With Rutgers football opening night rapidly approaching, the season for talking and prognostications is coming to a close. There is, however, room for a second story of mine that we can come back to this winter and review with a fine-tooth comb. This time, it’s about individual leaders for this Rutgers team. Who makes a splash on offense this year? Is a new player added to the lineage of Greg Schiano’s defensive stars? We’ll begin to find out soon enough, but there’s always room for a fun prediction or two.
Passing Yards, Passing Touchdowns: Noah Vedral
Okay, we’ll start easy. For the first time in what feels like forever, a Rutgers football training camp has come and gone without a sniff of quarterback controversy. Noah Vedral is the, for lack of better words, “the guy”, for this team in 2021. He performed admirably for the Scarlet Knights’ offense a year ago, tossing for 1,253 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in seven games. Now, with offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson entering his second season, it’s fair to expect another step forward from Vedral and his receivers. I think the senior, assuming he stays healthy, can top the 1,800 passing yard threshold in 2021, while limiting his mistakes and achieving a healthier TD/INT split.
Receiving Yards: Bo Melton
Hey, I never said these were going to be earth-shattering predictions. Don’t worry, things get interesting soon. At any rate, Bo Melton has been a fascinating player to follow since his 2017 arrival in Piscataway. In his first three seasons, including one redshirt year, he amassed just 2 touchdowns and 755 receiving yards. Under Gleeson’s offense, he officially arrived to the tune of 6(!) touchdowns and 638 yards in far less games. It’s fair to think the Rutgers legacy athlete has professional aspirations, and on several occasions last year, he showed why he might just have the elite speed to get him there. As mentioned above, I expect Melton’s connection with quarterback Noah Vedral to have further developed over the offseason, and think we’ll see more than a few Melton catch-and-runs that will bring fans out of their seats at Rutgers Stadium this fall. Look for him to crack the 800-yard mark with ease.
Receiving Touchdowns: Shameen Jones
Here’s where things get fun. Melton, as evidenced above by his impressive 2020 campaign, would be the easy choice for leading the Knights in scores through the air. After taking a look back at Shameen Jones’ performances from a year ago, I think it’s time we look the Bronx native’s way for a bit of a surprise prediction. The senior, with three touchdowns a year ago (one in the opener at Michigan State, and two at Purdue), may not put up many long-yardage scores, but he knows how to get open and be found when things get tight. In the Big Ten, that’s invaluable for an offense. With the way I see the Rutgers redzone offense continuing to develop, I think Jones has the tools to become a favorite target for Vedral, and perhaps, specialist Johnny Langan in 2021.
Rushing Yards and Touchdowns: Isaih Pacheco
Not a huge surprise here, although it might come as a shock to some fans that Pacheco did not lead the team in rushing touchdowns a year ago, with Langan besting him by one. To be frank, I think Pacheco is going to come out highly motivated after a 2020 campaign in which it just felt like he never quite got rolling like he did in his sophomore season. It’s important to note, though, he did still finish with 515 yards (4.4 per carry), and found himself more of a passing target than he was in his first two years on the banks. Head coach Greg Schiano has spoken highly of Pacheco’s work during training camp, and seems to believe there is another level for the back to achieve. For these motivational reasons, I’d expect a big year out of the junior from southern New Jersey.
Interceptions, Fumble Recoveries: Christian Izien
Christian Izien is a really exciting player to watch on defense for the Scarlet Knights. On a few occasions last year, it felt like Rutgers had returned to “D.B.U” days of the McCourty brothers among others. The junior finished in the top-10 nationally with his four interceptions (8th), and earned an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. He also notched three fumble recoveries. Like our standout candidates above, a second year in the current system could and should do wonders for Izien’s development. It’s said that when a player can get the game to slow down for them, their ceiling can reach new heights. The hope in Piscataway is that Greg Schiano can continue to unlock that potential in a player who could play a key role in how this team performs starting next week at Temple.
Sacks, Tackles: Olakunle Fatukasi
Greg Schiano loves Olakunle Fatukasi and it’s easy to see why. The senior seems to be involved on every single play, whether its assisting on a tackle or simply having a nose for the pocket and shedding blocks on his way there. Fatukasi led the Big Ten in total tackles (101) and finished second on the team in sacks (-1 to Mike Tverdov). As good as Fatukasi was a year ago, he seems primed to take that next jump into true elite, NFL prospect status. Don’t take our word for it, the Far Rockaway native was named to the Bednarik, Butkus, and Nagurski Trophy watch lists ahead of this season. Tverdov was a close second in my sack leader projections, but I don’t think you can look at Fatukasi’s body of work and believe he does anything but continue his rise.
With the players above continuing their development in Piscataway and a new wave of Greg Schiano recruits chomping at the bit to make their mark, the future of the Scarlet Knights’ program is as bright as ever. Starting Thursday against Temple, we’ll get a sense of how this group has grown in their second year under their respective coaches and in their systems. If you disagree with any of the above or believe I missed a breakout candidate, feel free to sound off below.
...and of course, we’ll dig this up after the season concludes and see where my projections landed.