With players reporting to training camp in less than a week, the Rutgers football season is on the cusp of beginning. While we debated what will mark significant improvement this season, if Rutgers wants to have success on the field, here are ten areas that will likely need to become strengths for that to happen.
Bounce Back Year For John McNulty
The first offensive coordinator to return for a second season since he did himself a decade prior, there is hope he will help lead his unit to major improvement this fall. McNulty’s return last season did not go well. He had a hard time figuring out the best way to maximize results from the personnel he had to work with. When he last was at Rutgers, he was scripting plays for Mike Teel, Ray Rice, and Kenny Britt, among others. That level of talent was not present last season and McNulty struggled to get much going offensively. While its been cited the biggest advantage of McNulty being back for a second straight season is that the players don’t have to learn a new system, I think there is another factor more important.
Certainly the players having familiarity with McNulty is important, but he having a better understanding of the personnel he has to work with is even more so in my opinion. You could see his tweaking and adjusting the offense somewhat towards the end of last season, but it’s much more effective to do so in the offseason. It’s likely the offense will be geared towards the run and short passes, including an RPO package. McNulty put an emphasis on making big plays last season, but Rutgers was unable to produce any. If the changes he does make can bring more production to the offense that has been anything but the past few seasons, it would be a major plus. McNulty needs to establish an offensive identity that has been sorely lacking during the Ash Era so far.
Offensive Line Becomes Most Improved Position Group
It’s a fair argument to state that any of the following position groups are the biggest key to Rutgers having success this season: quarterback, wide receivers, defensive line. However, I think the most important position group for Rutgers to make significant improvement this season is the offensive line. While quarterback play obviously needs to be much better, it’s unlikely it will be at the level it needs to be without improved protection from the offensive line. With it likely that Rutgers will lean on Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco in the run and short pass game this season, they need room to run through in order to be truly effective. Whether the receivers show an improved ability to create separation in running routes, if the quarterback doesn’t have time to throw it to them, it won’t matter.
While Mike Maietti is reliable in the middle and was recently named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List for best center in college football. However, there are many questions about the rest of the line. Can Raiqwon O’Neal be a reliable left tackle in his first season of action? Can Nick Krimin be a respectable replacement for Jonah Jackson? Will Zach Venesky take the next step as a steady contributor and leader of the line? Can Kamaal Seymour be more consistent? Will any of the likely second string lineman like Sam Howson, Mike Lonsdorf, Omari Cooper, Owen Bowles, Jamal Beatty emerge as reliable backups or even step up into a starting role? Some of these questions must have positive answers or it could be another long year for the offense.
Avoid Roster Attrition
The loss of eight players before last summer due to the credit card fraud scandal destroyed the defensive depth before the season even began. Rutgers has also suffered key injuries last fall, with none more devastating than the loss of its best player Blessuan Austin during the season opener. Tijuan Mason and Jerome Washington were big losses as well. For a team like Rutgers that would never be confused as being the most talented in the Big Ten, establishing and preserving depth within its two deep is so important. If they can stay relatively healthy and avoid off the field trouble, they would at least avoid being in a hole with the roster so early in the season.
Establish Two Reliable Receivers Not Named Blackshear
While there will be an emphasis on the run and short passing game, Rutgers must establish at least a couple of reliable receivers. Is this the year Bo Melton reaches his 4-star recruit potential? Will Shameen Jones become a steady third down producer? Will Daevon Robinson emerge as the best receiver in the group? Will Jalen Jordan become a force? Will tight ends Jonathan Lewis, Kyle Penniston and Matt Alaimo become factors in the passing game? Could someone else step up? Whoever it is, Rutgers desperately needs to find receivers that can hold onto the football (5 drops per game last season) and make an impact in the passing game this season.
Linebackers Become Best Defensive Position Group
We’ve heard it before, but is this actually the year that the linebacking core becomes a true strength of the defense? Can they help prevent big runs, provide solid pass coverage, and be the most consistent tacklers on the defense? With Tyshonn Fogg and Tyreek Maddox-Williams leading the way, this group has chance to be improved. Depth appears to be a strength as well, with Okakunle Fatusaki, Rashawn Battle, and Drew Singleton set to have opportunities to be major contributors. If the heart of the Rutgers defense can be stout, it will go a long way towards improved play this season.
Toughness Is A Major Personality Trait
Last season, particularly the first half of the season, Rutgers lacked toughness. When you lose by 41 points on the road to Kansas and by four touchdowns at home to Buffalo, that’s pretty obvious. To the team’s credit, they battled much more so during Big Ten play in late October and November. Even so, they weren’t tough enough. A big part of toughness comes from leadership and head coach Chris Ash praised that aspect of the team heading into this season last week at Big Ten Media Days. Establishing captains during spring practice was uncommon but seems like it was a smart move during what was such a critical offseason. The established leaders should help this team hit the ground running once training camp begins and set the tone for the season. If Rutgers can play with a renewed hunger and toughness this season, it would be a big plus and possibly win them a game or two that wasn’t expected.
Produce a Plus Turnover Margin
It’s doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Rutgers must do a far better job protecting the football, as well as force more turnovers on the defensive side this season. They had a -14 turnover margin last year, which was -9 worse than the next to last team in the Big Ten, which was Purdue. They can’t afford to shoot themselves in the foot with multiple turnovers per game like they did last season. In addition, under new defensive coordinator Andy Buh, hopefully he and Ash decide to play a more aggressive style that can generate takeaways at a much higher rate (RU had a league worst 9 interceptions). If they can win the turnover battle most weeks, they’ll likely be in most of the games they play.
Special Teams Becomes Even More of a Strength
The third unit was good last season, led by specialists Justin Davidovicz, who was 9 of 11 on field goal attempts, and Adam Korsak, who averaged a respectable 42.7 yards per punt and pinned 23 inside the 20 yard line. If Davidovicz and Korsak show growth and can be even better this season, it would be a big plus. Rutgers was also second in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage and blocked 3 kicks. Special teams play needs to remain a strength and will continue to provide an opportunity for younger players to make an impact. One area that this unit could improve on is with punt and kick returns. Look for Tre Avery and perhaps one of the freshman to get an opportunity there.
QB Play Much Improved
Whether it’s Artur Sitkowski or McLane Carter, Rutgers has to get some type of production from this position. Sitkowski still provides the highest ceiling, despite a difficult freshman campaign, and if he can develop into even just a decent signal caller, it would be a big boost for the offense. Having Sitkowski as the starter would also give hope he can continue to develop into a better player with more experience this season. Carter will have his chance during training camp as well and is the more mobile quarterback. If he doesn’t win the starting job, he could still have an opportunity to make an impact this season and gives Rutgers a different look that Sitkowski. How the offense responds to each QB during camp will be something to watch for and hopefully one can assert themselves as the clear starter. Improved QB play this season is a must, but to what degree will likely determine this team’s ceiling.
Growth From Experience
Rutgers was young last season, but that isn’t exactly case this season. While they have only a dozen or so seniors, most of the expected two deep saw extensive action last season. Have they developed and learned from last year’s experience is perhaps the biggest question for this team to answer this season. A big issue during the Ash Era has been that not enough players have developed well enough under he and his coaching staff. With some shakeups this offseason, how the players respond and how they ultimately perform on the field will determine the fate of the 2019 season. If a significant amount of players can show they’ve grown and developed within their skill sets, Rutgers will be a better team for sure and hopefully, good enough to fight for a bowl berth.