DI in returning starters next fall, although that analysis is more than a little flawed in a few different respects. For one thing, whether you consider Michael Burton or Paul Carrezola the 2012 starting fullback, both return next year (with Carrezola probably going back to tight end), which gives Rutgers an even seven returning offensive starters; a genuine sign for optimism on that side of the ball, with the giant caveat of provided Rutgers can find a good offensive coordinator for 2013.
Plus, the analysis ignores part time starters. Jamil Merrell replaced Isaac Holmes at DT in 2012, and split DE duties in 2011 with Mike Larrow. What about backups with significant experience like Kevin Snyder at LB too - it's not like he or Tejay Johnson at CB haven't earned a great shot at a starting job next season. A more accurate heuristic would probably look at returning starts, or even returning snaps if someone was masochistic enough to plow through that data. (I'm not, at least when it's not a day job, even though I'd probably apply for this if I had any desire at all to live in Connecticut.)
In fact, I'd even go a step further than this. In college football roster projections, there's a certain nexus of talent and experience that presumably is a decent predictor of play quality. Everyone wants a fifth year senior blue chipper, but most of the time, you'll take an experienced upper classmen, or a rising hotshot in his second or third year. If a two or three star player is ready to start as a junior or senior, no one bats an eye. Redshirt freshman or sophomore is another deal entirely, although you can talk yourself into a high three star and above. That's why in my opinion, cornerback remains a concern going into 2013. There are a few guys who will get looks next to Johnson, like Gareef Glashen perhaps, but a lot is going to be asked of incoming freshmen like Nadir Barnwell and Delon Stephenson. To be fair, DE could be thin too depending on whether Larrow switches to TE, but there are some promising young players there too.
DT and LB are another matter entirely. Darius Hamilton, Ken Kirksey, and Kevin Snyder played a lot in 2013 and already inspire a lot of confidence in most of the fanbase. In fact, I'll go even further than that. LBs Steve Longa and Quanzell Lambert drew rave practice reports throughout most of the season; especially Longa, who projects as a natural at the weakside linebacker position for Rutgers. Schematically, that's the easiest of the three spots to play in the Rutgers defensive scheme, with the most room for freelancing, and a lot of the play calls are designed to feed opposing ball carriers to that spot. The talent's there, the learning curve is low, and it's not like Jamal Merrell and Kevin Snyder are inexperienced too. I'm 100% already drinking the Longa kool aid and voting him for all-conference honors in my mind. There's no debate about it.
Sure, DT is a little trickier as Al Page and Daryl Stephenson both missed 2012 with injuries, but both have immense talent and drew good reviews early, and defensive lines frankly rotate a ton anyway. However, I think any skepticism at these spots, especially now, is going a little overboard. Rutgers lost some players, but it's not just about who they lost and who returns, but which young players are ready to take on larger roles as well. Recruiting rankings aren't perfect, but do serve nicely as a reasonable predictor of talent, and by the past few years Rutgers ranks tops in the Big East in that respect. The Scarlet Knights have question marks, but so does everybody else, and it's important to give all of these factors careful consideration instead of fixating in on some specific minute detail.
If you're still not convinced, look at the results on the field. No one is going to deny that Rutgers has been a perennial underachiever, but they were in the Big East conference race until the end the past few years. The last two Louisville games went down to the wire. Teddy Bridgewater and Charlie Strong are an awesome, awesome combination, and nobody's going to deny that, but it's not like they won everything going away. In fact, they lost to a horrible UConn team. I'd even argue that Rutgers had the better overall roster than the Cards last year, but great QB play has a way of trumping everything. The Bridgewater factor can't be discounted, as an elite quarterback does cure all ills. However, people are overreacting to the Sugar Bowl win and their young 2012 roster, and arbitrarily ignoring a lot of recent evidence from on the field that contradicts the unstoppable Louisville narrative this year.
They absolutely should be conference favorites, but are by no means a lock, and all available recruiting evidence suggests that Rutgers should fairly be considered a close second, with the best and most realistic chance of any Big East opponent to topple the Cardinals in what should be the last league season for both teams before they collectively leave for greener pastures. No matter what the lazy prognosticators, or even the tortured Rutgers fans who want to find Terry Shea behind every corner want to believe, Rutgers football is going to be a legitimate BCS contender this year, and recent recruiting success will be a strong reason why.
That, more than anything, is why there is so much (deserved) criticism about being too quick to jump on sleepers in the 2013 class. It's a certainty that some percentage of those guys will pan out, but their odds are lower. It would have been better to bank a few more ships heading into signing day when bigger out of state names started showing up on the board, but unfortunately Rutgers was thin on available scholarships, and largely saw its hands tied as a result. I'm absolutely a believer that it's just as big of a risk to be too picky, to pass on a Kye Morgan in June when he wants to commit because you're on the fence and still eying some bigger names.
How about Rutgers offers and locks up the Morgans of the world, but also decides to hold off a bit on the super sleepers to see how they do during their senior seasons? Honestly, is that too much to ask? It's not about being more or less picky on offerees as a hard and fast rule, but rather loading up on certain years at the expense of others, leaving some leeway depending on how things are going. Nor is this about demanding a Larry Coker/Charlie Weis-style eschewing of scouting and film review entirely. Absolutely, more offers should have gone out the past two seasons, and less should have gone out in 2010 and this season even taking into account roster needs. The strategy should always be to improve the overall net talent in a program. Top-ranked classes clearly do matter to most programs, who are usually quick to tout media praise when it does come.
In the short term, some key class of 2009 contributors remain. and top signees from 2011 and 2012 are ready to emerge and from the core of the next era of Scarlet Knight football. A good OC hire would help, but Rutgers should not have much trouble in 2013 beyond getting out of its own way. Boy oh boy, would that be some accomplishment for a change. 2014 and beyond? Beating up on the considerable fluff and chaff in the middle of the Big Ten won't be much different from the current mediocre stasis, but rising to any level beyond that will surely require continued and improved performance in signing days to come over the next few seasons.