Training camp for Rutgers football kicks off this week and hope is thick in the air. After matching a program best three Big Ten wins last season sparked by the return of Greg Schiano, its fair to be optimistic heading into the fall campaign. With recruiting for the 2022 class exceeding expectations, more progress this season would only brighten the future outlook for the program. However, the Scarlet Knights need to improve in every area to build on the success they did produce last season. There is a lot of work to be done for RU to ascend up the Big Ten standings this season and beyond.
Here are five key questions heading into training camp. What the answers ultimately become will determine whether true progress is made in Schiano’s second season back on the banks.
Can the offensive line take another step forward?
While this position group wasn’t a strength last season, they were not nearly as much of a liability as they were feared to be. Credit offensive line coach Andrew Aurich for getting the most out of the group and for offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson for scheming in a way that limited weaknesses. Heading into this season, there are still plenty of questions to be answered with this group despite so many players returning.
We know Raiqwon O’Neal will be at left tackle and that Nick Krimin’s versatility gives the coaching staff options to place him at center or either guard spot. Bryan Felter had a solid true freshman campaign and could end up being a recruiting steal on his way to locking down the center spot for years to come. However, who will win the battle at right guard between Cedrice Paillant, Temple transfer David Bwaogwugwu and Sam Vretman? Does physically gifted but extremely raw Hollin Pierce emerge as the starting right tackle or will Reggie Sutton be more consistent? Where will converted defensive lineman Brendan Bordner fit in? Will a true freshman or redshirt freshman surprise and win a spot in the two deep?
Whatever the composition of the offensive line becomes, how they develop during training camp and through the first month of the season is a major key towards Rutgers being better on the grid iron this fall.
Can Noah Vedral be a more efficient quarterback?
Last season in the Big Ten, Vedral was tied for third in completion percentage and tied for fifth with 9 touchdowns. However, he was last at 14th in the conference in efficiency rating and in yards per completion. While Vedral demonstrated a strong understanding of the offense, showed flashes with some big plays, as well as being effective on the run at times, he struggled with both execution and decision making throughout the season. A major issue was being tied for second in the league with 8 interceptions.
That being said, there are reasons to believe Vedral will take a significant step forward this season. While he’ll never have a cannon for an arm, having a full year to work in the same system under Gleeson with every starter returning should be a major plus. Building continuity with his returning receivers like Bo Melton, Shameen Jones, Aron Cruickshank and Isaiah Washington is another key to the offense taking another step forward. Building a rapport with Kansas State transfer Joshua Youngblood would help too.
Not having played a full season as a starter prior to last year also meant he had a learning curve to work through last fall. Vedral did prove he was a warrior by playing through injuries last season and was a capable, respected leader in the huddle. If the offensive line does improve as indicated in the first key question mentioned above, it will certainly help Vedral in multiple ways.
If Vedral can stay healthy and show development with his decision making and accuracy in year two, he’ll emerge as a middle of the pack signal caller in the Big Ten. Rutgers hasn’t had a top half quarterback in the conference since Gary Nova in 2014. If he can become a reliable, steady game manager that can minimize mistakes and make plays with his feet, it would make Vedral the best since and an asset. It would also mean that the offense will take another step forward this fall after producing its best season ever in Big Ten play last season.
Can the defensive line establish much needed depth?
Rutgers returns major contributors from last season in Mike Tverdov, Julius Turner and CJ Oneychi. They’ve added an impact transfer in Temple transfer Ifeanyi Maijeh, which could help make up for the loss of Michael Dwumfour. Mohamed Toure was perhaps the biggest surprise of any player last season, but could end up playing linebacker full-time this season instead of defensive end.
With 12 of the 23 players listed on the roster along the defensive line being either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen, assistant coach Jim Panagos has his work cut out for him. Having him back full-time after knee surgery had him limited last season will certainly help. Finding enough depth to be able to effectively rotate 8-10 guys along the defensive line throughout the season is a major key to the season.
While getting pressure on the quarterback and generating push against opposing offensive lines is hugely important, stopping the run is an area that must improve on first and foremost. Opponents averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season against Rutgers and the defensive line needs to hold up against the run better this fall to force teams into more difficult third down situations.
It would be a big plus if former transfers Mayan Ahanatou (Minnesota), Aaron Lewis (Michigan) and Ireland Burke (Boston College) stepped up into reliable contributors this fall. Robin Jutwreten will have an opportunity for a larger role as well. How many of redshirt freshman will develop enough to make an impact on the field? Could any of the newcomers in Ryan Keeler, Jordan Thompson, Henry Hughes or Keshon Griffin crack the rotation? This position group should be fascinating to watch in the early part of the season to see how they come together in hopes of becoming one of the better units on the team.
Will the secondary become the best defensive unit?
Speaking of defense, the linebacking core is an obvious strength with All-World and the Big Ten’s leading tackler returning in Olakunle Fatukasi, as well as captain and multi-year starter Tyshon Fogg. There is a lot of experience behind them with Rashawn Battle and Tyreek Maddox-Williams, as well as the best edge rusher from last season in Toure if he does transition full-time to linebacker. Redshirt freshman Tyreem Powell earned most improved defensive player honors this spring and could make an impact along with highly rated true freshman Khayri Banton.
The real question is whether the secondary can mesh as a unit and become a dominant unit for the defense. It’s a talented group that returns captain Avery Young and Tre Avery at cornerback, along with Christian Izien who led the team with four interceptions playing safety last season. True freshman Max Melton gained a lot of experience last season and should have a significant role once again.
How safety Brendon White is replaced is the biggest question for this unit. Although he only started five games due to injuries, he was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last season. North Carolina transfer Patrice Rene could slide over next to Izien in the back of the defense. Avery Young also practiced at safety during the spring and played there during the Scarlet-White game, so that’s a possibility as well. Lawrence Stevens filled in admirably at times last season and adds depth.
The reality is more than four defensive backs will likely be on the field more times than not, so there is opportunity for new contributors as well. Baylor transfer Peyton Powell and the top recruit from the 2021 recruiting class, Alijah Clark, are two who could gain roles. How the secondary performs this season could define the ceiling for the defense as a whole.
How special will the special teams unit be?
Rutgers was always fun to watch and made big plays on special teams during Schiano’s first tenure. However, this season’s unit could be his best ever, whether they block multiple kicks or not.
All-conference punter Adam Korsak returns for his fourth season in what has already been a tremendous career. Aron Cruickshank was the best kick returner in the Big Ten last season and earned All-American honors after returning two kicks for touchdowns. He is now joined by former All-Big XII Special Teams Player of the Year and All-American Joshua Youngblood, giving the Scarlet Knights legitimate threats on both sides of the field to take it the distance. Bo Melton and Avery Young returned punts last season but special teams coach Adam Scheier will have other options like Youngblood to consider. There will also be more options and talent on the coverage units due to a deeper and more talented roster.
The biggest question mark on special teams is whether Valentino Ambrosio can emerge as one of the best placekickers in the Big Ten. The former Rutgers soccer player replaced Guy Fava midseason and made 9 of 11 field goal attempts in the final six games of the season. While his ability to hit from distance wasn’t contested much, he made three kicks from 42 yards, including the game winner to beat Maryland in overtime. It’s likely with a full offseason to develop and the starting job firmly his per Schiano in the spring, Ambrosio will be leaned on more this coming season. If he can establish himself as a reliable option from 45 yards out or so, he would become a valuable weapon for an offense that should be improved this season.
Overall, the special teams unit could be the best in the Big Ten this season, in addition to being the most exciting to watch. Even if they can just build off of last season and become even more effective than last fall, it will give Rutgers an edge that could ultimately decide the outcome of more than one game in a positive way.