While Rutgers prioritized the offensive line this offseason in adding four transfers from the portal, elevating the wide receiver position was also a key focus point for the program. With the loss of leading receiver Bo Melton and Aron Cruickshank recovering from a season ending knee injury, finding additional playmakers was a necessity. The Scarlet Knights were able to find two experienced wideouts that have the potential to make a big impact in 2022.
Both receivers are playmakers, something that the offense desperately needed. Taj Harris was one of the best receivers in the ACC two seasons ago and one of the best in Syracuse history. Sean Ryan gives Rutgers a veteran player who led West Virginia with a 16.0 yards per catch last season. The last Scarlet Knight to exceed that average was Leonte Carroo in 2015.
Harris is fifth all-time at Syracuse with 151 receptions and eighth with 1,857 receiving yards along with 10 touchdowns. He set program records as a freshman in 2018 with 40 receptions and 565 receiving yards. In 2020, he earned third-team All-ACC honors after finishing fifth in the league with 5.8 receptions per game and sixth with 73.3 receiving yards per game in addition to catching 5 touchdowns. This past season, Harris had 16 catches for 171 receiving yards in the first three games before leaving the program. The Orange transitioned to a run heavy offense which contributed to the decision. His best game was an 8 catch, 122 yard performance against Rutgers.
Ryan was consistent with 25 receptions in each of the last two seasons for the Mountaineers. However, his yards per catch increased by over 5 yards from the previous season. In his three seasons for West Virginia, Ryan compiled 69 receptions and 882 yards for 12.8 yards per catch and 3 touchdowns in 29 games played. In his college career that included one year at Temple, Ryan has amassed 1,004 yards. He has played in three bowl games in his career.
In regard to their potential impact based on past experience, Harris is a versatile pass catcher that offers the best option as a home run hitter and Ryan is a bigger target who can make tough catches in traffic over the top of the defense.
When asked about the additions of Ryan and Harris, Schiano discussed the impact of their arrivals. “Well, they’re both older, experienced receivers, and I felt like we needed to — I think we have some really good young receiver prospects in the room. They just have to grow and develop,” explained Schiano.
The benefit of having proven receivers in Harris and Ryan now takes pressure off of less experienced receivers on the roster while extending their development time as well. Shameen Jones and Isaiah Washington also are set to return, so Rutgers is less reliant on younger receivers and shouldn’t have to rush anyone into action if they aren’t ready. Building depth and a strong development cycle is key for the program to take a step forward in the future.
Schiano elaborated in regard to the importance of the transfer portal, saying, “When you play in the Big Ten Conference and you play an out-of-conference schedule like we have, there’s not time to grow and develop right out of the gate. Now, some of them will progress during spring and summer and be ready to go, but you don’t know that, whereas what the portal gives you the opportunity to do is go address needs in your current lineup, and I feel like that’s really what we use the transfer portal for. Every once in a while do you get a young player that maybe just wants to be home and you think he’s worth developing. Sure, but that’s a one-off, at least for our program. To me a lot of the use of the portal is for addressing need.”
Another positive in acquiring Ryan and Harris is their veteran presence for a group that is in transition from a coaching perspective. Tiquan Underwood has left the program to be the wide receivers coach at ACC champion Pittsburgh. It was announced on Wednesday that Damiere Shaw, who served as Director of Player Development the past two years, will replace Underwood.
In regard to elevating Shaw, Schiano stated, “I’m really excited about Damiere taking over as wide receivers coach. We were fortunate to bring him on the staff in 2020 when he was the assistant wide receivers coach with the Carolina Panthers. He’s been with us for the last two years and knows our players very well.”
As for the change, Schiano wanted to be clear in regard to his relationship and reason for Underwood’s departure.
“Tiquan decided that it was time, and it’s strange, people wonder what’s going on,” said Schiano. “I’ve known Ti for half of his adult life, recruited him out of high school, his career here. I signed him down at Tampa. He played for me for two years, and then brought him back here and he coached. There’s nothing but love there for him. He’s been a great representative of Rutgers and a great friend to me. But sometimes guys feel like they need to spread their wings and fly from the nest. Again, nothing but love unless we’re playing them. Then it’s different.”
Underwood issued a statement on Twitter this week in regard to his decision. He wrote, “I would like to thank Coach Schiano for the opportunity of a lifetime to coach for my alma mater. To be able to learn from such an experienced coach day in and day out has been nothing short of amazing. To the support staff and players thank you for all of the memories over the past two years. #CCMB it’s all love we laid the foundation for the constant quest to be great! Lastly, Rutgers Nation some of the best fans, alums, and people in the world! Rutgers will always hold a place in my heart. I love you guys! My family and I are very grateful for all the love and support we’ve received during our time here. With that being said I have decided to move to pursue my dreams elsewhere. The marathon continues! What’s understood doesn’t have to be explained. God’s plan!”
The Rutgers offense needs to make major progress next season and prized former recruit Gavin Wimsatt should have every opportunity to ultimately become the starting quarterback. He has the arm to connect on big plays through the air. With the additions of Harris and Ryan, the Scarlet Knights have two established targets at the FBS level that can make a difference both in the passing game and in helping a position group full of young talent. Adding Shaw as the position coach gives RU an assistant that can relate to his players and has a lot of experience despite his young age.
Schiano has worked hard to make upgrades across the program this offseason and improving the offense’s ability to make big plays has been a necessity. On paper, Rutgers has the potential to be better in this area and now is the time to work towards major progress next fall.