Projected 2010 depth chart:
SO Mohamed Sanu (6'2, 218) / RS-SO Tim Wright (6'4, 216)
SO Mark Harrison (6'3, 230) / RS-FR Quron Pratt (6'0, 175)
The Rutgers receiving corps was a big question mark going into 2009. Tim Brown returned with three years of production, but there was little else following Tiquan Underwood's graduation and Kenny Britt declaring early for the NFL Draft. Dennis Campbell hadn't been much of a contributor, but the team lost further experience following his dismissal (and subsequent transfer to Abilene Christian). Further exacerbating depth issues was the loss of Mason Robinson to injury in the season opener against Cincinnati. Rutgers would have to roll the dice with a plethora of inexperienced underclassmen, and fortunately one was able to meet the challenge last year.
That would be one Mohamed Sanu, who proved to be no ordinary true freshman. Sanu, who bounced back and forth between New Jersey and his ancestral homeland of Sierra Leone as a youth, received relatively little in the way of recruiting headlines before arriving on campus. That was owing to his unique familial circumstances, which prevented him from playing varsity sports as an overage senior. It was little matter, as Rutgers saw fit to lock Sanu up before the previous year's recruiting class had even signed letters of intent, and local Middlesex County observers absolutely swore by his talent. Rutgers fans were immediately sold after finally being able to get a good look at him in a dominant performance under center in 2008's New Jersey-New York All Star Classic at RU Stadium.
Sanu quickly dispensed with any worries that a season on the practice squad would have left him rusty after enrolling early, and immediately becoming the talk of last year's spring practice. That may come as no surprise in retrospect after his impressive debut last fall, but what may astound non-Rutgers fans is that he actually came to campus as a safety (link's as dead as the Big East in five years). This was a real debate until depth concerns forced the staff's hand.
Devin McCourty called him "a super-athlete," Natale called him "a freak" and the early-enrolling true freshman may be one of the few dynamic spots on a day sure to feature staid play-calling. Sanu is a QB who may now be the team's biggest hitter (McCourty supported that), but was switched to wideout Tuesday and made the acrobatic catches Thursday to have that looking brilliant.
It's high praise to draw comparisons to departed four-year starter Courtney Greene at safety. At the same time, younger players like Tim Wright and Keith Stroud weren't looking so hot at receiver, so the coaching staff decided to give their new prize pupil a look on the other side of the ball.
The 6-2, 215-pound Sanu, who played just about every position except wide receiver at South Brunswick High School, has opened eyes with his physical play at safety. He is also sure-handed enough -- and fast enough -- that he has been tried on punt and kickoff returns, and looked at-ease immediately with the switch.
Not only did the switch take, it was positively frightening how easy the whole process went considering the other struggles with that unit. Sanu had been practicing at safety most of the spring, and yet had no trouble instantly becoming the talk of the spring game.
Anyone can look at his stat line (51 catches for 639 yards and 3 td, 62 rushes for 342 yards and 5 td), but how was he actually used in game situations? Mohamed Sanu undoubtedly is a superb athlete, but was mostly used last fall at receiver as a possession complement to Tim Brown's vertical game. It's an open question whether that'll continue, or he'll be emphasized as more of a downfield threat. Mohamed has a really stout build, which makes him very hard to tackle after the catch.
"He's a monster. Just look at him," said Barbieri, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive lineman from Middletown. "He's a freak. He looks like an action figure."
Sanu's really smooth coming out of his breaks too. He looked a lot like Hakeem Nicks in that regard, although he needs to cut down on his untimely drops before that becomes more of a valid comparison. Either way, Kenny Britt's status as the best receiver in Rutgers history is very much endangered.
He was also used as the team's primary punt returner, and saw extensive action at quarterback in the Wildcat formation. That's where Sanu's combination of power and speed proved particularly effective, even showing some promise as a passer as well. Both of those roles will likely be de-emphasized this season though with Mohamed expected to develop into not only the team's number one receiver, but possibly one of the brightest stars in the country. It's just too risky for him to take all of those hits. Rutgers has a number of punt return candidates, and hopefully will be able to slide in a reserve (perhaps incoming freshman Jeremy Deering) into the Wildcat if that formation is used as a change of pace. Sanu should only see major time under center if quarterback Tom Savage is felled by injury.
All of that is well and good, but there's a lot of optimism for the other receivers on this year's two deep despite not returning very much experience. A year ago Rutgers brought back Brown, and Sanu was the only other competent option during spring practice. The difference this year is that media practice reports suggested that the team found three other likely contributors. Not having much behind Brown and Sanu last year was a major limitation for the Rutgers offense. When it came to multi-WR sets, various players like Julian Hayes, Tim Wright, Keith Stroud, and Marcus Cooper (since moved to DB) were given chances, but none managed to impress.
Freshman Mark Harrison didn't see much in the way of statistical production in what was a largely ineffective season for the Rutgers offense. Harrison earned more time later in the year as he returned to injury, eventually wresting control of the slot job. That was likely due to his jaw-dropping measurables, as he's built like a tight end with a reported sub 4.4 speed in the 40 yard dash. While Sanu is, of course, awesome; Harrison and Tim Wright may well be better athletes. Being super productive in high school doesn't hurt either.
There was plenty of wishful thinking that Harrison would progress this year, but the truly welcome news out of the spring concerned Tim Wright and Quron Pratt. Now Wright was always a fair bet to breakout. The redshirt sophomore isn't made of muscle ala Sanu or Harrison, but he's tall, and fast. Wright was a high school quarterback, so a bit of a transition period learning a new position was probably to be expected.
"I had to do that because I felt I needed to step up," said Wright, who at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds has the prototypical size for a collegiate receiver. ""I had the redshirt year and then last year I had a limited role. I felt this year I had to step up and do whatever it took to impress the coaches."
He’s done exactly that through 11 practices, with Rutgers coach Greg Schiano offering this assessment: "I think he has gotten a lot better. He’s playing faster. He’s playing stronger. He’s playing more certain. He’s not perfect, but he’s much better than he was, a very big improvement."
The expectations were high for Wright coming out of high school, but Quron Pratt's sudden emergence comes as more of a surprise. Pratt was more of a late bloomer before coming on strong during a breakout senior season, when Division I interest suddenly started flooding in. He originally got some looks on defense, but earned some looks on the other side of the ball during the spring, and impressed enough to leapfrog a few of the other guys on the depth chart. Both should play plenty in multi-receiver sets this fall, and Tim still has a chance to usurp Harrison for a starting role. Wright and Pratt both credit their improvement to new positional coach P.J. Fleck.
"Since the new wide receivers coach, Coach Fleck, came in, he’d been showing us little things we needed to watch and ways to break it down so it can be easier on us," Wright said. "Be more sudden. Be more patient. Just slow the game down and let it be like classical music and let it all flow."
Redshirt sophomore Keith Stroud still deserves another year to get to that point, but his failure to emerge as of yet is more than a little frustrating. Stroud came to campus billed as a really physical possession receiver, which has been a relative weakness on the team for a few years running now. I think everybody immediately saw that he was from Brooklyn and imagined someone walking straight out of a gangster movie; forgetting that today's prototypical Brooklynite is more of a pampered hipster type.
Back Mason Robinson could also see time in multi-receiver sets. I still have pretty high hopes for redshirt freshman Aaron Hayward in the future even if he didn't make much noise in the spring. Another roster freshman coming off a redshirt is Jamal (not Jamil) Merrell, who's a good athlete that some projected to defense during his recruitment.
As to the incoming freshmen, many of them probably would do well to redshirt, and one of two of these players may eventually switch positions. Jordan Thomas is crazy fast and was super productive in high school, but now has to learn a new position. Jeremy Deering is the most likely to play early as a Wildcat QB. Brandon Coleman has a solid size (a reported 6'6) and speed combo, but is pretty raw and could grow into a tight end. J.T. Tartacoff is rather underrated due to playing at a small school and committing somewhat early. Jawaun Wynn is another top physical specimen, and blew up on the camp circuit, but he's not polished at all and is more of an option down the road. Rutgers certainly can't have five receivers in one class even if the offense mixes in more of a spread look during the summer. Owing to position changes down the road it's probably closer to two or three when the dust settles here.
It's not the heyday of Britt/Underwood/Brown (that's a season away), but Rutgers enters 2010 looking far better at wide receiver than it did a year ago. Mohamed Sanu put up over 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a true freshman, and is already built like a NFL receiver. Mark Harrison and Tim Wright are physical specimens in their own right, and it's going to be exciting to watch all the accumulated roster talent develop over the coming years. Mr. Savage is not going to suffer for want of weapons.