Training camp for Rutgers football has reached the midway point and the focus with the media yesterday was on the experience and depth of both the offensive and defensive line. On the offensive side of the ball, right guard Chris Muller leads the program with 37 career starts and returns starting left guard Dorian Miller and center Derrick Nelson from last season. On defense, Darius Hamilton is second in the program behind Muller with 25 career starts. Fellow defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph, Quanzell Lambert, and Julian Pinnix-Odrick all have started 10 or more games in their Rutgers career.
When Rutgers entered the Big Ten, a big concern was the size and talent level of both lines and how they would match up against the rest of the conference. For two seasons, Rutgers was pushed around on both sides of the ball to various degrees throughout conference play. However, the returning experience this season, coupled by the strength and conditioning improvements made this offseason, there should be real hope both lines on this team will be the most competitive they have been since joining the Big Ten.
However, at second glance, it’s not just the lines that are deep and return a lot of starters. Rutgers is actually one of the most experienced teams in the country entering this season. In terms of the highest percentage of returning offensive and defensive starters, Rutgers returns 85%, which was highlighted during the BTN crew’s visit to camp last Friday. According to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, Rutgers has the seventh highest percentage of returning starters out of 128 Division I college football teams. Using advanced statistics, Connelly estimates that this will lead to a 7.5 point improvement per game this season. In terms of power five conference teams, only LSU, Syracuse, and Louisville return a higher percentage of starters.
And guess what, that doesn’t even account for the coaching change within the program. I understand the pessimism among the national media in thinking that Rutgers was bad last season, so they will continue to bad this season. However, with the potential for improvements from the coaching staff this season and added weight and experience on the player’s end, all signs point toward a better team in 2016.
The defense cannot be any worse than last season, and while the inexperience of the linebackers is a legitimate concern, the line is very deep and experienced. The secondary has talent, but the majority of the players were thrown into the fire last season in a very difficult situation. They will be more prepared this season and considering head coach Chris Ash specializes with that position group, there is no unit on the team that has potential to improve more than the secondary.
Also, the defense will add two key veterans who were not on the field last season. The first one is obviously Darius Hamilton, who has gained close to 40 pounds since his last season. His value to this team is immense, as Ash praised him again yesterday in his presser. The second is Michigan graduate transfer Ross Douglas, who is returning to his natural position within the secondary. While Douglas played running back at Michigan, his big program experience and maturity should be invaluable to the defense this season.
There is an embarrassment of riches with the number of skill position players returning on offense. Robert Martin, Josh Hicks, and Justin Goodwin all return out of the backfield, with only Paul James being a substantial loss. At wide receiver, Leonte Carroo is irreplaceable for sure. However, with a new spread offense, opportunity for major production exists for Janarion Grant, Andre Patton, Carlton Agudosi, Vance Mathews and John Tsimis.
We know the quarterback battle is between returning starter Chris Laviano and TCU grad transfer Zach Allen. Either way, both will be entering their fourth seasons of major college football. While Allen has little game experience, Laviano is basically a grizzled veteran at this point. There is reason to believe he can be a better quarterback this season. The key with Allen is he played under Heisman candidate Treyvon Boykin and played for a big time program like Douglas, so there is a seasoning that comes from that experience.
In looking at the starting offense and defense from last Saturday’s scrimmage, other than the three linebackers, every other position spot, except for right tackle, was filled with players who have started previously. Robert Martin and Darius Hamilton were held out for precautionary reasons, but Justin Goodwin and Kevin Wilkins replaced them and have a lot of experience in their own right. Only Zach Heeman at right tackle is relatively inexperienced, but J.J. Denman may ultimately start from what Ash said in his presser yesterday.
With five ranked opponents and nine bowl teams from last season on the schedule, it is going to be a formidable slate for Rutgers. Just because this team should be improved, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate to a better record this season. Patience is needed. However, with all the returning starters and what appears to be a very strong buy in from them, as well as the rest of the team, with the new coaching staff, I can’t help but be optimistic about this season. Going through all the adversity from last season could end up being a major benefit this year. With Ash and the new coaching staff leading a veteran team this season, Rutgers could reap the rewards quicker than expected and be a major surprise in the Big Ten. Let’s hope that is the case!