The countdown to the start of the Rutgers football season is officially at 100 days today. With that being said, here are 10 things that I am looking forward to with the 2016 season.
New Era Officially Begins
This one is obvious, but the kickoff on September 3rd against most likely a ranked Washington team will be significant indeed. It will be the debut of Chris Ash as head coach at Rutgers and will officially mark the new era for the program. There have been many positive developments this offseason, but this day will be the first opportunity to see the new product on the field. While it will be a tough task for Rutgers to leave Seattle with a win, the new beginnings for the program will be something to celebrate regardless.
There is no more exciting player in the program and he has the potential to explode in the new spread offense this coming season. If he can come close to equaling his production on special teams from a year ago, when he returned four kicks for touchdowns and led the Big Ten in return yards, while improving his production on offense, it will be a special year for #1. Here is Grant's 100 yard kickoff return from last season to mark the 100 day countdown!
How much the Rutgers defense will improve from the past three seasons is anyone's guess, but it's fair to expect progress. With a deep and veteran defensive line, more experience and depth in the secondary, and the guidance of head coach of Chris Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, the defense has to be better. There is a long way to climb before getting back to the glory days of the Schiano led defenses, but the pendulum has swung back in a positive direction for sure.
Darius Hamilton & Kemoko Turay Healthy
A big reason to be excited for the defense is the return of Darius Hamilton. With his added muscle and improved health, he is primed to have a great senior season. His leadership will be a huge addition to the defense, something that was sorely missed last season. While Turay played most of last season with injuries, he had offseason shoulder surgery and is on the mend. Maybe duplicating his production from his breakthrough 2014 season is unrealistic, but even if he can get consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback, it will be a huge improvement from last season.
The football season means we are likely to be treated with more soundbites from special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Vince Okruch. This interview during the spring game is an instant classic. Any coach that says on air that a missed field goal is depressing is okay in my book. The R B1G Build campaign should hold a fundraiser "Ask Vince Okruch Anything" and I guarantee multiple bids and quotes that are gold! I don't just want more clips of Okruch being interviewed, I need them!
Renewed emphasis on Special Teams
Speaking of Okruch and that interview, he does point out that blocking kicks is a program tradition and will be a priority on his watch. Rutgers had a down year last season, blocking only two kicks after leading the country the past decade while averaging 4 blocked kicks per season. I think we can expect more this season and overall improved play from a unit that played so poorly last season.
Speaking of special teams, let's hope for a similar ending to the Rutgers-Michigan game from 2014. After a lot of off the field barking between fans and satellite camp wars, the atmosphere under the lights at High Point Solutions Stadium in primetime for the stripe out against Michigan should be tremendous. Michigan could possibly be ranked the #1 team in the country for this one, so the homefield advantage is a must. Never forget this:
New Big Ten opponents - Illinois & Minnesota
While Rutgers has to play Big Ten West defending champion Iowa as part of another challenging schedule, gone are traditional powers Wisconsin and Nebraska. Enter Illinois and Minnesota, which are winnable games for the Scarlet Knights. The Illinois game is the homecoming game and while Minnesota is on the road, their offense is expected to struggle again this year. It won't be easy, but it's certainly possible Rutgers can sneak out of Minnesota with a victory. While they have never played the Golden Gophers, Rutgers is 1-1 all-time against Illinois. They last played the Illini in the second game of the 2006 season, winning 33-0, avenging an overtime loss the season before. Never forget the "Leonard Leap"!
November 19th should be an epic day and perhaps the best tailgating day in Rutgers history. The wrestling team takes on rival Princeton in the morning, and the football team battles Penn State in primetime that night. Cannot wait!
Season Finale Against Maryland
The matchup between the two Big Ten newcomers has made for two instant classic games so far, with each team coming back by more than 20 points to win on the road. Maryland hired former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and Rutgers hired former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash. Both coaching regimes are off to great starts on the recruiting trail, with Maryland having the edge so far. For the third year in a row this matchup is the last game of the season, and it will serve as a measuring stick for where the two programs stand.
What are you looking forward to in the 2016 football season? Sound off in the comments!