Training camp begins Thursday for Rutgers football and it’s obviously the most important one so far for fourth year head coach Chris Ash. While there is some debate as to what would define significant improvement for the team this season and how many wins really are possible with the schedule ahead, it’s fair to say that every single player on the roster needs to prove they are developing and step up this year coming off of a 1-11 season last fall. I previously covered ten areas that Rutgers needs to show improvement on this season as a team here. Whether it’s emerging for the first time in their college careers as impact players, improving a level from good to great, or turning around a disappointing career so far, here are ten players that I think need to step up for Rutgers to be successful this season.
After playing in four games last season, but still able to redshirt as a freshman, Izien was a player that coaches have raved about since his arrival on campus. With Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton gone and Damon Hayes shifting to cornerback, Rutgers desperately needs players to step up in the back of the secondary this season. Izien had a very good spring and safeties coach Noah Joseph praised his effort and work ethic, claiming he was top safety at the time. If he can continue his upward trajectory at strong safety during training camp, he could be another player in the Rutgers secondary who holds down the position for a long time.
After a redshirt season, O’Neal is the front runner to start at left tackle along the Rutgers offensive line this season. He has the size and ability to be a very good Big Ten lineman, but the question is whether he is ready to become that in his first season of action. Rutgers needs him to at least hold his own, as he will be tested early and often. The offensive line as a whole needs to demonstrate significant improvement this season and for the unit to become truly good, O’Neal is the biggest piece to the puzzle that needs to fit right.
The South Jersey product played in all 12 games last season as a freshman, including some at tight end, but is lining up as a wide receiver entering his second year. He showed potential last season and this past spring due to his 6’3” frame and athleticism that jumps off the screen. Although he caught just 8 passes for 62 yards last season, he should be on the field often this fall and after a year of adjusting to the college level, Robinson could be primed to become the #1 receiver on the team. If he can make that jump, it should bode well for what has been an almost non-existent passing game for Rutgers in the past few seasons.
This is an obvious pick after Pacheco was second on the team last season with 910 all-purpose yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry on 111 rushing attempts. His physical running style is an asset and he showcased his breakaway ability as well with his 80 yard touchdown run against Michigan, who was the #2 total defense in college football last season. Pacheco will be a focal point of the Rutgers offense alongside backfield mate Raheem Blackshear this season. While quarterback play is obviously crucial, the running back combo could prove to be a potent 1-2 punch. Pacheco really needs to take another step forward and improve on his freshman production for Rutgers to be much better offensively. He has the potential to become one of the top backs in the Big Ten and hopefully proves it this fall.
It’s been such a long, strange trip for Lewis, it’s hard to believe he is only entering his third year with the program. His willingness to develop at another position and help the team any way necessary speaks to his high character. However, he also has potential to become a solid contributor this season at tight end. He is listed as 6’3” and 237 pounds on the latest roster and his muscle bound physique is impressive. Lewis played three games at his new position last season and after a full offseason of preparation, he has a chance to become the most well-rounded tight end on the roster this fall. His ability to block could be a huge plus for the offense, while his athleticism could make him dangerous in the pass game.
The Michigan transfer has a golden opportunity to showcase his once heralded talent on the defensive line this season. After never cracking the two-deep in Ann Arbor, the former 4-star recruit from Camden could emerge as a breakout star for Rutgers this season. If he can generate consistent pressure from the defensive tackle position and win his share of battles along the line, Johnson will give Rutgers a much needed impact player at the front of the defense. He is likely to play with a chip on his shoulder and if he can play with that type of edge, hopefully his swagger will rub off on the rest of the players in his position group as well.
The redshirt sophomore has officially gone from highly touted offensive lineman prospect to reclamation project on the defensive line. However, there is plenty of opportunity for Clark to step up in his new role and he has a legitimate shot to become the starting nose tackle. Even if he doesn’t start, Rutgers needs Clark to at least be serviceable along the front line of the defense, which desperately needs players to emerge and solidify depth among this important position group. If Johnson and Clark can both play well upfront this season and provide consistency, it would be a huge development for sure.
The junior captain and former 4-star recruit has a chance to become the best defensive player on the team this season and at the very least, Rutgers desperately needs him to become a high performing Big Ten linebacker. He played in 12 games last season and produced 48 tackles, but he was never able to win the starting role outright in the middle of the defense. He has excelled in the classroom and is an unquestioned leader on this team. If he can put it all together and become a force to be reckoned with for the defense this season, it would be a huge plus for Rutgers.
We heard a lot about the vast potential that the former Ohio State commit possesses last season, but Avery was never healthy enough to see significant action on the field. He played in just two games and registered only one tackle. The redshirt junior will likely be the third cornerback on the team behind Damon Hayes and Avery Young, but that should still result in plenty of playing time and a chance for him to make a big impact this season. He could emerge as the ball hawk this team has been searching for.
The only senior captain on the team, but Venesky has just five starts to his name after playing in nine games total during his Rutgers career. I wrote that the offensive line is the most important position group for this team this season and Venesky’s ability to perform and lead this unit is vital to this offense. He doesn’t need to be an all-conference standout, but the line needs him to be steady at the left guard spot and help bring along O’Neal at the tackle spot next to him. If the pair can stabilize the left side next to Rimington Trophy nominee and multi-year starter Mike Maietti at center, Rutgers could have its best offensive line in several years.
Editor’s Note: Whoever starts at quarterback is obviously extremely important and must step up in a big way, but we’ll cover the position at length once camp is underway.