Training camp for the 2018 season for Rutgers football begins today. Some of our contributors got together and pondered some big picture questions regarding this team and what they could accomplish this season. Let’s kick things off and only four Saturdays until the season opener at home against Texas State!
Jim Hoffman: Will the return of Offensive Coordinator John McNulty create an offense that can actually make headway in the Big Ten East?
For the past two years, we have watched Rutgers’ teams struggle mightily against the top tier of Big Ten East. The total combined points scored against against Penn State (6), Michigan (14), Ohio State (0), and Michigan State (7) over that period clearly demonstrates the Scarlet Knight offense was no match for those teams’ defenses in the Big Ten East.
John McNulty has a total of 16 offensive letter winners returning (of which seven started), along with almost-certain starters Artur Sitkowski and Jonathan Hilliman in 2018. Will this finally be the year for a breakthrough on offense? Only time will tell, but until this does happen, Rutgers will continue to struggle to win even half of their games.
Aaron Breitman: Can the Rutgers defense become a top tier unit in the Big Ten?
It seems the majority of the excitement with this team is focused on the offensive side of the ball with all the young talent and John McNulty back as coordinator. There are genuine reasons to be optimistic the offense will be far improved this season. However, I’m more excited about the potential of the defense. There is enough front line talent for this to be the best defense Rutgers has had since the famed 2012 unit that featured eight players who ultimately ended up in the NFL in various roles. I’m not saying this year’s edition will be close to as good as what was arguably the best in program history. However, they could certainly become a top tier Big Ten defense. In fact, I think they will need to be that if Chris Ash wants to accomplish the goal of making a bowl game in his third season.
The defensive line is a major question mark, as David Anderson explained so thoroughly in his positional preview here. Depth is a major issue up front and that makes Kevin Wilkins in my mind the most irreplaceable player on the team based on him clearly being the best lineman and his skillset. Jon Bateky has a chance to have an impact year as well. There is some potential for some younger players to step up, but they need to produce on a consistent basis in conference play before they can be counted on. The back seven of the defense is extremely talented and experienced. Expect defensive coordinator Jay Niemann to utilize four linebackers at times to counter the lack up experience up front and due to the group he has in Deonte Roberts, Trevor Morris, Tyreek Maddox-Williams, and Tyshon Fogg. As for the secondary, having three cornerbacks of a high caliber in Blessuan Austin, Isaiah Wharton, and Tre Avery, as well as Saquon Hampton, Damon Hayes, and Kiy Hester at the back in the safety spots is a luxury Rutgers fans shouldn’t take for granted. Who can fill in behind them is a major question mark, as there isn’t much experience behind this group. There is also a strong possibility that their depth could be depleted even more so due to the credit card fraud investigation, which is worrisome.
Even though the roster isn’t nearly as deep as you want to be playing in the Big Ten, I just mentioned eleven players that have played together for multiple seasons and all are talented enough to form a very good defensive unit overall. With the hope that the offense can be serviceable, it would go a long way to keeping the defense from wearing down in the second half of games the way they have the past two seasons. Forcing turnovers at a high rate would give the offense more opportunities to produce points as well. If the defense can stay healthy and be better supported by an improved offense, I really do think this unit will take a big step forward this season. Their ability to slow down Big Ten offenses and keep Rutgers in games would make this team much more competitive across the board this season.
Cara Sanfilippo: Will Rutgers have a B1G level talent at QB? Who will start at the Texas State Game?
My friend, Nick Kosko, who discusses this at the end of the article, beat me to wondering if we will actually make a bowl game this season, and win some respect in the conference. I agree that it is possible, although I have learned from many years of disappointment that nothing is a guarantee in terms of wins (Texas State).
And so, I will revisit the eternal question: Do we finally have a B1G level talent at quarterback this season? Much ado was made last year about Kyle Bolin and how he was going to transform the program. He seemed like a great kid, and a great leader, but after an impressive start against Washington, he seemed to fizzle out and was replaced by one of my favorites, Gio Rescigno. Don’t get me wrong, I love Gio, and he has so much heart and fight in him. I just don’t know if he has the arm to be a true double threat, and opposing defenses know he is likely going to run. This recent article detailing the training of Rutgers’ two young quarterbacks, Johnathan Lewis and Artur Sitowski, shows a lot of promise for the upcoming season. We have a true quarterback competition going on right now, and under John McNulty, hopefully an offense that suits the starter’s individual talents. As I said before, I am cautiously optimistic...
David Anderson: Can Rutgers capitalize on an opponent’s misfortune and grab an upset?
It was reported recently that Rutgers has the longest active drought in the Power 5 of beating a ranked opponent. Staying close and getting a few lucky bounces can help pull an upset out, but the games against top teams have not been competitive since the 2015 Michigan State blackout. What makes this even more frustrating is that the Scarlet Knights have caught a few teams at the right time and still not been able to capitalize. These may not have turned out to be an upset had RU won, but beating a reeling 2017 Nebraska team, 2016 Iowa, 2016 Minnesota, or a 2015 Washington State club coming off a loss to an FCS program could have shifted momentum. Every team faces adversity and injuries, but proper execution of a unique game plan is required to take advantage.
The makings of an upset require a little luck, but one reason Rutgers rarely beat opponents with more talent, even in the Schiano era, is that Rutgers is usually pretty vanilla on offense. Lining up man on man with the Big Ten east powerhouses is almost impossible. I can think of only one such upset in the last decade plus with this strategy at the college level, when Toby Gerhart lowered the boom for an emerging Stanford team over USC. The Mehringer experiment turned out to be a dud, but the reasons behind it weren’t. Rutgers has to come up with a strategic advantage that if aligned with an opponent’s weakness could facilitate an upset. In the Carroo Superman Michigan State game in 2015, Rutgers threw deep on offense and brought a ton of pressure on defense. Sure this style of play will go down in flames as often, or more than it succeeds, but being too conservative rarely works anymore.
To Jim’s point above, having some swagger and big play ability on offense is crucial. Though they did ultimately lose the contest against Minnesota, Rutgers made only that one legit comeback attempt in the last two seasons when down big. So unless you are going to run the option (an idea I was crucified at one point for even mentioning) the passing game has to be able to gain some yards when defenses are in the prevent, allowing for completions underneath. College football is about momentum; get the defense on their heels, get the crowd into it (or out on the road), get some confidence on the sideline. Watch the 2014 Maryland game or 2015 Indiana game as Rutgers examples. Complete some short passes and big plays will follow.
Otherwise, we will be waiting for the next Ray Rice - Brian Leonard duo with a perfectly jelled offensive line AND a top 5 special teams unit that may never arrive on the banks all at once.
Nick Kosko: What can be done this season to ensure Rutgers avoids the “you don’t belong in Big Ten statement?”
Well for starters, if a team like Rutgers beats Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan, shouldn’t they be told “you don’t belong in this prestigious conference?” Heck, take a look at most of the Big Ten West...yikes. I know it’s easy to point to Rutgers in the gauntlet that is the Big Ten East and say they don’t belong, but remember, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State are historically top tier programs. That’s already the top four slots in the division while adding Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers.
The easy answer is for Rutgers to finish 6-6 and make a bowl game. Whether they win or lose in the postseason, making a bowl game in year three for head coach Chris Ash would be one of the larger accomplishments in college football in 2018, after wining just 2 games in 2016. To get to standard respectability amongst the conference foes, the Scarlet Knights are going to have to start strong in the first half of the season. Six of the first eight games are winnable. Mark Texas State as a win because losing that one would mean I need to find a new line of work. But teams like Kansas, Buffalo, Indiana, Illinois, and Maryland are all winnable games. Last I checked, Rutgers was worse off as a team a few years ago and managed to take out Indiana and Kansas back in 2015. The big swing game to get them noticed in the Big Ten is the homecoming game against Northwestern. If Rutgers could knock off a program coming off a 10 win year that has been nationally recognized and start the season...dare I say, 7-1, they could lose out afterwards and fans would be fine.
Finally, it goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, the Scarlet Knights CANNOT lose by 40-50 points to the big guns of the conference anymore. Week two might be the best time to play Ohio State to catch them off guard and make it a little more watchable. Is it alright to be kind of content with a 31-17 loss? Competitiveness and a hot start for Ash and company can certainly silence doubters of Rutgers. At least...for 2018.
We saved this question for our readers. This will be a topic we revisit throughout the season, but as training camp begins, what is your gut feeling about this team?
Will Rutgers make a Bowl game this season?
This poll is closed