We are just over a week away from Rutgers football kicking off its 2019 campaign against UMASS at home on August 30th. Here are five key questions that will help define the season for this program and how I think they will ultimately be answered.
1) Who is your most important player on offense this season?
Isaih Pacheco for me is the most important player offensively this season. Yes, quarterback play is a huge factor and obviously so is the offensive line. However, Rutgers hasn’t had an 1,000 rusher since Jawan Jamison ran for 1,075 yards in 2012. While the offense is trending towards more of a spread style this season, the bottom line is without a workhorse running back who can grind out 4-5 yard carries on a consistent basis, Rutgers is going to struggle to sustain drives.
Pacheco averaged 5.0 yards on 111 carries last season and his potential to become a steady grinder is there. He also has big play potential too, making him very important for this team. Raheem Blackshear is a good speedy and versatile back likely to lead Rutgers in all-purpose yards once again, but he is better in open space running to the outside and catching short passes out of the backfield. Pacheco can serve as the perfect partner, taking the bulk of the grunt carries up the middle between the tackles and providing a physical presence that can deliver blows to opposing defenses. The duo have the potential to become a top half backfield in the Big Ten this season. If Pacheco can emerge, he will give Rutgers something the offense hasn’t had in a long time: an identity.
2) Who is your most important player on defense this season?
Tyshon Fogg is a captain and the quarterback of the defense starting at middle linebacker. He has flashed his 4-star potential at times previously, but this season is the junior’s opportunity to develop into the leader of the defense and an all-conference player. Rutgers desperately needs him to play at or near that level on a consistent basis for the defense to improve. Defending the run has been a major issue in recent seasons and the linebackers have struggled defending the pass game as well. Fogg’s ability to read the offensive formations and make any adjustments at the line will be key for the defense as well, especially with new coordinator Andy Buh expected to make more aggressive play calls this season. As the leader of the D, Fogg also needs to ensure the unit bends but doesn’t break, even when adversity strikes, and keep his younger teammates, especially in the secondary, together and remain focused. His role is hugely important to the team’s success.
3) What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?
This is a tough one, but I’m going with urgency. At least, it should be. The players went through hell last season and we’ve heard all offseason how they have responded positively in moving forward. They want to prove the doubters wrong and the coaching staff surely knows their jobs are potentially on the line as well. A big issue last season was that Rutgers looked unfocused and unenthusiastic at times during non-conference blowout losses to Kansas and Buffalo. Even in the win over Texas State, they looked uninterested for spots, only leading 21-7 late in the third quarter before pulling away.
Rutgers was sorely missing a competitive drive in the first half of the season that did seem to get better in the second half of the season, but didn’t lead to better results. If this team wants to produce significant improvement and change this fall, it all starts with urgency. They need to be aggressive and play with enthusiasm from the opening kick through the final whistle. It sounds basic, but that certainly wasn’t the case last season. So if there is any positive changes this season, it will start with an improved urgency from every single person in the program.
4) What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?
I wrote previously that the Boston College game is critical to the team’s success this season and I still think that is true. However, in regard to the most important game on the schedule, I think it’s week two at Iowa. Although head coach Chris Ash said on Thursday no decision has been made in regard to who will start at quarterback, whether it is Artur Sitkowski or McLane Carter, there is no guarantee they will hold that position the entire season. In addition, there are plenty of other concerns around this team as well, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Playing at Iowa in week two is a good test for Rutgers to see where they truly are as a team. The Hawkeyes are a top half Big Ten team, but also aren’t as explosive offensively as other programs Rutgers plays annually in the East. This game gives Ash and the coaching staff a great sample to assess where individual players are in their development. With the bye week immediately following the Iowa game, it’s a great opportunity for the staff to reevaluate what’s working and what isn’t, which personnel changes need to be made and really fine tune their game plan for the rest of the season. Especially with the quarterback situation still in flux, you could play both in the first two games and then make a final decision.
In addition, a loss won’t wreck the season, it’s expected, but if they somehow manage to win it, the trajectory of the season and perception of the program would immediately benefit.
5) What is your prediction for W/L record and postseason destination?
I’m generally optimistic and I want to be heading into this season, but there are several concerns that are weighing down the idea of having a positive outlook. The depth of the defensive line, the inexperience of the secondary and tight ends, the uncertainty at wide receiver, and of course, quarterback play are major concerns regarding this team. That’s a lot of areas to wonder about and leads me to err on the side of caution. I think the talent level is improved at certain positions, the offense will benefit from a second year of John McNulty in charge, and I think the defense has the potential to be good. However, when looking at the schedule, I just have a hard time seeing a lot of wins.
I think they beat UMASS, win one or two during the five game stretch from October through early November between Big Ten opponents Illinois, Maryland, Indiana, and Minnesota and non-conference foe Liberty. I’ll be positive and say they win two of them. It’s sad that my optimistic view is Rutgers finishing 3-9 this season, but I go back to all the concerns this team needs to successfully overcome in order to produce significant improvement and I just don’t see that happening. Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong.
Our staff round table season preview is coming early next week. For all of our preseason coverage of Rutgers football so far, including positional previews and much more, click here.