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Rutgers Football: Breakout Candidates For 2018 Season

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It’s never too early to look ahead!

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

2017 provided a glimpse of Rutgers’ future at times, as Chris Ash secured his first three Big Ten wins, the team doubled their 2016 win total, and the most recent recruiting class appears to be one of the best Rutgers has had in several years.

Offensive Skill Position Players

Game-Changers:

These players all saw a good amount of playing time in 2017, but could be starters in 2018.

QB Johnathan Lewis (Sophomore) – Fans were itching to see Lewis have more game-action in 2017 but were left wanting. An injury and some questionable play-calling hindered his freshman year, but the young QB still saw some valuable time against Big Ten powerhouses. At this point, there’s no guarantee he (or anyone) gets the starting nod come 2018. If Lewis improves his accuracy and pocket-presence, he’ll have a leg up on the competition. His big frame and agility already make him a tough tackle for defenses, but as of now, he’s more one-dimensional than a dual threat. Any breakout chances will surely come down to his offseason dedication and improvement.

RB Raheem Blackshear (Sophomore) – Blackshear should enter the 2018 season atop the RB Depth Chart, but it still remains to be seen on how the coaching staff will use him. It’s unlikely he gets 20+ carries per game because of his small frame, but his value in the passing game cannot be understated, and I’m thinking 12-15 rushes and 5 targets per game is realistic. With that kind of usage, he has a chance to hit both high rushing and receiving totals. He’ll have to improve on pass-protection to be kept on the field more frequently, but Rutgers did address the Offensive Line in the class of 2018, and if Jamal Beatty, Raiqwon O’Neal, and Jonah Jackson can turn this OL into a consistently reliable group, it might make Blackshear’s job a little easier.

WR Bo Melton (Sophomore) – The speedster out of Egg Harbor City wasn’t given much of a chance in his freshman year due to an anemic passing game, since he boasts nearly Olympic speed and solid hands. He’ll still be at the mercy of the QB competition, since sophomore Johnathan Lewis has a lot of work to do on passing accuracy. Frankly, Melton would benefit the most from incoming freshman Arthur Sitkowski, a pro-style QB with an arm. I just hope the coaches let him run loose down the sidelines and give him a chance. He’ll catch up to any overthrown ball, and I can deal with INTs on long balls targeting Melton rather than limited targets and not giving him a chance. Not to mention, he’s a Rutgers legacy (father Gary Melton class of 1991, who actually grew up with my boss over at FantasyGuru), and this fanbase always loves seeing next-generation players do well.

WR Hunter Hayek (Sophomore) – Hayek is another part of this new crop of Rutgers wideouts, not really making an offensive impact in 2017 thanks to the lack of a passing game, but bringing some serious speed to the team. He played on both sides of the ball in high school, and was a standout track athlete. Rutgers is slowly building a group of wideouts with various skillsets, and Hayek could alternate snaps with Melton, as both bring top-speed.

Depth Chart Risers:

These players saw limited field action in 2017 but are set to see increased playing time in 2018.

RB Trey Sneed (Redshirt Sophomore) – Sneed did play in all 12 games in 2016 but wasn’t involved much, totaling just 16 carries for 53 yards (3.3 YPC). However, he was a valuable asset at times on Special Teams. He certainly has a chance to make an impact at RB in 2018, though, and could be more of a short-yardage guy. At 5’10 he’s not the biggest, but he does come in at 214 pounds. If there’s a 3rd and long, I’m expecting to see Blackshear out there. But in goal-line situations and 3rd-and-5 or less, Sneed could get his chance. The team had an embarrassment of riches at the position last year, but we’re seeing a new crop of RBs now. Sneed was redshirted in 2017 and has to be chomping at the bits to get back on the field.

WR Dacoven Bailey (Junior) – Bailey was another wideout who suffered because of play-calling and lack of a passing game, but with a 13.6 YPC average, there’s no reason this coaching staff can’t get him more involved in 2018. If we look back at his high-school days, Bailey surpassed 1,000 yards rushing with a 9.3 YPA in his senior season, so he can provide another dimension for Jerry Kill, perhaps on end-arounds or in the Wildcat. This is an offense that still has a long way to go in order to put points on the board, so it’s imperative Kill gets creative. The 2017 stats don’t show anything impressive with many of the playmakers, but there’s no doubt this group is more talented than the 2015-2017 guys.

WR Mo Jabbie (Redshirt Sophomore) – Originally recruited as a DB/WR, Jabbie didn’t record his first career reception until November against Penn State, after being redshirted in his freshman season. At 6’0 and 180 lbs, he’s the second-tallest wideout on the roster and he has solid straight-line speed, but we haven’t seen enough of his agility and route-running to feel completely comfortable with what he can add to the offense. He does have one thing going for him though: training with his uncle…some guy named Mohamed Sanu.

WR Tyler Hayek (Redshirt Freshman) – At 6’4 he’s Rutgers tallest WR, red-zone threat and good top-end speed. While he may not get much separation at the line, he’s good route runner and does find ways to get open. Hayek will likely be an important part of this receiving corps, which is drastically different than previous years, and certainly in a good way. Hayek will come in handy near the goal-line and on third downs, especially if Jerry Kill can get him matched up on smaller CBs. He’s a bit of a tweener, much like Leonte Carroo, so while he may not be as explosive as Sanu, his size and deceptive speed are a formula for a breakout 2018 season.

Incoming Freshman to Watch:

QBs Jalen Chatman (CA) and Artur Sitkowski (NJ) – It’s Dual-Threat vs. Pro-Style here. I am pumped about both of these guys coming to the Banks and will be following the QB competition closely in the offseason. Gio Rescigno is still in the mix, but it’s likely that one of Lewis, Chatman and Sitkowski will emerge as the starter. Chatman has been killing it during his high school senior season this year, and Jerry Kill might envision him as a new toy to work with as a passing and rushing threat. On the other hand, Rutgers has historically done well in a pro-style offense: think of Mike Teel and Ray Rice, as well as Gary Nova and Paul James. Sitkowski was a huge get for this team, and I believe these two QBs will push each other to the limit in the offseason. They’ve both bought into the program and the potential of this team, and I credit Chris Ash big-time for getting a highly-touted in-state QB in Sitkowski as well as a Cali guy to come across the country. As stated before, I do think returning QB Johnathan Lewis has the most breakout potential, considering he’s already familiar with the offense and has seen Big Ten game action, but Chatman will likely push him in camp, as another dual-threat QB. If anything, I’m excited to see if Lewis, still just a sophomore, assumes a leadership role for the incoming freshman. This could be exciting, folks.

RB Isaih Pacheco (NJ) – Pacheco was recruited as an RB, despite playing QB for Vineland. Even as a QB, he rushed for 1,107 yards and 15 TDs in 2016, and despite getting other Big Ten offers, he wanted to stay in-state, something we all as Rutgers fans can appreciate. This kid also plays with immense heart and passion. Against Egg Harbor Township, he threw a TD and rushed for a season-high 217 yards and 2 TDs…just days after his sister was tragically killed. He praised his Vineland teammates as brothers, and there’s no doubt he’ll fit right into the Family atmosphere that Ash has worked so hard to cultivate. He was a huge addition to this recruiting class and could even push Blackshear for the starting job. Expect a large dose of Pacheco early and often.

WR Travon King (NJ) – A three-star Woodrow Wilson (Camden, NJ) recruit that was teetering on edge of RU commit, he was a huge get by the Rutgers coaching staff. With little playmakers on offense, he was big grab. With deceptive speed and physicality, King could be a real asset and make some contested grabs. Rutgers has never had a shortage of physicality in the trenches, but they’ve been lacking that trait in their wideouts. King also boasts a seven-foot wingspan, so even if the QBs still struggle with accuracy, King allows for a slight margin of error.

Defensive Players

Game-Changers:

LB Tyshon Fogg (Sophomore) – Fogg was more of a special teams role-player in 2017, but this highly touted prospect brings some notable credentials entering his sophomore season. A consensus four-star recruit, Fogg was the No. 2 LB in all of Maryland and 23rd overall OLB nationally according to Rivals, and the 12th overall OLB in the country by Scout. Fogg went a bit under the radar during the 2017 Rutgers recruiting cycle, as WR Bo Melton, QB Johnathan Lewis, and OL Micah Clark garnered more attention, but Fogg will likely step into the forefront of this Rutgers defense, perhaps starting on the outside and even replacing Deonte Roberts in the future. At 6’1 and 240 lbs., he’s definitely a Big Ten-sized LB. If Rutgers has learned anything over the past four years, it’s that the front-7 can make or break close games.

DL Elorm Lumor (Redshirt Sophomore) – Lumor is a big guy. At 6’3 and 245 lbs., Lumor showed some real flash and potential against Maryland in 2017, totaling 6 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. He was also a key defensive player in holding off Purdue and securing the close win. A hometown boy (Piscataway), Lumor was the 8th-best prep school prospect in the country according to Rivals. He was originally recruited to play OLB, but Rutgers is hoping he evolves into an aggressive edge pass rusher, considering he has great length and versatile coming off the end.

Depth Chart Risers:

DL Mike Tverdov (Redshirt Freshman) – Tverdov was a big part of the 2017 recruiting class, holding 15+ offers, including a number of Big Ten offers. According to Rivals, he was the #1 DE in NJ, coming off back-to-back 11+ sacks seasons in high school (14 his senior year, 11 his junior year). Tverdov was redshirted in his freshman year, as the team wants him to bulk up. He was around the 150 lb.-mark at the start of 2017, but Chris Ash apparently wants him close to 270.

Freshmen to Watch:

CB Jarrett Paul (NJ) – The Scarlet Knights already have a productive and deep secondary, and Paul only adds to that. He’s a big boundary CB that can make a difference because of his length and a great ability to set the edge. He’ll be yet another 6’1 addition to this secondary, and while he may be more of a rotational guy at first—keep in mind Rutgers did not graduate any defensive backs this year—he’s still someone to watch as the season progresses.

OLB Jayden McDonald (GA) – McDonald had a ridiculous game this past year in his senior high school season, recording seven TFL, including 5 sacks. His high school defense (North Gwinett in Suwanee, GA) runs the same scheme as Rutgers, and he shortly after committing, McDonald said the staff sees him as hybrid OLB off the edge. Rutgers has plenty of LBs bigger than McDonald (6’0, 205 lbs.), but he has a nose for the ball and is quick off the edge.