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Reasons for optimism, concern & the x-factor for Rutgers football in 2021

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The Scarlet Knights have a lot to be excited about, but there are reasons to keep expectations in check as well.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With just over two weeks until the 2021 season begins and the dog days of August in full bloom, it is a hopeful time to be a Rutgers football fan. However, expectations should be kept in check as well. Here are a few reasons for optimism, a few as to why you should proceed with caution and the x-factor that could ultimately swing the season in one direction or the other.

Reasons For Optimism

Skill Positions

There is legitimate talent at the skill positions and probably the most since the 2014 team that last went bowling. That’s a big reason to believe this offense will take another step forward this season.

Isaih Pacheco averages 4.5 yards per carry for his career and is poised to have his best season this fall. Aaron Young has been inconsistent but is talented and traditional offseason should benefit him.

Bo Melton realized his potential last season and is back, but he leads a truly exciting group of wide receivers. Rutgers has stocked this position well quantity wise in recent seasons but they finally have multiple weapons that can create big plays. Shameen Jones could end up being the most productive receiver this season. Aron Cruickshank was useful last season and could develop even more in the passing game this fall. Joshua Youngblood could be used in a similar way and gives RU two speedy and elusive targets to utilize in the spread. Isaiah Washington flashed big play potential in the spring game and is a legitimate deep threat. This is as good a wide receiver group as the Scarlet Knights have had in a long time.

Even tight end has a chance to be the most productive as the position has been in the passing game in several years. Jovani Haskins is back and has received positive reviews in his development so far this offseason. Victor Konopka is a player who looked much improved in the spring. Zukodo Igwenagu is a physical specimen and could develop into a reliable blocker at a minimum. And Matt Alaimo has showed flashes in the past with good hands. There are enough pieces to be a solid group.

Special Teams

This unit has a chance to truly live up to its name. Adam Korsak is one of the best punters in the country and Aron Cruickshank is one of the best kick returners in the game. If Joshua Youngblood can return to form in the return game, he and Cruickshank could produce the best duo in college football. Billy Taylor is one of the best long snappers in the nation as well. Coverage units were solid across the board last fall and kicker Valentino Ambrosio made 9 of 11 field goal attempts in the second half of the season. If this group as a whole can maintain its performance from last season, they’ll remain a strength. If they can be even better, Rutgers will have a true advantage against almost every opponent in the season ahead.

Non-Conference Schedule

In no way should a perfect start be considered a lock, but starting the season with Temple, Syracuse and Delaware is as easy an opening non-conference slate as Rutgers has had in years. The two former Big East foes won just once each last season and combined for a 2-16 record overall. It’s not a stretch to say that Delaware is likely the stiffest challenge that RU will face in non-conference play. The Blue Hens lost in the FCS semifinals last spring and are no pushover. They will certainly come to Piscataway with confidence and will be looking to earn a statement victory on September 18. Even so, there is no denying that Rutgers has a tremendous opportunity to begin the season with a 3-0 record.

Starting Experience

Rutgers has all of its starters back on offense and all but two returning on defense. Rutgers also returns 92% of its production from last season, which is more than any other team in the Big Ten. The ability to develop continuity with the reps both sides of the ball were able to get during this offseason is a huge positive. Experience is great, but development is key towards improvement and hopefully that will occur on the field on Saturdays. That leads to the next reason for optimism.....

Coaching

At the end of the day, the biggest reason to be hopeful that Rutgers will make even more progress this season is due to the coaching staff. The results that they were able to produce in year one despite limited practice time and the restrictions with COVID-19 was nothing short of a miracle. Having a full offseason to develop this team and have so many starters back gives real hope another step forward can be made this season. Improving with fundamentals and gaining a better grasp of the playback and system, in addition to the culture taking a firmer hold in year two, only reinforces the optimism that is present around this team. Past concerns with previous coaching regimes that Rutgers would be outworked and outcoached are now ancient history.

Reasons For Concern

Line Play

How both sides of the ball are able to perform should be the biggest concern in regard to whether Rutgers will be better this season and by how much.

The offensive line remains a juggling act in training camp as the coaching staff works to find the best five to start for the season opener against Temple. They exceeded expectations last season but the bar needs to be raised for Rutgers to make more progress as an offense this fall. Creating consistent holes for Pacheco to run through and giving time for Noah Vedral to make good decisions is a must. Expect a mixing and matching of at least a couple of spots with this group early in the season and hopefully some stability can be established.

The defensive line has some real talent up front, but whether assistant coach Jim Panagos will find enough productive players so that he can ideally run with a rotation of 8-10 linemen throughout a game remains to be seen. Stopping the run is a big factor in how successful the defense will be after allowing 4.5 yards per carry last season. Getting pressure on the quarterback on a somewhat regular basis would certainly help produce takeaways which is something the defense needs to do more consistently this fall.

Football is won in the trenches and Rutgers was overpowered physically on both sides of the ball in a few games last season. To move up the Big Ten ladder, line play has to improve or wins will be hard to come by this fall.

Overall Depth

It’s fair to be concerned about the depth with the majority of the position groups on the team. We discussed both lines already. The tight end group has promise but is mostly unproven. The secondary has as much front line talent as any position group, but behind them are a lot of younger and inexperienced players. Rutgers likes to play more than four defensive backs most of the time, so developing more contributors is key. Running back and quarterback have unproven backups as well. Other than linebacker and wide receiver, there should be depth concerns everywhere.

Rebuilding a program takes time because there is so much roster depth needed to be developed to prevent a drop-off during the season. Schiano has improved both the talent and depth in short order, but the reality is he took over a roster that needed a lot of work and the job is not done yet. Injuries are inevitable and how those setbacks impact the two deep will be a major factor in whether Rutgers has a winning season or a losing one. While that’s the case for every team, the margin for error with Rutgers is much slimmer than other Big Ten programs. If the staff can find some surprise contributors this season to fill those holes, it would not only help in the present but bode well for the future as well.

B1G West Opponents

Trading Purdue and Nebraska for Wisconsin and Northwestern is not ideal. Illinois has won four times in the last five seasons against Rutgers and playing them on the road instead of home is only more difficult. We know the Big Ten East slate will always be challenging, but it wouldn’t be rational to not recognize the crossover opponents this season add a level of difficulty that Rutgers didn’t deal with last season. It doesn’t mean they can’t win one or two of them, but it’s another reason to temper expectations.

X-Factor

QB Play

After going through all of the reasons to be optimistic and why to be cautious, how this season unfolds could ultimately be decided by quarterback play. If Noah Vedral can become a better decision maker and maintain his overall accuracy, he could emerge as one of the more reliable signal callers in the Big Ten. He has the potential to do that but also needs to be smart with his legs and limit risky run plays in order to maintain his health.

Developing a backup is essential in training camp as well. Evan Simon and Cole Snyder are both intriguing, seem well suited for the offense and are in a tight battle behind Vedral. However, what’s most important is that whoever does wins the backup job, can they provide stability at the position if they are called upon this season? As we head into the 2021 campaign, remember that the coaches have said that Johnny Langan will be used in multiple ways but not as the primary backup. If he ends up taking significant snaps under center at any point this season, something went wrong with the most important position on the team. On the flip side, if Vedral can start every game or his backup ably steps in, Rutgers will have an opportunity to deliver its best season in a long time.

Bottom Line

There are plenty of reasons to be excited for Rutgers football this season. However, don’t lose sight of the fact that there are pretty significant concerns or questions marks around this team as well. Hope is a beautiful thing, but reasonable expectations make for a more enjoyable season when things go well and a less disappointing one when they don’t.