First off, thank you to our readers who so made us feel our efforts over the last week were worth it with all the football early signing period coverage of Rutgers Football. The number of page views and comments were enjoyed after another forgettable season on the gridiron. The comments themselves, even when critical of my analysis, are always welcomed and necessary for good debate and to truly be a site for fans to let their opinions known. Like Greg Schiano said, we need everyone, including you and me.
The most controversial of the discussion over the last week (ok maybe second after Pat Hobbs, more on that at a later date) was how big of a positional need the defensive end position is for the Scarlet Knights at this point in time. The debate came when the announcement of Wesley Bailey’s commitment arrived Saturday that he had signed his LOI Friday:
I wrote, “Defensive end is a position Rutgers Football has plenty of able bodies.” But TrollsDestroyedNJcom strongly disagreed, “It is one of the, if not thee, most important position of need on the team.”
CrazyfoRU stated that Mike Tverdov will be a top three player on the RU defense in 2020.
TrollsDestroyedNJcom countered with two points; “Our pass rush was terrible!” and “Our outside contain gave up many big plays.”
RUClassOf2012 added, “Our DLine play was extremely poor, particularly defensive end.”
The discussion continued into Monday since folks have very strong opinions on this topic. More chatter on the defensive line topic came on other Scarlet message boards as well. Rather than just focus on the defensive ends, here’s my list of the positional needs for Rutgers football right now with some thoughts just in case you feel like putting something in The Hale Center mailbox for the holidays as a thank you. My biased Big Ten positional rankings for this year are purely off the top of my head from the eye test, there’s no need to go into advanced analytics and spend the time when you are what your record says you are. Also since we are in the joyful time of year, this analysis is a little more subjective than I usually provide:
#1: Offensive Line (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: last)
If anyone believes the O-Line is not the top need for the program, he or she would still admit it to be in the top 3. Or else they might consider therapy as a New Year’s resolution. The simple fact is that in any Big Ten game this year, what Rutgers offensive lineman did you have confidence winning his individual matchup for the entire game in both the run AND pass game? Did he? What about in just the run game OR just the pass game?
Now that you are looking for the nearest rope, please calm yourself that this is not all doom and gloom. Michigan State’s line was in shambles because just like Rutgers, they came to battle with average at best players across the board and yet MSU made the Pinstripe Bowl! Rutgers manhandled Liberty (8-5) on the line and they already won their Bowl game! By my count, Rutgers currently has at least 11 scholarship, three-star offensive linemen plus multi-year starting center Mike Maietti on the roster after graduations and not counting Sam Howson in the transfer portal. Of that group, only Raiqwon O’Neal projects as above average in run and pass blocking (even if it’s at guard), though linemen can grow into their bodies and develop late as somewhat of a surprise.
So I like what Rutgers did in the early signing period, though of the high school additions not even Bryan Felter should be expected to contribute this year. So if JUCO Cedrice Paillant can plug and play, that would be great, but even if O’Neal has a tremendous leap, there’s still three more spots that Rutgers could really benefit from improving considering the subpar quarterback and wide receiver play recently. There are a few candidates to be solid contributors by their 4th and 5th years, Zach Venesky-like but hopefully better, but Rutgers hasn’t had an offensive lineman graduate and play snaps in the NFL since??????? The chances of getting Anthony Davis 2.0 are slim, but Schiano will surely be on the lookout for any high school prospects who somehow slipped through on signing day or more likely transfers, particularly graduates from lower levels who have easily outgrown their original prep recruiting rankings and want the national stage to prove their ability to play on Sundays in 2021.
#2: Quarterback (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 13th)
The only other real contender for the top spot because until you have a quarterback you trust, this has to be in the top 2-3 every ... single ... time. By any statistical measure, Rutgers has had the worst quarterback play in the country for any non-option run team in the last four seasons. At some points this year you could argue Rutgers was as high as 11th in the conference with McLane Carter and Art slinging it and Johnny Langan plowing people since Wisconsin and Michigan State were terrible at times, but for the entire body of work RU edged only Northwestern who did manage to win a Big Ten game! The reason I place QB second behind OL is for two reasons. 1. It’s hard to evaluate quarterbacks when they ran for their life at times and 2. all you need is one.
My Day One report card drew some debate after I stated that “Rutgers really has no idea who the starting quarterback will be in 2020, even with Art Sitkowski returning”. costigan_56 disagreed since Sitkowski will likely be that player for the next three seasons and gave solid supporting evidence. Re-reading what I wrote, it does sound totally negative (welcome to New Jersey!), but I do think Cole Snyder or Evan Simon COULD be the guy in addition to Art. Yes Art has played in the Big Ten, but I’d be curious to see of those three who has played the most snaps the last three calendar years. Let me add here that I believe Langan would be a star in FCS and a viable option for a non Power Five team or maybe a P5 if they have an overpowering offensive line, stud receivers plus even better defense. For example, I’d take him over the PSU quarterback who beat RU in the season finale.
The transfer market has not been successful for Rutgers in the past few years, no matter how many stars they arrived with Allen, Rettig, Bolin, Carter, Nittolo, Flacco ... I’m sure I’m missing someone. That being said, just because a coin comes up tails five times in a row has no statistical impact to what will happen on the next toss. So let’s hope Peyton Powell can hold down the fort if the combo of the other guys along with the offensive line only take baby steps this spring.
Again though, Quarterback only takes one and therefore in a year this position could drop to the middle of the pack on this list. We can all hope.
#3: Defensive Tackle (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 12th)
Need to find some players who can stop the run and collapse the pocket, badly. Ask yourself, even in the old Big East which of these current DTs would be all-conference? An easy argument could be made that defensive tackle outperformed expectations more than any other position group on the team AND the sum of its parts was better than just two other Big Ten squads. That being said they only had 3.0 and 3.5 sacks on the year depending on whether Jamree Kromah’s should could as a tackle or end. Then you could point out, well teams were running a lot more than they were passing. Team MVP who is out of eligibility Willington Previlon had 7.5 tackles for loss and Brendan Border added 3.0 himself. The rest of the DTs combined for five, two of which were the sacks from Julius Turner. So we know the other team is running on us and are not stopping it that often behind the line. Statistically, RU recorded 55 TFL while they surrendered 76. Corey Bolds and Ron Johnson never made it to campus and Micah Clark never got it going as part of an everything breaking right scenario.
Bordner started to “get it” late in the year with Jaohne Duggan and Robin Jutwreten doing more than most expected, Rutgers could have a passible two-deep with Julius Turner. We all know that you need more than four DTs though and none of these guys can collapse the pocket from the inside like Sebastian Joseph did. So the need for a dominant defensive tackle still remains. And it’s interior line, no way these guys all stay healthy an entire season. So maybe the tweeners like Matt Thomas, Kromah, and Devin Baldwin add weight, but that’s still asking a lot. Honestly I’m still shocked with this group that Rutgers simply refused to be quit by how many opponents you would have thought would have just ran it up the gut until RU broke and they never really did. Iowa was maybe the closest, but even Ohio State was throwing the ball to get first downs late in the blowout. Michigan never did and Penn State’s rushing stats were inflated by quarterback scrambles and a few outside runs.
On the recruiting front, adding Troy Rainey will add some beef for sure and there’s a chance Isaiah Wright could be there also. That’s still not enough to instill confidence that there will be an All-Conference defensive tackle or nose guard anytime soon. Malik Barrow can help at three-technique hopefully, but that’s just a rental. Schiano has done a great job scouring for unheralded players who may have not fit the typical Power Five mold, reclamation projects, or getting the most out of undersized personnel in spurts. He needs to do that again.
#4: Cornerback (Very Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 8th)
The team has lost three NFL caliber corners over the past two off-seasons, now that Damon Hayes has exhausted his eligibility. In the Big Ten West you might be able to get by with New York Jets replacement-level type play, but not in the East with Maryland the only true run-first team in the division other than The Scarlet Knights. Even then, the Terps actually threw for 55 more yards than they ran for in 2019. Rutgers gave up 54 total touchdowns including 25 through the air. Even when RU played a conservative 4-3 stack most of the time (I don’t care what they say their scheme was), they were beaten for long gains in the pass game. The Iowa and Michigan State games were put out of reach by an inability to cover, not pure steamrolling on the ground.
The reason I placed corner below DT on this list is because 1. even in a down year, Avery Young still has NFL potential. Tre Avery finally saw the field, too, and showed some promise. You still need a third guy and either Kessawn Abraham or one of the 2019 freshmen could slide into the slot hopefully with good coaching from the new RU staff. And 2. that might be enough to get through 2020, unlike DT, but an injury to either of the top two could be catastrophic.
On the recruiting front, Donovan Bunch didn’t make it to RU, but Donald Williams could be an impact guy after getting his feet wet in 2019. Then of the 2020 class, Rutgers is banking on Max Melton and Chris Long to line up here rather than be needed at say, wide receiver. So though you never know and both could leapfrog into starting roles as true freshmen as we have seen before at this position, there is still a need moving forward to get more talent here. If Max and Chris are two of the top three by the season opener at this spot, corner will drop WAY down on this list.
#5 - Tie: Wide Receiver (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 13th)
#5 - Tie: Defensive End (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 12th)
I don’t like to give out ties (have I ever?), but this circumstance seems like a toss-up because both positions have a lot of three-star scholarship players, hence my usage of the term “able bodies.” For example, Mo Jabbie isn’t setting the world on fire, but if the protection holds up and the quarterback delivers a good ball, Mo will by this point in his career have run a good route and secure the catch. Defensively, it’s similar in that if the other team has to drop back to pass and the Rutgers coverage holds up, a two-deep rotational guy like CJ Onyechi will eventually get loose for a coverage sack or at minimum flush the opposing QB out of the pocket. In both examples I’m not even talking about the “best player” at his position on the roster.
Offensively if Rutgers had Mike Leach coaching the air raid and a quarterback who could execute, guys like Bo Melton, Eddie Lewis, Jabbie, running back Aaron Young, Paul Woods, maybe even Shameen Jones and Christian Dremel would be putting up decent stats even WITH drops sprinkled in ... but they don’t. Rutgers had just seven touchdowns through the air for the entire season, some teams these days have that in a single game! Even though I think Bo got a lot better, it wasn’t to the level that required double coverage. Right now, RU is relying on someone like Isaiah Washington to haul in passes in traffic until someone emerges as a gamebreaker. So either Stanley King needs to become Kenny Britt or an amazing speedster like Tim Brown or Tiquan Underwood needs to come along to just run away from everyone if he catches the ball. If you can find just one guy like that who requires a double team OR the defense figures a double team is pointless because he will run away anyway, everyone else could then move down the ladder. If defenses were focused on one player or had to respect the deep ball, those crossing routes like we saw from Dremel at the end of the season will be open.
At defensive end (I feel another post devoted to this may still be needed), I have similar thoughts. If Rutgers was in the Big 12 and basically pass rushed on every play, they would get a few more sacks and turnovers (at the expense of way more yards allowed). Onyechi and Elorm Lumor are more of a read and react type players. Mike Tverdov and Tijaun Mason are better at just running a million miles an hour and if they make a mistake at least it’s near full speed. Each of these players brings something, but also can be susceptible. For example Tverdov likes to run like a wild man, so even midseason at times offenses would leave him unblocked to force him to decide if he would take the QB or the pitch man and Mike would stop his momentum to the point that anyone running fast could get past him. Late in the season he got a lot better at his reads at full speed which is a good sign, but even then Mike wasn’t wreaking havoc as we hoped heading into 2019.
We saw what Iowa did with A.J. Epenesa where he beat the RU player trying to block him a few times on plays where the 10 other Rutgers players were executing well, so if no Hawkeye totally blew their assignment in two seconds, Epenesa was in the RU QBs face. No matter how much these current Scarlet players get, no one on the RU roster can do that, but the reason I don’t therefore move DE up the list is that you can scheme a little differently. At the end of the year, Andy Buh finally got linebackers free to pass rush instead like Rashawn Battle, it doesn’t have to be a defensive end. You won’t have an Epenesa or Kemoko Turay every year (unless you are Ohio State), but it’s a huge boon if you can find one. Schiano 1.0 got a monster year from George Johnson once and two from Jamaal Westerman, but RU didn’t have that impact guy every season.
So the short of these two position groups is if you could mine one All-Big Ten type player from the existing talent or a new addition, the group might be considered Big Ten level.
#7: Safety (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 12th)
Though safety is more of a premium position in the college game than at the NFL level, it’s still one where good coaching staffs can patch something together to get through a season. Even after the hoped announcement of Ohio State transfer Brandon White, I’ll keep safety in this same position on the list. White, if he comes to the banks, only retains a single year of eligibility so he’s a rental of sorts, albeit a very high ceiling heat seeking missile of one.
Christian Izien, Tim Barrow, and Jarrett Paul each had some good moments and some bad moments in their first real taste of game action. The frustration I have is that even in a 1-11 season in 2018, Rutgers never really got anyone ready to play the position in 2019 and it showed. Perhaps Ash and Noah Joseph had more confidence in their abilities to get guys up to speed?
Regardless, Rutgers recruited a lot of defensive backs so they should be able to have at least passable safety play in Schiano’s first year. The criticism that Schiano’s defenses at Ohio State were not very good is complicated by a difference in mentality between he and Urban Meyer. Meyer, like Chris Ash, preferred the conservative approach which works when you have superior personnel like OSU does. Schiano likes to push the envelope which does add unnecessary risk for a team like OSU, but it also forces opponents into more mistakes and makes it easier to develop players especially at safety because less different things will happen in front of them which Rutgers needs.
Safety is one of the more interesting positions on the field because guys can play as true freshmen, but even if they don’t play at all for two, even three years can step in and be good players down the line. I think Rutgers did enough in this recruiting class with Elijuwon Mack and other athletes who could end up there if needed. That said, having a superstar safety who in effect is a linebacker and safety at the same time or can cover man on man with tight ends AND wide receivers is a game changer. Rutgers has had some solid safety play over the years, but the last true superstar was who, Deron Cherry? I can here the comments on that already ... In my book this is group has an adequate Big Ten talent level right now.
#8: Tight End (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 14th)
Part of this ranking is due to injury, and like safety the need bumps down this list because it’s not a premium position. Rutgers was decimated by injury in 2019, but did that really make a difference in the wins and losses? In theory even if you don’t recruit Tight Ends, big receivers, big quarterbacks (J. Lewis and maybe Langan), sometimes even undersized offensive tackles can morph into starting players at this spot.
All that being said, having really good tight ends is a very serious asset to an offense, much like the safety who can cover like a corner or play in the box like a linebacker. If your TE can manhandle an outside linebacker or even a defensive end that gives you so many possibilities. If your TE can catch the ball like a wide receiver, well then teams can’t just guard him with those same OLB/DEs now can they? Matt Alaimo for what it’s worth was a much better receiving target than he was hyped to be, but also not as physical in the run game as I expected. With he and a healthy Johnathan Lewis, Rutgers should have a Big Ten level two deep.
To the earlier point though, by adding Shawn Collins and Victor Konopka, the ceiling with both players to be stars is there at TE that could pay dividends in the rebuild. And if not, they could be serviceable at TE or DE at worst. So I like where the position is after the early signing period even if walk-ons are in the mix right now at TE/FB because we have seen plenty of those be plenty good enough like Matt Flanagan recently. Or you could go Jim Harbaugh Stanford style and just recruit three every year ... just sayin’.
#9: Specialists (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 2nd)
Second place in the conference if we include graduating holder Cole Murphy. If you believe walk-on freshman Guy Fava we can kick this can down the road a little bit because even if punter Adam Korsak (2nd/3rd team all Big Ten), kicker Justin Davidovicz (top 1⁄2 Big Ten), and long snapper Billy Taylor (has he ever made a mistake?) are done after 2020 that still leaves Fava to placekick and Miami transfer punter Zach Feagles who would be a 5th year senior in 2021. Though Rutgers had four long snappers on the 2019 roster, the backup was true freshman Donato Crisanti who can hopefully step up. Still though, the team loses three elite players for their positions after this year so we need to be sure that reliable replacements are available since Rutgers won’t win any blowouts anytime soon.
NOTE: Maryland had just two made field goals for the entire season, how is that even possible?
#10: Running Back (Very Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 7th)
I may have taken some liberties with this ranking when Rutgers was edged by Indiana and Iowa for the coveted 11th place in rushing yards, but I would take the Rutgers running backs over theirs any day. This Scarlet Knight contingent with Raheem Blackshear is middle of the pack for the conference, and even without him there’s only one ball and Rutgers has multiple people who can carry it if given any sort of running room. If Blackshear fails to return, Aaron Young and Kyle Monangai could fill the receiving role, while Kay’Ron Adams will get more carries.
IF Jalen Berger commits, that could raise the ceiling for this contingent. Even if not, this is a Big Ten level group for certain.
#11: Linebacker (Biased Big Ten ranking in 2019: 6th)
Thank you Chris Ash for leaving at least one defensive position group at a Big Ten level. How many times did Iowa just keep running into the line? How many runs did Michigan have trying to break the will of the Scarlet defense? Michigan State? Penn State? Did Illinois win the game on the ground? This is an eye test and what I saw in 2019 from the RU linebackers was dramatically improved from 2018 even if the statistics appear similar.
Drew Singleton and Tyshon Fogg have the talent and will to be good Big Ten linebackers. Tyreek Maddox-Williams and Olakunle Fatukasi have limitations, but are steady with some big plays every now and then. Deion Jennings was the cover linebacker Chris Ash was waiting for but never saw until after his firing. Rashawn Battle can blitz. Behind them Rutgers has Mohamed Toure and Zukudo Igwenagu who could be stars also, so there is plenty in this cupboard without even detailing every scholarship guy.
There was not a need to stockpile more talent here, but Jack Del Rio should be a good cover guy and Tyreem Powell might end up here with his upside, so RU is in good position for the next few years. Ideally, those borderline two deep spots could be filled by walk-ons since NJ has so many linebackers, but for now let’s enjoy the moment that features State of Rutgers players throughout.
If scoring out of the 11 groups mentioned above, Rutgers is surely at Big Ten level in three of them, albeit the easiest three to fill. They might be at Big Ten level in two more (safety and tight end), but the rest are likely still a year away (maybe more) from being middle of the pack in the conference. Every team has holes though and the coaching staff needs to find better ways than the previous regime to capitalize on what they do have and not just scheme/play with the team they wish they had.
BONUS WISH: When the Big Ten adds Texas and Oklahoma to expand to 16 teams sometime soon, let’s ensure Purdue moves to the Big Ten Eastern division.
Your thoughts are not only welcomed, they are encouraged! Before that though, let us know how you feel about how dire the need is for defensive ends in the poll below:
How big is the need for improved Defensive End talent right now on the banks?
This poll is closed
Top 3 positional need
Top 6 (or so) positional need
This team needs talent everywhere, but this is a lower priority.