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2009 Season Preview: Wide Receivers

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Projected depth chart:

Split End: Timmy Brown (SR 5'8, 165 lbs), Mason Robinson (JR 5'10, 190 lbs)
Flanker: Mohamed Sanu (FR 6'2, 215 lbs), Tim Wright (RS-FR 6'4, 215 lbs)

How weird is it to say that a passing attack that finished 18th in the nation in yardage drastically fell short of expectations? To be fair, star receiver Kenny Britt more than held up his end of the equation, dominating from the first snap straight into the NFL. Scratch that; he was otherworldly, shattering record books, and flattening defensive backs with his overwhelming lust for contact. Quarterback Mike Teel fell out of rhythm during the first half of the season, a slump no doubt worsened by Tiquan Underwood's string of dropped catches. Starting with the Pittsburgh game, the ship was eventually righted, although not in time to win a share of the conference title.

Now the most prolific passing attack in school history has skipped town. That trio had a very successful career on the whole, although it's a shame that they weren't able to win the Big East. College football is all about rebirth, and now it's up to the Rutgers football program to pick up the pieces; planting the seeds for its next prolific passing attack a year or two down the road, while gearing up for another race to the top. With the turnover here and at QB, Rutgers may very well show a more conservative look on offense, with a heavy emphasis on running the ball and a short passing game.

The one sure thing; scratch that, the only receiver returning with any experience at all is Timmy "Deuce" Brown. One statistic that you may not know off the top of your head is that Brown actually had more receiving yards than Tiquan Underwood last year, despite working as the team's #3 receiver out of the slot. Surprisingly, Brown hasn't had all that many chances to return kicks and punts, although he's looked well when given opportunities there.

With sub-4.4 speed, the diminutive (he's probably smaller than his roster listing) Brown is an explosive deep threat, averaging 20.9 yards per reception as a junior. There's a lot of talent in that small package, but plenty of question marks too. Brown hasn't shown consistent hands over his career. Can his frame take the pounding of being the team's go-to guy? Can he become a complete receiver in turns of route running, blocking, etc..., or is Brown limited to going deep on Post and Go routes? Can Tim line up outside against #1 corners, or will he end up back in the slot matched up with nickels and dimes?

"I definitely feel like I’m more than a deep threat," Brown said. "(Coach Greg Schiano) uses me all over the field, so my job is to go out and work my craft. I just try and go out and do what coach teaches me to do."

In terms of pro comparisons, I have trouble recalling a pro receiver who was quite that small. Even Yimon Figurs, the one Kansas State Wildcat that came off well in the Texas Bowl, played a similar style, had several inches on Brown. The Moss brothers (Sinorice and Santana) have far more muscle. Roscoe Parrish probably comes the closest. Brown's explosive enough that he'll get some kind of look at the next level, but I honestly have no idea as to the extent. I can see someone taking a chance on him early on day two of the draft, or Timmy going undrafted entirely.

Brown has had a strange career. Yes, he had the misfortune to be stuck behind two NFL receivers the past few years in Britt and Underwood. Britt was exploding down the stretch in '06, but with Underwood sidelined by injury, it looked to be Brown who was the future multi-year starter at the position, playing well against West Virginia, and obliterating KSU with a 4 catch, 101 yard, 2 TD performance. However, at other times, Brown completely disappeared from the offense. There have also been a few off the field questions about him a little below the surface, which culminated in a suspension during last year's spring practice.

I like to talk a bit about incoming freshmen near the end of season previews, but I'm making exception for the phenom, Mohamed Sanu. Sanu is exhibit A as to why what national recruiting analysts say on sites like Rivals and Scout isn't quite definitive (ESPN actually had him graded as the equivalent of **** player). Both sites pegged Mo as a middle-of-the-road player; mostly owing to the fact that the overage senior didn't play high school football in 2008. However, he was by far the best player on the field during the 2008 Governor's Bowl, and local recruiting analysts in Jersey, correctly, believed that he was one of the best gets in great recruiting class. The only question was as to Sanu's eventual position.

Mohamed enrolled early for spring practice as a safety. He impressed there, but moved to receiver later in the session. The holdovers hadn't looked all that great to begin with, and their ranks were thinned by injury. Then, something interesting happened: Sanu didn't just look relatively good. He outplayed everyone else in contention.

Sanu is developing a chemistry on the field with both Natale, who is likely to start the season opener, and Savage, the No. 2.

"It's a very great connection," Sanu said. "We worked all summer. All the receivers worked with all the quarterbacks and we all got that chemistry going, so it's a very wonderful experience for us."

Believe the hype, because Sanu has the means and the opportunity to be one of the best freshmen receivers in the county this year. He brings sorely needed height to the position; lacking Britt's power, but having a bit more speed and agility. After the spring, I was worried about receiver heading into the fall. Now it's not much of a concern at all. Sanu missed the first few days of camp with an injury, then exploded as soon as he stepped foot onto the field.

Usually, you have to temper expectations for even the best freshmen as they adjust to college, both on and off the field. Some positions more than others. Quarterback can be rough, which is why I'm not pinning my hopes this year on Tom Savage. But where the top guys can make an impact is at the skill positions on offense. Someone like Savage can look "good" as a freshman in practices, but those evaluations are tempered by context. Sanu didn't just impress; he dazzled. It's time to set expectations sky high for this kid, because he's going to take the star rankings and toss them aside on his way into end zones. As Coach Schiano put it:

"Players know players," Schiano said. "He's a dude."

Where everyone should be wary is when it comes to the team's depth behind the two starters, which was hurt a bit by the dismissal of backup Dennis Campbell last spring. Campbell did not do very much in his career on the banks, and had poor hands, but did manage to crack the two deep, and at least was an upperclassman with playing experience. Brown and Sanu are explosive athletes. Is there anyone else on the roster who can contribute in more of a possession role? Yeah, Shamar Graves is basically a receiver playing tight end, but you still want some more dependable targets. The backup position here sort of mirrors what's going on at corner, only magnified to a greater degree. There's a lot of quality young talent at receiver, but they're all sort of bunched up together at this point; no one yet stepping out from the crowd and establishing his spot in the pecking order.

Arguably, Mason Robinson was hurt the most by Sanu's emergence over the past few months. What M-Rob brings to the table is pure speed. He fell out of the crowded backfield rotation last year, but when you have a guy with those kind of jets on the roster, the best bet is to go out of the way to make touches for him. Robinson is one of the ten or so most talented players Rutgers has, so the coaching staff had to figure out a way to get the ball into his hands. That will likely happen in sort of a Reggie Bush/Percy Harvin tweener type role, lining up in the slot, and sometimes out of the backfield.

"Anywhere they put me at, or whatever they need me to do, I'm going to give my best shot at," said Robinson, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior from Somerville. "There might be times when I might not understand it, but I'm going to go back and study more and then come back out here and do my best the next day."

Now things get really jumbled up, because the WR rotation in camp kept jumping around, back and forth, and no one ever really quite got a handle on things. At the moment, redshirt freshman Tim Wright is on the two deep.

"I don’t think Timmy [Wright] is better or worse," Schiano said. "They’re all kind of in a pot and we mix them up. ... I think they’re a young group that every day is making a little bit of progress."

Along with Sanu, and incoming freshman Mark Harrison, Wright has an ideal combination of size and speed for the position. He played quarterback in high school, and probably needs some more time to fully harness his potential. Wright and the other players sparring for playing time here remain mysteries simply owing to the fact that they don't have much, if anything, in the way of in-game experience.

Junior Julian Hayes and true sophomore Marcus Cooper were the other two receivers getting a few mentions during camp. If you ask Hayes, he needs to focus on consistency.

Outside of true freshman sensation Mohammed Sanu, Hayes has been the biggest revelation so far at wide receiver, an area Rutgers desperately needs to shore up after losing Britt and Underwood, two of the best in school history.

He dazzled in the first preseason scrimmage, hauling in seven passes for 135 yards, and has seemed to catch everything thrown his way the first 12 days of camp, from the routine to the spectacular. During Friday's early morning practice, he had two more impressive catches.

"He has improved," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "He's getting more opportunities. Consistency has been Julian's Achilles' heel. If he can do it over and over and over again, Julian can be a really effective receiver."

Of the four incoming freshmen receivers last year, Cooper was the only one to forgo a redshirt and see time on special teams. He made progress in spring practice before missing time with an injury.

Schiano said that Cooper would be even further along if it weren’t for his injury, but in the mind of the redshirt freshman, he’s ready to move on.

"I think I’m fortunate that I’m able to get back out here," Cooper said. "It is a big motivation [knowing how wide open the battle is], but as long as the group gets the job done, I can’t complain about it."

It'd be terrific if one of them could step up into a possession role for the team. If not those two, then it could be another second year player in Keith Stroud. The Brooklyn product is supposed to have the size, toughness, and yards after the catch ability of a Kenny Britt. Stroud enrolled early for spring practice last year, and impressed there, but disappeared in the fall.

Another redshirt kid in Eddie Poole is still recovering from a spring cooking accident. Walk-on Pat Brown did get a few reps in during this year's camps, and another walk-on in Andrew DePaola might have competed for a spot in the two deep if not preoccupied with his duties on special teams. True freshman Quron Pratt may get a look at receiver, but I'm grouping him in with the defensive backs for now.

Before Sanu had even played a down at receiver, Rutgers was already bringing in a solid freshmen pair at wide receiver this year in Aaron Hayward and Mark Harrison. The only reason the coaching staff was interested in signing other receivers late was because there were a few questions about Harrison's grades and ability to qualify. Those factors also prevented him from generating more headlines and offers from other teams during the recruiting process. Make no mistake though: Harrison had the production in high school (1,673 yards and 17 TDs as a senior), and brings rare athleticism to the position, running in the 4.4 range with his 6'3, 230 lbs frame, drawing comparisons to Terrell Owens.

In Hayward, I see a rich man's Tres Moses. Hayward is bigger, faster, and in time could make that level of impact with the program. Off the field too - he was a lynchpin in putting the class together, and his comments already make him sound like a fan favorite.

"I chose Rutgers for all the right reasons," Hayward said. "I chose Rutgers from an academic standpoint, the coaching staff, the people, the players, life around campus, proximity to home. ... I'm a Mama's boy, I'm the baby of the family. My family gets to see me play.

"I'm a Jersey boy, I'm a Garden State boy. I want a National Championship (here), I want to do something for the first time."...

Hayward has been overshadowed a bit by Harrison (once he qualified), and especially Sanu, which is bound to happen with such a deep recruiting class, but will most likely have the luxury to redshirt this year. He played tailback in high school, but will shift to receiver in college. Watching his highlights, I saw a shifty player with good burst and quick feet. It's easy to imagine him cutting out of his breaks and making catch after catch.

This will be a good group in the future, despite Brown's pending graduation, but there will be a few hiccups in the meantime. However, there won't be as many as people who don't follow the program may expect, owing to the presence of Sanu, excuse me, His Dudeness. Between the Dude (not The Dude, that would just be silly), Duce, and Mase, these guys can run. I don't know if Dom Natale can get the ball to them downfield, but they can get there.

There are three pretty big worries though, when it comes to their collective lack of experience, the search for size and physicality, and a player with dependable hands. RU has arguably lacked the latter since Tres Moses skipped town after 2005. That's even with taking account that an offense built around the big play will necessarily use more low-percentage passes, based on the premise that it'll all add up over time. Sort of; that kind of play calling hurts with controlling time of possession, which has cumulative effects on defensive play. With a prolific top four last season, there weren't nearly enough reps to get meaningful experience for any of their understudies.

Having Corcoran at FB, and the hybrid receiver Graves at TE helps somewhat, but I can't help wishing that they had just one more savvy veteran to plug in on the two deep. A Moses; he wouldn't need to be that big or fast, just with stickum hands, and an awareness of where the first down marker is. Maybe break a tackle or two, nothing crazy. The best teams have a Kenny Britt to shatter records, and a Hakeem Nicks to get the boring old first downs. That's why those two went one after the other in the first round of the draft in April. I still regard Nicks as roughly on the level of a Dickensian supervillain, but can at least give him that much.

Are we poised for a repeat of 2006? I think this unit will end up a little ahead. For one thing, the team's top five receivers went down with injuries over the course of that season. This group is a little better, and Sanu won't be slowed by clearinghouse issues as Britt was. He won't just play from day one, he'll start. It won't be 2006, because say what you will about their other attributes, the team's top three receivers all have the athleticism to make plays downfield (if RU finds a QB to get them the ball). On the other hand, Corcoran and Graves aren't bad second and third options, but they're not Leonard and Harris. More responsibility will be placed in the WRs' shoulders this year.

Close enough, though. As long as they're passable, and show enough flashes of a 2010 breakout, expectations won't be too high this year, or that difficult to exceed. Give me a decent season from Brown, and one of Sanu or Robinson breaking out, and I'll sign up for that right now.