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2012 Rutgers football season preview: wide receivers

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Rutgers undoubtedly will need to find a way to replicate and replace the production of the now-departed Mohamed Sanu this fall. Last year, Sanu shook off two years of inexplicable drops and wildcat-induced injuries and inconsistency to develop into the nation's top possession receiver. If Rutgers was driving, and the very game was coming down to success or failure on a play, you could bet that the ball would be thrown somewhere in the vicinity of Sanu. It didn't matter necessarily if two or even three defenders were draped over his back, as was often the case. Mohamed had such momentum during the season that there was little impetus to try otherwise. The team was winning or losing based on his contribution, so the ball was going to him no matter what.

This was in part due to some inconsistency by some of the other receivers. Going into the season, while Sanu was the proven commodity, it was still an open question as to who would emerge as the team's top target. Tim Wright had been poised to break out ahead of Sanu before going down with an injury. Mark Harrison had dazzled late in 2010, and had an impressive combination of size and speed. Brandon Coleman somehow bested Harrison in that respect, and turned heads all throughout spring practice. Depth was seen as so strong that another promising 2010 freshman, Jeremy Deering, moved to receiver in a bid to earn more playing time.

Sanu's breathtaking catches were the story of last season, but that masks an undercurrent of disappointment from the two players here with textbook NFL measurables in Coleman and Harrison. Both, frankly, battled through an embarrassing string of drops in 2011. This wasn't beating up on an easy target for missing difficult, low-percentage catches. Both squandered multiple opportunities where they were wide open down field, no defensive backs within five to ten yards, the ball was a perfect spiral, and there was nothing between them and the end zone but daylight. One catch would have meant Rutgers defeating North Carolina. The same would have gone for Louisville, although in fairness for that game, if about any of twenty different things would have went differently (San San Te making a trivial field goal, Gary Nova not imploding, etc...), Rutgers very easily could have won that one running away.

In spite of this critical flaw, the statuesque Coleman still proved to be one of the top deep threats in the country as a redshirt freshman, with prognosticators far and wide ready to forgive his drops in light of his (literally) enormous potential. Indeed, between Coleman, Harrison, Deering (the forgotten man from last fall, but now returning to his natural position at wideout), and speedster true sophomore Miles Shuler, Rutgers is hardly in want of explosive athletes here. In theory, if the other pieces (QB, running game, protection) fall into place, which is easier said than done, Rutgers does have the raw athletes on hand to turn any game into a shootout if need be. There's still plenty of depth, with four top freshmen in Leonte Carroo, Ruhann Peele, Carlton Agudosi, and Ian Thomas coming in - so much so that several former receivers (slot specialist J.T. Tartacoff, who really did deserve more of a chance here, as well as raw athlete Jawaun Wynn) moved over to the defensive side of the ball.

It remains to be seen who of the bunch will play the most (probably Coleman, although all of them have strong cases, a consequence of recruiting too many receivers as part of an ill-advised switch to the spread offense several years ago), but there is a reasonable case that Rutgers should find some semblance of a quality deep threat. The bigger question, both in terms of replacing Sanu's specific role in the offense, and more generally towards the end of maintaining balance, is who is going to emerge as a dependable possession receiver. Some of the afore-mentioned candidates, such as Harrison, conceivably have the size, but will have to show considerable improvement in the hands department. It's certainly possible though that Rutgers could dig up a few pages from the 2008 playbook, when they had three strong deep threats (in Kenny Britt, Tiquan Underwood, and Tim Brown), and geared the offense towards their particular skill sets.

As to the actual chain-mover however, the two obvious candidates that come to mind are Tim Wright and Quron Pratt. Wright, don't forget, originally came to campus as your typical underdeveloped raw athlete, and was poised to break out two years ago before his run of bad luck. Last fall, and this may have just been owing to the other players on the roster, he really did seem to be reinvented in more a possession role, anecdotally coming down with several tough catches. The same could be said for Pratt, who had some trouble cracking the lineup in September, but started to come through down the stretch as a dependable option, with the coaching staff seemingly at their wits' end with the unending mental lapses from Coleman and Harrison. Pratt doesn't have their chiseled physiques or their hype, but when it comes to actually coming through when the team is depending on him, his case for a starting job is as good as anyone else's at the moment.

There's still considerable, if not overwhelming talent here in spite of Sanu's departure. As unintuitive as it may seem, Sanu's emergence last fall as problematic in that he sucked up repetitions that may well have gone towards helping players like Coleman and Harrison overcome their issues. That's the problem with over recruiting a position. On one hand, how can you keep a Miles Shuler, who has as much speed as anyone in the country, off the field? In his handful of touches last year, Shuler looked positively dynamic in his sprints. There is no doubt that he is capable of being a star for Rutgers. However, you just look at the breadth of raw talent here, of all of the older players who have been waiting for their turns, and wonder how the heck this is all going to play out. Can you justify redshirting a player as dynamic as Shuler if he's going to be the fifth or sixth receiver?

How crazy is it that Rutgers just signed another elite receiver class when it was already the deepest position on the team by a mile? If you're say, Paul Pasqualoni, do you look at the team media guide and then start bawling uncontrollably? Questions of these sorts are abound, and while answers are not in short order, any remaining uncertainty here is surely owing to be overwhelmed with quality options. The production isn't there yet, but merely in terms of athleticism and potential, Rutgers doesn't just overwhelm every other team in the Big East in this respect - they'd be competitive with almost any program in the country. They are deep and talented, in a way, a metaphor for the program as a whole; the key now is to start living up to expectations, and develop into a mature corps that Rutgers can utilize to win the conference championship that has repeatedly and frustratingly fell just out of the team's grasp the past few seasons.