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Rutgers football 2011 season preview: wide receivers

The 2011 Rutgers football roster is a startling contrast in feast or famine, and nowhere is the cupboard stacked more fully than at wide receiver. Consider the fact that last season's fourth receiver, a fine player in Keith Stroud, through no fault of his own had to transfer over the summer in search of more playing time. Keith Stroud registered 157 receiving yards last year, which would have placed him as UConn's second best returning wideout, and Syracuse's third (and RUTGERS is the program picked last?!?!?!?) Rutgers is so loaded at WR that their FCS transfers end up getting named team MVP. Their walk-on FCS transfers make the CFL. You can chalk this embarrassment of riches up to a few recent banner recruiting crops, coupled with a phenomenal position coach in P.J. Fleck.

If Rutgers could run the A-11 and field an all-receiver squad, they'd be set. Playing time has a way of throwing a wrinkle into things though. Last year the depth chart was settled by Tim Wright missing the season injured, and Brandon Coleman riding the pine during his redshirt season. That's mind-numbing considering the fact that Wright was in line to start over Mark Harrison, who's built like a linebacker with 4.5 speed, or that Coleman may even outshine Harrison as the position's most physically gifted player. Kirk Ciarrocca ran Rutgers into the ground last fall with his determination to play these guys on every down, and now new coordinator Frank Cignetti has to somehow resist the same temptation, however tantalizing it may be.

Rutgers has four players among the top ten receivers in the Big East, and presumably only two starting spots to play them at. That's hardly the worst problem in the world to have, and one that will certainly be solved through injury and inconsistency on someone's behalf, but it still boggles the mind to consider how the heck the offense will find the best way to maximize resources this year. The tight ends have to see their touches too, as do the running backs via screen, and Rutgers swears up and down that it's going to get back to fielding a traditional running game this fall. That leaves only so many snaps per game. Realistically, Pittsburgh was in the 2,700 yards passing range for the past two years of Frank Cignetti, which means that someone, if not multiple players, will have to swallow their pride, and accept a lesser role.

Rutgers is so freakin' loaded at WR that one can write paragraphs about the unit without even mentioning the likes of Mohamed Sanu, and it doesn't come off as a glaring omission. Sanu, well, he may not be the best pure receiver on the team. Drops were still an issue last year. He's a rare athlete, but not in a class with Harrison or Coleman. Relatively speaking, Sanu may take a back seat to Harrison on the team (with as much as you can infer from last year's injury-riddled campaign), but he's certainly the best all-around offensive threat; probably RU's second best pure player after Scott Vallone. He's a very good receiver, a dynamic special teams/trick play weapon, and the guy is built like a tank. Rutgers literally has defensive ends with less muscle definition.

There aren't many teams where Sanu would not be the best pure receiver, but that may be the case thanks to Mark Harrison (depending on how much Sanu was affected last year by injuries and double coverage.) Sanu has the all-around game; Harrison's about physical attributes. Let's be clear: Mark is not Kenny Britt out there in terms of polish, not yet. He may well be more physically gifted than Britt, but still has yet to match Kenny's intensity on the field. The thing that should profoundly terrify opposing teams is that Harrison is still learning the intricacies of the position. He really started to catch on last fall, and seems to have good chemistry with Chas Dodd.

Crazy thing is, Harrison wouldn't have even started last fall if Tim Wright didn't hurt his knee during preseason camp. Wright was working ahead of Harrison as a starter with Sanu; having presumably made the leap following a few years riding the pine. By all accounts, the former high school quarterback was ready to break out, and then everything was taken away from him in an instant. Doubly frustrating is how difficult it is to come back from those sorts of injuries. The early reports are promising. Harrison is still working as a starter, but Wright, or even Brandon Coleman starting does not appear to be completely out of question. Yes, the Big East wide receiver with arguably the most potential to play in the NFL next season may not even start this year. Unreal. I sure hope Wright or Coleman can block at least halfway decent, because Rutgers will have to run a fair number of three and four WR sets this fall.

Everyone in Piscataway used to think no one could possibly match Harrison in terms of physical traits at receiver. Not with his linebacker size and 4.5 forty-yard dash. Then Brandon Coleman dazzled all comers during spring practice; seemingly not missing a beat once fall camp rolled around. Think about it like this: Rutgers had the duo of Sanu and Harrison last year, with Jeremy Deering emerging as a dynamic weapon in his own right in the slot. Now Deering is a running back, and Greg Schiano is publicly second-guessing his decision to redshirt Coleman last fall. The press clippings have been that good, which raises an interesting point. If Coleman really is a magical heat-seeking missile capable of grabbing any jump ball; if he really is the next Plaxico Burress; why shouldn't he start? Because he's a redshirt freshman? Because other players are established, and also happen to be really good? Doesn't Rutgers have a responsibility to put the best eleven players on the field?

If not for the embarrassment of riches in front of them, Quron Pratt and and J.T. Tartacoff would be ready to assume a larger role. The speedy Pratt came to Rutgers as more of an afterthought, but drawn praise for his camp performances the last two seasons before being felled by injuries. Tartacoff is the stereotypical sure-handed slot threat that knows how to get open. Like Pratt, he more than deserves a larger role, but is probably still a year or two away from being a realistic threat to start on this roster. What could help both see the field however is that they can help fill niches that the starting-options may not be well suited for, and chip in on special teams.

Jawaun Wynn, on the other hand, has the misfortune of bringing the exact same skills as the Big Four to the table. The Piscataway native is big and fast; attributes that normally compromise a great deal of what goes into developing a successful receiver, but not so at Rutgers. It's little wonder that Wynn saw a look on defense during spring practice, before moving back to WR. With him, the question is more one of the present vs. the future. Wynn isn't going to play much at receiver in 2011 barring injury. It doesn't matter how well he performs; the numbers are an insurmountable obstacle. If he wants to see the field right now, maybe defense is a better option (not that there aren't too many bodies already at CB and S.) What about the picture a year or two from now though? A few NFL defections here, a few injuries there, and suddenly Rutgers looks fortunate for keeping a developmental prospect like Wynn around. Rutgers is quite top-heavy, but the numbers at WR aren't excessive, which further bolsters the case for keeping Wynn on offense.

Last, but certainly not least, is quite possibly the fastest single player on this year's Rutgers roster. You can flip a coin between Miles Shuler and Tejay Johnson (who's now practicing at defensive back.) Oh, and he may or may not be the future President of the United States. No pressure, Miles. Shuler doesn't have the size of one of the Big Four or Wynn, but he has speed to burn, coupled with sterling academics, and nuclear-grade intangibles. Between his speed and character, you would think Greg Schiano must have concocted Shuler in some secret underground lab, in literally checking off every characteristic that Schiano is known to covet in football players. That's why it's going to be so difficult for the coaching staff to resist the temptation to burn Shuler's redshirt right away, and throw him into the returner mix from day one.

Rutgers has no senior receivers. They also only have one freshman after Tejay's move. As far away as 2013 looks at the moment, today's vaunted depth could just as easily wither away if one of the younger players doesn't ultimately pan out. There's a lot of talent here now, and reinforcements are on the way (Pasqualoni is crying into his pillow at this point) with this year's vaunted in-state trio of Leonte Carroo, Carlton Agudosi, and Ruhann Peele, but roster management isn't an exact science. RU has typically ebbed and flowed here under Schiano - they had Tucker/Moses/Daniels, and then they all were suddenly gone, and RU was relying on tight ends and screen passes. Britt, Underwood, and Brown ruled the roost, and then in 2009 we had to move Sanu over from safety to pair with Brown.

Now things are looking up again, with at least one, and possibly two years on tap that should rival 2007 and 2008 in terms of sheer productivity. Things couldn't be exciting, scratch that, exhilarating. There's no scenario this year, even if 2006-style injuries were to happen, where Rutgers isn't really good at receiver. And yet, 2008 shows that having an overwhelming edge at this spot isn't enough to rise beyond mediocrity. It's enough to get there, which means that a lot of media prognosticators picking RU last in the conference are about to look very foolish. Anything beyond that is a mystery, with the non-zero possibility that the Big Four play out of their minds from start to finish, and Rutgers is off to the Orange Bowl or any equally preposterous scenario. Will it happen? Probably not, but with the way these guys are looking, that's about as likely as last place given the current level of conference competition, in that both seem rather remote.