The start of the 2019 Rutgers football season is upon us. After a 1-11 record in 2018, there is some hope this season will be much better than last, but there are also plenty of concerns it won’t be. Our staff got together (on our tablets, phones, and keyboards, as no round table was used) to give our thoughts on the road ahead for this team in head coach Chris Ash’s fourth season at the helm. We answer several questions and make sure to vote in our poll at the end. Let’s kick things off here.
Which player do you think will have the biggest breakout season on the team?
Adam Ross: Johnathan Lewis. While his QB experiment fell short after a promising start in 2017, he has all the athletic tools to excel at the tight end position. The kid rushed for 111 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2017 when everyone within a three state radius knew he would tuck it and run. At 6’3” and 249 lbs, he is going to be a matchup nightmare for defenses. My bold prediction for the season is that Coach McNulty designs plays for Lewis similar to how he utilized Brian Leonard in the passing, receiving, and blocking game.
David Anderson: Adam stole J-Lew, who I had under serious consideration. Instead I think it will be someone on the defense, potentially Malik Dixon, but I’m going to pick my brother from another mother, Nihym Anderson. Anderson and Isaih Pacheco were high school teammates before Nihym went to play for Andy Buh at Maryland. Now they are all on the banks and the defense is pivoted to highlight a player like Anderson’s skills. Rutgers needs a hybrid type player who can help in the run game while also setting the edge. Nihym looks like a brick in shoulder pads and plays a position where a star can emerge quite easily.
Danny Burrick: Be on the lookout for sophomore running back Isaih Pacheco. Last season as a freshman he totaled 551 rushing yards on 111 carries along with 3 touchdowns including an 80 yard touchdown against Michigan. Last season Isaih split snaps with Raheem Blackshear. Last season Isaih showed glimpses of what his full potential will look like. Watch for him to have a breakout season this year helping the running game.
Nick Kosko: I really wanted Pacheco as mentioned above but I’m going to stick to my South Jersey roots and ride with Bo Melton. Having covered him in high school and being excited about his commitment to Rutgers a few years ago, I have gotten flak for his slow start collegiately. But based on practice reports, coaches speak, and definitely the images of Melton looking bigger and faster, I think this is finally the year where Rutgers will have a legitimate threat at WR in what seems like forever. He has the speed but if he has improved his route running, the separation will be there and he’ll make life a little easier for Art Sitkowski or McClane Carter. Shall I be ambitious and say 45-50 catches for 650-700 yards and 6 TD? May not seem groundbreaking, but it’d be a breakout campaign for him and for Rutgers receivers in general.
Dave White: I mean the easy answer is Ron Harper Jr for every Rutgers sport, but to be honest, I’m hoping it’s Art Sitkowski. There’s something awesome about following a star player for 4 years and I really want that to be Art. Rutgers hasn’t had a great quarterback since Gary Nova (and he was underrated by fans). So I’m hoping Art develops this season and Ash and company can’t sit him.
Cara Sanfilippo: Isaiah Pacheco. As my colleague, David Anderson mentioned, Isaiah Pacheco is a beast, borderline tank who was the only player to show fire against the Michigan D. They are one of the best and fastest in the country, and to see some offensive action in that doozy of a schedule really created some excitement for the fans, and the team. Aaron spoke about the important of urgency, and Pacheco shows that he understands the need to create space, think creatively, move quickly, etc. I am excited to see him grow this season (fingers crossed).
Aaron Breitman: Isaih Pacheco has the potential to be the first 1,000 yard rusher since Jawan Jamison did it in 2012. He is a workhorse who also has big play ability and can be the biggest difference maker on offense this fall, based on his potential (5.0 yards per carry on 111 rushing attempts in 2018). Pacheco and Raheem Blackshear could turn into an formidable duo this season, which would be a big step forward for the offense.
Patrick Mella: Avery Young was thrust into a starter role last season when Blessuan Austin went down with injury and gained some valuable experience of what life is like in the Big Ten. As a sophomore I’m expecting Young to only continue improving and embrace his role as a leader on not only the defense but the team as a whole. He’s athletic, has good hands and is getting better at shedding blockers. If Rutgers can get some pressure on opposing quarterbacks and force them into throwing into coverage, Young could have a big year for what could be the strongest positional group on the team.
Who will be the leading receiver?
Adam Ross: Raheem Blackshear. He was the leading receiver from last year, and until the offense line, quarterback, and receivers can prove their worth, I see no reason why that should change. I anticipate a lot of dink and dunk passes and Blackshear will be the top beneficiary.
David Anderson: Eddie Lewis. He demonstrated the best ability on the team a year go to get open AND with questions on the offensive line should get more quick throws based on coverages. He had too many drops a year ago, but often made up for them with added focus later in the game. If he can simply secure the balls thrown in his direction, he’s the man.
Danny Burrick: A name most Rutgers fans are familiar with is Bo Melton. Last season he totaled 32 receptions for 328 yards as a sophomore. Coming out of high school, Melton was a 4 star recruit and the top wide receiver in New Jersey. His first year at Rutgers he did not live up to the expectations surrounding him but he did have some flashes of potential of what we could see this season. Overall, Melton has all of the qualities to lead the wide receiving core, hopefully this will be the year he starts to live up to his expectations.
Nick Kosko: I’ll do the cop out move and basically copy my words above. Melton will be the breakout player in 2019 and lead the team in receiving.
Dave White: Let’s go with Bo Melton because he is the name I know and I’d like to see him catch some passes.
Fred Gaudios: By measure of receiving yards, I’ll say Bo Melton. Hopefully a consistent off season in the same system with the same position coach and coordinator gives him greater comfort and he can – if not dazzle the way I think we all hoped he would dazzle when we recruited him as a four-star prospect – at least be a consistent #1 or #2 option on most passing plays for whomever ends up starting at quarterback. I’m sure we’ll be a run-first offense again – I think we have to be a run-first offense, and hope and pray for fewer mistakes this season out of the passing game – but I expect greater run-pass balance in 2019, combined with fewer overall drops, and a big part of that will be Melton starting to live up to the expectations we have always had for him.
As a side note, I expect him to finish with 700-800 receiving yards, and I expect some running back (either Blackshear or Pacheco) to finish the season as our second-leading receiver.
Cara Sanfilippo: Oh, what a question. There are so many receivers, but last year was such a bust I don’t even know who to name. I hope Bo Melton given the hype when we recruited him? Shameen Jones because of his starting status in 2018, and if he can be more reliable? Paul Woods if he has the chemistry with the starting quarterback? Who knows.
Aaron Breitman: Daevon Robinson has all the tools to become a very good receiver in the Big Ten, let alone the top pass catcher for Rutgers. He has the size and skill to be a force this season, all he needs is the opportunity. Defenses will hate tackling Robinson and he also has the potential to be the best big play receiving threat on the team.
Patrick Mella: Raheem Blackshear. Much of Blackshear’s success as a receiver lies in his ability to create match up nightmares for defenses. Splitting him out of the backfield and forcing a linebacker to cover him 1 on 1, is a matchup that Rutgers will gladly welcome every time. With the uncertainty at quarterback, expect plenty of check downs and simplified routes. Until I see someone else step up in the wide receiving corps, (Bo Melton, anyone?), Raheem gets my vote for leading receiver.
Who will be team MVP?
Adam Ross: Elorm Lumor. The returning sack leader (3.5) from a year ago, his continued progression will be key. If this team is to win some games, it’ll take a united effort on offense, however, Lumor’s ability to rush the passer will be it’s biggest factor. A defensive backfield trying to replace two NFL caliber talents from an 11 loss team is no small feat, and Lumor affecting the opponent’s passing game could be the single most valuable aspect.
David Anderson: Tyshon Fogg. You know I wanted to say Adam Korsak, but the team needs one of its most talented and physically gifted players to step up. The middle linebacker needs to be the emotional heartbeat of a defense by default. If someone else takes that burden, it’s gravy. Speaking of which, this team needs more urgency and to play hungry on the defensive side of the ball. That was absent most of 2018.
Danny Burrick: Raheem Blackshear will be the team MVP. He has the ability to pile up a lot of yards as a rusher and receiver. If the offensive line can open holes and block he will be able to flourish against better competition this season. Raheem can be a big focal point for the offense this season leading him to the team MVP.
Nick Kosko: The defense has had some decent outings under Ash but we are waiting for the game changing, game breaking offensive output. I think Raheem Blackshear is a prime candidate to make John McNulty’s offense go. With an improved Melton, Blackshear will continue to grow as a fantastic runner and receiver and alleviate the pressure off of the QB and be the Scarlet Knights most dangerous player.
Dave White: Like everyone else I’ll go with Blackshear. He’s caught the eye of some NFL guys.
Cara Sanfilippo: Raheem Blackshear. Man, I love this kid. I love his versatility, and willingness to do what he needs to help his team win. It was excited to see him start to break out last season, and I am excited to see him become a leader on the offense. McNulty named him as the best offensive player this season, so clearly I am in good company.
Aaron Breitman: Isaih Pacheco will be the first 1,000 yard rusher for the program in seven years and keep Rutgers in more games than the previous season. His sky is the limit long term in my view.
Patrick Mella: Tyshon Fogg. With the depth at RB, I’m going to switch my vote from Pacheco or Blackshear and go to the defensive side of the ball. Fogg will relied upon heavily to be a cornerstone of the defense. The defensive backs might be the best positional group on defense, but the success of the defense will be dependent upon their ability to pressure quarterbacks. Fogg is a big, strong Big Ten linebacker who can make a serious impact each game. He needs to continue improving in space, and shutting down plays before they get to the second level. But to me he’s the one guy that’s pretty close to irreplaceable.
How good will the defense be?
David Anderson: Big Ten adequate (not necessarily average). As in, if you completely replaced Michigan’s defense with the Rutgers defense the Wolverines would still probably go 8-5. The problem is, I don’t think the Knights’ defense is good enough to carry a team to middle of the pack Big Ten status, they are not elite. There are some players with high upside though, more than past years, so best case Dixon, Fogg, Singleton, Mason, and Bordner all break out and they move the needle to being a Big Ten average defense.
Danny Burrick: Last season the Rutgers defense struggled against their opponents. With the hiring of former Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh, the defense gets a reset that was much needed. Last year Rutgers defense ranked 69th in the FBS allowing 4818 yards and 49 touchdowns. This year Rutgers is gaining former 4-star prospect, Drew Singleton. He has immediate eligibility this season after transferring from Michigan. Sophomore cornerback Avery Young has been receiving a good amount of hype recently as he has been one of the better performers in training camp. Look for the defense to be more physical and not allow as many touchdowns and yards.
Nick Kosko: What is good when it comes to this defense? They have the potential to beat up on smaller opponents but not the big boys of the Big Ten. I’ll take not getting blown out by 28 plus as decent for this defense against the likes of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. They have the pieces, but can new defensive coordinator Andy Buh and of course Chris Ash take these guys to the next level?
Dave White: I don’t think it matters unless the offense can move the chains. Ash’s defenses have been decent in winnable games, but the offense hasn’t been able to put together sustained drives to keep the D fresh. So even if the D is good, it won’t matter unless they are well rested.
Fred Gaudios: My first answer is on the low end of middle of the pack in the Big Ten conference, and my second answer is “good enough to compensate for a developing offense to keep us in games we otherwise shouldn’t be in.” For my season prediction to hold true, we are going to need help from the defense by means of third-down stops and sacks – damn, we were so bad at both of the aforementioned things last year – in addition to interceptions (and I’m betting on an improved secondary to assist in this regard). The defensive line is a massive question mark right now, but if we can get creative with blitzes from other lines of defense (and get lucky enough to be successful at a few of them), I predict our defense will leave a few opposing offenses shaking their heads and wondering why they couldn’t execute on the field.
Cara Sanfilippo: The defense is young and many are still unproven, but the depth chart has improved from last year’s credit card scandal. If the defense can limit injuries, the offense can help to keep them off the field so they actually get a break, and they can show the same toughness and sense of urgency they did at the end of last season with Ash taking over, I am excited to see them continue to improve. Having a new defensive coordinator is of course a wild card, but I do believe Ash will still have quite a hand in play-calling.
Aaron Breitman: I think the defense has a chance to be above average, but the growth of the linebacking core is a huge key to their success. There are more concerns with the defensive line (depth) and the secondary (experience), but the linebackers need to step up as a group and lead the way. That positional unit has more talent top to bottom than any other and now with the defense being more of a 3-4 front, they also have the biggest opportunity to create consistent pressure on the opposition. Rutgers desperately needs to force mistakes and turnovers. That all starts with relentless pressure.
Patrick Mella: I’m more worried about the offense, if that counts for anything. Defensively, we know the better echelon teams of the Big Ten are going to put up points on Rutgers, but the hope is you don’t see any total blowouts like we’ve seen in the past. This also has something to do with the offense not being on the field enough to give the defense a little break. So, I think if the offense can put up some long drives, eat up some clock, put some points up, the defensive unit can be pretty damn good.
Game you are most nervous about?
Adam Ross: UMass. I remember my own college days when we would lose to the likes of New Hampshire. It’s imperative that this team can come out of the gate running, but after blowout losses last year to Kansas and Buffalo, we really don’t know what this UMass game will look like. There’s probably a 50/50 chance that we run over them, or fall over ourselves and lose. It’s hard to call the opening game a must-win, but I think this is as close to it as we can get in order to turn this around.
David Anderson: Illinois. Rutgers laid two eggs against the Illini in the last three years and their basement dwelling brethren in the other division is the best chance at a conference win every year. If you lost to Liberty and Umass, but beat Illinois, at least that’s a conference victory.
Danny Burrick: On October 26, the Liberty Flames come to Rutgers. Last season, Liberty went 6-6 and played good competition in Virginia, Auburn, and Army. Their head coach, Hugh Freeze, had a successful tenure at Ole Miss. The program is gaining junior quarterback Malik Willis, a transfer from Auburn. This tells me there is potential there since he was recruited by a Power 5 school in arguably one of the best conferences in the country. The reason this game makes me nervous is because it is a non conference game in the middle of the season and some of the guys on the team could look at this and say this will be an easy week to get a win. Liberty will come in hard from the opening kick off and could pose a big upset threat to Rutgers.
Nick Kosko: I can’t be nervous about the season opener against UMass because if Rutgers drops that one, we are in for a long 2019. I have to go with the Maryland game to kickoff October. Rutgers is 2-3 vs. Maryland since joining the Big Ten. Realistically, they should be 1-4 if it weren’t for a miraculous comeback in 2014. These schools joined the conference together, therefore forever linked. Rutgers MUST win this football game to at least stay ahead of the Terps and it could propel this team in a winnable stretch of games that includes Indiana, Liberty and Illinois.
Dave White: Until Rutgers proves it’s better than a 1-11 team, I’m nervous about all of them.
Fred Gaudios: September 21, vs. Boston College. I’m a Rutgers football optimist this season, but I feel this game will go a long way toward predicting whether Rutgers will experience increased enthusiasm, increased positive press, and progress toward shedding a reputation as the dumpster fire of the Power Five – or whether this is the same movie we saw last season.
Unless we somehow upset Iowa (I doubt that happens), we’ll go into this game as one-to-two touchdown home underdogs. Despite significant offensive talent, BC is predicted to be a middle of the pack ACC team, with Bleacher Report assuming they’ll finish the season in the ballpark of 6-6. In an unscientific text message poll of some BC fans I know, they annoyed me by being telling me they were upset with their coaching staff consistently being (in their minds) “mediocre” (I wish for a level of mediocrity at Rutgers again that brings us six or seven wins a season).
All of this is a roundabout way of saying, if we’re a better team than we were last season – and I’m operating under the assumption we have to be better – then beating a 6-6-type Power Five team shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. Doesn’t mean I’ll sleep easy the night before, though.
Cara Sanfilippo: Honestly, I am nervous about all the games after last season. This probably sounds funny given our schedule, but I actually am nervous about the UMass game. If we don’t win this game with style, I don’t even know what the rest of the season will be like. BC will probably be a better indicator of improvement, but there are no guaranteed wins in my mind.
Aaron Breitman: Michigan for the simple fact they could be the best team on the schedule and it takes place right before a five game stretch that Rutgers has a chance to define their season in a positive way. As we’ve seen against Ohio State almost every season, and against Michigan at times, they’ve gotten demoralized mentally and beaten up physically to the point it’s carried over in a negative way the next week or weeks in the season. It would show that there is improved talent and depth if Rutgers can leave Ann Arbor with it’s pride and health in one piece after playing them tough, earning some credibility and confidence in the process. If they get humiliated, and you know Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh would love to do just that, it could hurt this team’s mindset and overall performance in the proceeding games against Maryland, Indiana and beyond.
Patrick Mella: UMASS. There’s just so many unknowns going into the first game of the season. Ash has kept the lid tight on who will be starting at quarterback, leading me to believe he’s probably going to utilize both guys. But the fact that neither of them stood out enough to grab the job makes me nervous. RB, you know they’re a talented group, but how is the offensive line going to hold up? Can the defense limit big plays? It all starts Friday. As a two touchdown favorite you’d think Rutgers should be able to walk away with the W, but we’ve seen in the past (Eastern Michigan) stumble early.
Season record prediction (list specific wins if possible)
Adam Ross: 4-8 with wins over UMass, Maryland, a down to the wire thriller over Minnesota, and Liberty.
David Anderson: 4-8, making for an uncertain fate for Chris Ash. UMass and Liberty they will squeak out. I do think Rutgers beats Illinois and then surprise with a win over either Indiana, Maryland, or Minnesota, one of those coins has to come up heads, right? I think RU has equal talent to Boston College, but Rutgers is not nearly the well-oiled program the Eagles are. That being said, losing to BC doesn’t mean 1-11 or 2-10 like some people are making it out to be.
Danny Burrick: 5-7. I think the team will be able to defeat UMass, Maryland, Indiana, Liberty, and Illinois. The games against Indiana and Illinois are both away which people might think Rutgers has no shot at but I think this team will begin to gain confidence as the season moves forward and earn 5 wins.
Nick Kosko: 3-9. I hate to do it, but I’m looking at Chris Ash leaving Piscataway for the final time after the season finale vs. Penn State. I can definitely see improvement with this football team but after 2018, I have very little confidence in the plans moving forward. As we all know, we root for this team and hope for the best. But, I’ll take alma matter pride out of it and go with wins over UMass, Maryland, and Liberty: all home games which should please at least a few fans. Iowa is certainly a tall task on the road and Boston College should be a big favorite, even in New Jersey. The big four are self explanatory, while Illinois and Indiana are toss ups on the road. Those could very well be wins and we are looking at a 5-7 record, outside bowl berth (because there are so many games), and Ash’s job likely being safe. The Minnesota game at home is intriguing but the Gophers are so far ahead of progression, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
Dave White: 2-10. I was even tempted to say 1-11 again. I just don’t see improvement happening. Be happy to be wrong though.
Fred Gaudios: I tipped my hand about this in a recent article, but August is a time for optimism and I intend to be optimistic (relatively speaking) about our chances this season. Let’s go ahead and assume some consistency in our coaching staff, some fires lit under some butts from various levels, incremental improvements across the board, and some potentially winnable games combine in a positive way for demonstrable progress.
I predict a 5-7 record, with wins against UMass, Liberty, Maryland, Illinois, and Boston College. If Rutgers is an improved team, we should have a problem with UMass or Liberty. Improved should also mean we’re not the worst team in the B1G East division this year, which means we should beat Maryland in this scenario. Illinois is a road game but I’m not altogether convinced an improved Rutgers team can’t win one road game this year. Boston College is the game I’m most nervous about (see above).
Aaron Breitman: I’m generally optimistic, but there are concerns regarding several different position groups that make it tough for me to have any confidence this team will be much better this season. 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.
Patrick Mella: 2-10 (Wins vs UMASS and Liberty). They could squeak out another win, probably most likely versus Illinois, but the lack of competitiveness the last few seasons is a serious concern. Coupled with the uncertainty at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, I just think it’s a lot to overcome. Everyone knows Ash is on the hot seat, and I don’t know that 2-3 wins changes much, although I supposed 4 wins would be considered a “good” season. But going game by game on the schedule, there’s just not too many winnable games. My hope is that Rutgers can get into the 4th quarter either with a lead, or at the very least a manageable deficit. But as I see it, the only two games I feel comfortable saying they should win are against UMASS and Liberty.
Cara Sanfilippo: Optimistically, five if we can get it together against some lesser B1G competition like Minnesota and Maryland. Wins: UMass (I know what I said about being nervous, but I mean they just have to), Maryland, Minnesota, Indiana, Liberty.
What record will Rutgers football have this season?
This poll is closed