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Rutgers Football: Reasons for Optimism and Concern

With 8 days until week 1, we have plenty of reasons to be hopeful, but there are also some red flags that cannot be ignored.

WEEK ZERO HAS ARRIVED! Despite just a seven game slate, Week 0 provides college football fans with the perfect appetizer for what should be an absolute FEAST of a college football season! With so many questions facing nearly every conference (not including all the realignment crap), Rutgers fans might be feeling a bit ambivalent themselves. If you find yourself asking the below questions daily, then this is the perfect blog for you:

The Rutgers defense looks strong, but can the offense improve?

Boy, Sam Brown sure is the a beast. Will the offensive line be able to block for him?

I really want this team to go to bowl game. Are there really six wins on this schedule?

There are plenty of questions hovering around Rutgers Football, so I think its important to outline reasons for both optimism and concern. My good friend, Francis Hearne, helped me breakdown the pros and cons going into the 2023 season:

Reason for Optimism: Coaches Kirk Ciarrocca (OC) and Pat Flaherty (OL)

With Ciarrocca leading the offense and Flaherty coaching the line, both new hires bring experience and proven track records of success to a unit that is desperate need of improvement. The biggest need for Rutgers offense this season is simply staying on the field. Ciarrocca and Flaherty are a capable duo that can help the Rutgers offense ~evolve~. Last year at Minnesota, Ciarrocca was the OC of an offense that ranked FOURTH in the country in time of possession, holding onto the ball for an average of 34:07 per game. Rutgers, on the other hand, only had an average time of possession of 28:54 which ranked 87th (whomp whomp). What was the Gophers’ bread and butter last season? Running the dang ball with Mohamed Ibrahim, which allowed the team to rush for an average of 200 yards per game, ranking 19th in the country.

Rutgers rushed for only 111 yards per game which put them at 109th in the country. This obviously needs to change...

* Pat Flaherty has entered the chat *

Flaherty brings NFL experience to an offensive line group that must grow as a unit in order to boost the offense, especially the running game. Winning two Super Bowls with the Giants, Flaherty’s offensive lines in 2007 and 2011 played a huge role in helping the the team hoist the Lombardi trophy. Coupled together, Flaherty’s 40+ years coaching and development on the offensive line can propel Sam Brown and the Rutgers running attack. Fan should be excited for Ciarrocca and Flaherty.

The below drive is what Rutgers needs ALL SEASON LONG. Five-minute drives all on the ground. Dominate in the trenches. Win the BATTLE.

Fun fact—this was such an awesome game to attend in person. Rutgers Nation showed out in full force and it was 100% my favorite moment of the season (sad, but very very true).

Reason for Concern: Lack of proven playmakers at WR

Can a star emerge from the WR position? Absolutely. Who will it be? I guess we’ll fine out! Chris Long is the leading receiving returning from last season and the only one with double digit receptions (15). While I am excited for Long’s development, the talk of the offseason has been about two transfer WRs, JaQuae Jackson and Naseim Brantley. Jackson transferred from the Division II level where he caught 77 catches for 1,178 yards and 13 touchdowns for California University (in Pennsylvania...idk man don't ask me how that makes sense). Those are very good numbers, but it’s unknown how well his talent will translate when playing against some of the best defensives in the country. Brantley transferred from Western Illinois where he was an FCS All-American, catching 53 passes for 909 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Similar to Jackson, Brantley certainly has talent but neither are proven at the next level. Let’s hope that we are pleasantly surprised from the WR group this season.

Reason for Optimism: The Defense

Aaron Lewis. Max Melton. Deion Jennings. The 2023 Rutgers defense consists of proven vets and emerging stars at each level. Besides safety, there is returning depth at each position. Experience and growth is key, but keeping fresh legs on the field can be a game changer for the defense. With Aaron Lewis leading the charge off the edge, Rutgers is expected to rotate in multiple bodies on the defensive line. Also, Mohamed Toure, who lead the team in sacks in 2020 and 2021, returns from injury. This should help the defense get after the QB and ultimately lead to ill-advised throws that can result in interceptions.

Rutgers lost Christian Braswell to the NFL, but CB Max Melton is ready to prove this season why he should hear his name called during next year’s draft. Receiving praise by analysts across the conference, Melton will play alongside Robert Longerbeam and Kessawn Abraham in the secondary. Fan should also expect contribution from transfer Eric Rogers and true freshman Bo Mascoe. The goal for this season is to create turnovers to the setup the offense with short fields. Even with depth at the cornerback position, we must not forget that limiting yards on the ground is the bedrock to an elite defense.

Collectively, Big Ten running backs are the best in the country. There are teams with MULTIPLE NFL caliber running backs. For example, Corum/Edwards (UM), Singleton/Allen (PSU), and Williams/Henderson (OSU). Best part is...Rutgers gets to play ALL OF THEM! Luckily, the front seven of the defenses is littered with DAWGS. Run stuffers Mayan Ahanotue and Kyonte Hamilton should clog up holes that should allow proven vet Tyreem Powell to wreak havoc in the backfield of opposing defenses. The buzz around the defense is real and palpable. GET EXCITED!

Reason for Concern: The Schedule

Ann Arbor. Madison. Iowa City. State College. These are all towns Rutgers will travel to this season. Luckily, we get Ohio State at home. Can you say early upset watch?!?!

There will never be an easy Big Ten schedule for Rutgers. This season, the cross-divisional games against Iowa and Wisconsin just add another layer of difficulty. While games against NW, MSU, IU, and UMD are certainly winnable (just let me cook, this is my POST, not yours!), there is virtually no room for error if the team wants to make a bowl game. The “winnable” games for Rutgers are never a guarantee and the likelihood of multiple demoralizing losses against the Big Ten elites can always derail a season. Never forget what happened to Art Sitkowski against Ohio State when Chris Ash thought it was necessary to pump the gas with just seconds left in the first half of an already decided game.

In my opinion, the Big Ten East is the toughest division in football this season. Making it out of the tough games healthy is always a focus for this team, but at some point Rutgers needs to take down Goliath. Will it happen this season? My guess is no, especially with Ohio State, Michigan, AND Penn State all fighting for not only a conference championship, but a spot in the CFP. If Rutgers is fortunate enough to beat MSU at home during Homecoming, are we really going to consider that an upset win? The best chance at an upset will come on the road, most likely at Wisconsin and Iowa. At this time, I will not be providing the probability Rutgers has to win either of those game, as I am still working through the numbers...

Reason for Optimism: Gavin Wimsatt (part 1)

Wimsatt was announced as the starting QB before Big Ten media day. Sounds silly, but this is a massive leap forward when you compare it to the QB carousel Rutgers fans were forced to sit through last season. We were literally on the edge of our seats until the very first possession against BC , only to see Johnny FREAKING Langan stroll out at QB. Thankfully, that won’t be the case against NW on September 3rd (buy your tickets RIGHT NOW).

Enrolling at Rutgers just weeks into his senior year of high school, Gavin Wimsatt is entering year 3 on the Banks. If you are like me, the commitment of Gavin Wimsatt made me see the light at the end of tunnel. The highest rated QB to ever commit to Rutgers, Wimsatt’s talent is undeniable. Choosing to forgo his senior year of high school and moving with his mom to NJ demonstrates his commitment to the program. The kid WANTS to be here. Now, as a redshirt sophomore, Greg Schiano regularly speaks of his improvement not just as a QB, but as leader on and off the field. Click on the below video to hear his press conference segment on this topic:

With the hope of an improved offensive line, Wimsatt should have more time in the pocket to properly go through his progression and make accurate throws that move the chains. He was not an accurate passer last season, but OC Kirk Ciarrocca was brought in to develop him as an QB and simplify play calling. We should also expect to see Wimsatt make plays with his legs. A mobile QB, Wimsatt has shown glimpses of greatness as a runner before getting injured last season. Pair him with bell cow Sam Brown and the Rutgers rushing attack has the potential to be special.

Whenever I’m feeling down, I just put on the below clip. Days after turning 18 years old, Gavin Wimsatt completes his first ever collegiate pass on FOURTH DOWN ON THE ROAD. Rutgers went on to score on this drive, ultimately winning them the game! Gavin Wimsatt can be THAT GUY, and this season he will prove it.

Reason for Concern: Gavin Wimsatt (part 2)

What? How? You just said...bear with me for a second.

If Gavin Wimsatt struggles this season, what’s the solution? We gave Evan Simon a shot last season, but Schiano has crowned Gavin as the starter. Will the pressure be too much? Will the offensive line fail to provide adequate protection? How do we know Wimsatt will improve as passer? These are all questions that bounce around my head like a pinball at all hours of the day.

Wimsatt will need to take a B1G step forward this season. The start of the year presents an opportunity for Wimsatt to lay these questions to rest. Failing to take advantage of a favorable season opener against NW will force message boards and social media to erupt with frustration. Failure at the QB position is not an option this season. Gavin HAS to show up this season and help show that Rutgers does in fact belongs in the Big Ten. Will he be able to do it? We find out in 8 days!

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