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Rutgers Football 2018: Wide Receiver Preview

It’s groundhog day, will we see fundamentals or playmaking in 2018?

Eastern Michigan v Rutgers
Melton needs to make plays in 2018.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Fall practice starts Friday for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team which means players report to camp TODAY! We continue a series of positional previews, working our way from the perceived weakest to strongest units that will be published every few days. Next up is the team’s wide receivers that need to make tremendous strides in 2018. For last year’s preview, click here.

Position coach: Lester Erb (2nd season overall, 1st with Wide Receivers)

Key players lost: Janarion Grant (UDFA - Baltimore Ravens), Damon Mitchell, Dacoven Bailey

Key players returning: Bo Melton (So.), Everett Wormley (So.), Hunter Hayek (So.), Mo Jabbie (RSo.)

Newcomers: Shameen Jones (RFr.), Tyler Hayek (RFr.), Eddie Lewis (Fr. - early enrollee), four true freshmen

Question 1: Can they make more catches?

There is nowhere to go but up. Wait, didn’t we think that last year?

The three leaders in receptions from the wide receiver spot are all gone: Grant (16), Mitchell (10), and Bailey (9). Those numbers are not impressive but when your leading returning wideout in yards is Bo Melton with 83 on just four catches ... ouch. The first concern of many is that Grant when healthy was the only guy who could consistently get open and Bailey was the fastest in the group. Lester Erb moves over to coach the wideouts, the position he played so effectively at Bucknell and coached for eight seasons at Iowa. The number one task is helping these guys learn to get open.

The level of play in the quarterback room has ultimately gone up and drops were the least of this group’s issues. So if they can get a little separation, if the offensive line is not porous, and the running game can do something close to last year, we should see this group turn a corner. Don’t expect Rutgers to be an even middle of the pack Big Ten passing attack, but they have the potential to be significantly better than the past two seasons.

Question 2: Can they be deep threats?

Traditional thinking is to build up the passing attack by having quarterbacks complete short passes. Then they build on that and improve on intermediate routes, etc. That approach this day in age is less effective so many teams (like Purdue in 2017) have attempted the opposite plan. Beat people deep a few times and the short game will open up. With the spring game not being a “game” and therefore a reason to open things up, the term “genius” is a stretch but it was surely smart thinking for Rutgers. In 2017, no one on Rutgers could beat anyone deep and defenses simply did not respect the threat so they could creep up into the box. Having QB’s throw a few balls downfield to give them some experience in a live situation was definitely the right thing to do.

This is where “new” offensive coordinator John McNulty appears to have the right resume for the job. Rutgers started out slow in 2008, but by the end of the regular season they had among the most unstoppable passing attacks in the country. After squeaking by Uconn 12-10, McNulty pulled a Chuck Noll from Super Bowl XIV and decided throw deep as often as possible. The next game Rutgers put up 54 points ironically at #17 Pitt. After that, seemingly every game, a host of receivers were running around open on deep outs, slants, and with tons of real estate in the flat. Rutgers completely obliterated Louisville in the season finale and after the Bowl win over a young Russell Wilson, McNulty was off to the NFL.

So does Rutgers have personnel to pull this off? Rutgers does not feature a seasoned Kenny Britt or a senior like Tiquan Underwood, but what made McNulty’s first tenure so special was his ability to get so many role players involved. Like Jerry Kill did with the running backs in 2017, (having each of the fourheaded monster with a specific set of plays), McNulty would be wise to try and do the same with his receiver group. I’m not saying put Hunter Hayek in just to run screens or Mo Jabbie to block, but ensuring the players can start with plays they have down pat is good. The receiver group may be small in stature outside of Tyler Hayek and two true freshman athletes, but there’s enough diversity that a lot of guys should be able to bring something to the table.

Question 3: What else is new?

The 2016 plan was to force feed Janarion Grant and send Andre Patton deep until Grant went down. Last season the plan again when healthy was to get Grant the ball as much as possible until he was banged up. After that the team seemed to lack direction. Not to pick on Hunter Hayek because this is not his fault, but how is your go-to play against Penn State at the goal line with a chance to seize momentum, twice throwing a fade to 5’9” Hunter? It must have been the play was for Janarion or maybe Melton and next man up is Hunter?

McNulty will not do that and even if he falls in love with the fade, it will be destined for a tight end like Travis Vokolek, Jerome Washington, or Nakia Griffin-Stewart. OR one of the big-bodied true freshmen makes an impact right away, likely beginning with winning 50-50 balls. It is plausible for the true freshman contingent to be better than the upperclassmen, a true wildcard for the Rutgers offense in 2018. The second is if Melton can really be awesome right away.

Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?

Best case

Not wondering every week if Grant will be in the lineup is a minor detail, but a positive one for the offensive players. Melton is a true number one receiver, Shameen Jones is silky smooth especially against zone coverage, and Eddie Lewis is a terror in the slot. Rutgers gets such excellent blocking on the perimeter, coupled with accuracy from QB’s, that the screen finally becomes a weapon again. One of the freshmen explodes on the scene as a touchdown machine.

Worst case

Without Grant and the athletic Duwop Mitchell, it’s even more difficult for the receivers to get open, especially against press man. A revolving door at quarterback prevents anyone from really being able to have go to timing routes on game day. Melton shows a flash now and then but defenses key on him and no one else can beat a defender deep. The offensive line can’t block, preventing tight ends from being able to go make plays or routes to develop.

Most likely

Melton flashes top ability but defenses focus on shutting him down to force other players to beat them. If Sitkowski starts, opponents play a lot of cover-2 daring him to finesse them underneath. Wormley, Eddie Lewis, Jabbie, and Shameen Jones are consistently inconsistent on intermediate routes, so the element of the big play on yards after the catch is limited as tight ends are targeted just to move the chains. Somebody other than Jerome Washington emerges as a reliable threat especially against zone, probably one of the big tight ends or freshmen. The true deep ball game takes until 2019 to really work from JLew, Art, or Jalen Chatman.

Players listed on the current roster

#6 Mohamed Jabbie (5’11”, 197 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Jabbie became a starter due to his blocking (Aaron mentioned in the 1st podcast how he was looking “bigger these days” according to many people). Hopefully he can make a few more plays and come out of his uncle’s shadow. Mo is a tough dude who contributes a lot on special teams. His receiving contributions should be considered a bonus although we have heard he is good in the open field. Perhaps we will see some of that.

#14 Everett Wormley (6’0’, 198 lbs.) Sophomore

Wormley was deemed as “physically ready” in camp a year ago and made a few starts. He only made four catches for 19 yards all season, so those numbers should increase dramatically. His movements didn’t look at smooth as his high school tape, so we should see more efficiency.

#15 Shameen Jones (6’1”, 175 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Jones did not play as a true freshman, but was universally considered the second best wide receiver in spring practice. My first impression of his high school tape was cutback ability, so hopefully he can get the ball in space a little bit. Since he didn’t see the field at all last year, so expect some growing pains, which hinge on his ability to defeat press man coverage.

#18 Bo Melton (5’11”, 185 lbs.) Sophomore

Bo Melton arrived as the #3 prospect in New Jersey with high expectations. He showed signs of being tough to defend but never got into a rhythm with any of the quarterbacks. He made one big play against Morgan State, but was otherwise rather quiet other than drawing a few key pass interference penalties that are not reflected in his statistics. After it was described as taking him some time to achieve proper balance as a college student, he really came on in spring as the offense’s best player.

#21 Eddie Lewis (6’0”, 185 lbs.) Freshman

Eddie Lewis looked super quick, almost unguardable in the spring game. Eddie did drop a few passes and his timing was off (expected since he was playing alongside several QBs), but the upside is there. After a post-grad year he should be more physically ready for the college level and should battle Hunter Hayek for reps in the slot.

#38 Nyshere Woodson (5’10”, 201 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Woodson has the build of a player who can contribute as a blocker, particularly on special teams. He is transitioning to wide receiver after playing running back at the Pennington School. The walk-on will probably start out on the scout team again this year, with a shot at contributing on game day later in his career.

#81 Tyler Hayek (6’3”, 190 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Tyler is an imposing candidate as a deep ball recipient who was a bigger prospect due to his size than his brother Hunter. He may still be very raw, for example, fans saw a clip of him being encouraged by the coaching staff to use what may become a lethal stiff arm. Tyler has an Andrew Turzilli body type who at minimum should grow into a deer on downfield routes, able to defeat press coverage more with strength before taking off.

#82 Hunter Hayek (5’9”, 170 lbs.) Sophomore

Hunter was only a two-star recruit, but fans were high on him after his performance in the 100 meters as a high school senior. When Janarion Grant was banged up, Hunter became the team’s primary slot receiver. In his defense, the staff played him out of necessity so he could make big strides especially if his responsibilities are more specialized in 2018. He does adjust pretty well to the ball.

#84 Cole Murphy (6’1”, 201 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

Murphy has decent size and was a versatile player, even throwing a few passes (wink wink) at Coffeyville CC so he could carve out a niche in special packages. His best value to the team is probably as a holder. He has the skills to play scout team scrambling quarterback, but Jalen Chatman will probably fill that role in 2018.

#87 Prince Taylor (5’10”, 195 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

The Hackensack native was a redshirt walk-on for his first year with the team in 2016. He showed some promise in the 2017 spring game, but could not get on the field in the fall. He faces an uphill climb with the group of incoming freshmen.

Incoming Freshmen

Daevon Robinson (6’4”, 210 lbs.), Zihir Lacewell (6’3”, 190 lbs.), Paul Woods (6’1”, 165 lbs.), Christian Izien (5’10”, 180 lbs.)

First off, we are doing our best here as the official camp roster including the true freshman summer enrollees has not been posted yet. Jalen Jordan also will get looks likely as a flexed tight end, so he will be included in the tight ends preview. Christian Izien might end up at defensive back. Lacewell and Robinson came to Rutgers partially because they would get a shot to play receiver. Lacewell was by some services a four-star linebacker prospect and only three-star receiver, but Rutgers promised him a first crack at offense. Lacewell has height that is lacking in the group and overall athleticism that could see the field right away. Robinson brings Kenny Britt size and possesses the potential to contribute at virtually any position on the team other than interior line. They are both X-factors because a big target opposite Melton would be an ideal compliment. Izien is incredibly quick and has a shot to do more than previous true freshmen did in the slot.

Long term outlook: There are a lot of bodies in this group with plenty of eligibility left. 2018 probably has some starts and stops, but this group is well positioned for 2019. Even if none of this group amounts to more than an average Big Ten starter, having more and more reps particularly with the young quarterbacks will continue to move the needle.

If Lacewell and Robinson don’t become stars, one or both of them will likely end up at a different position that is a bigger area of need in 2019 or 2020. The staff will roll the dice again with true freshmen receivers who could be the one that put them over the top. If McNulty can break the curse and stick around for another year, the wide receivers have the possibility of going from worst to first in the #10strong.

Previous positional reviews:

Defensive Line