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OTB Preseason Roundtable: Let’s breakdown the 2023 Rutgers Football season

The staff here at On The Banks discussed some major aspects of the 2023 football season!

Big Ten Football Media Days Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It’s officially game week.

The 2023 Rutgers Football season will begin on Sunday at SHI Stadium against Northwestern. After a full offseason of waiting, fans will get to see their Scarlet Knights back on the field, hoping to take a step forward this year.

How will the season play out for Rutgers? Below, check out the staff here at OTB’s responses to some major questions heading into the 2023 campaign.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Penn State at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Outside of QB, what will be the most important position group for Rutgers this season?

Greg Patuto: Wide Receivers.

The offensive line is going to be a popular answer here — as it should be. Rutgers needs to improve up front but it also needs pass catchers to step up. The lack of weapons on the outside can be an issue for the Scarlet Knights. Greg Schiano addressed this need in the transfer portal with the addition of Jaquae Jackson and Naseim Brantley. Chris Long is a name that has a chance to step up this season. Yes, Rutgers needs to protect its young quarterback and yes, Gavin Wimsatt needs to be effective. But what also needs to happen is receivers get open and make some plays downfield.

John Catapano: Offensive Line.

Rutgers is tied with Illinois for the 3rd heaviest offensive line, size-wise, in the Big Ten, trailing only Penn State and Minnesota. The Knights finally have size on that side of the ball. New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who just happened to coach the Gophers’ offense last season, will lean heavily on the running game, and that requires stellar line play. The Gophers averaged 207 yards rushing per game, and 182 passing in 2022, so fully expect the same philosophy this season as OC KC relies heavily on the offensive line to spring Sam Brown V and the running backs.

John Dean: Defensive Line.

Rutgers defensive line has the ability to be very good this year. Rutgers brings back very talented veterans Aaron Lewis, Wesley Bailey, Keyonte Hamilton, and Mayan Ahanatou. They have also supplemented this group with transfer Isiah Iton and injury returnee Mo Toure. This group will be relied upon to clog up running lanes and sack the quarterback. Rutgers defense is its strength this year, and to be at its best the defensive line needs to live up to their potential.

Matt Forno: Offensive Line.

In order for Rutgers offense to take a step forward, it has to stay on the field. Limiting turnovers and controlling the clock are two ways to accomplish this. Rutgers has talent at the running back position, but it’s up to the B1G boys up front to create running lanes and separation at the line of scrimmage. Protecting Wimsatt will help him properly go through his passing progressions and make accurate, well timed decisions. Winning the battle in the trenches is of utmost importance. Rutgers defense should be solid, but always remember this—the best defense is an offense that controls the ball!

Francis Hearne: Defensive Line.

Football games are won in the trenches. The strength of this Rutgers team will be the defensive unit and it starts up front. Aaron Lewis is an absolute beast and the best player on this team. Lewis will make plays which will open up opportunities for his teammates like Wes Bailey, a very talented pass rusher in his own right who came on very strong last season and Kenny Fletcher, a former highly ranked recruit who seems poised for a big year. Isaiah Iton, an Ole Miss transfer, will bring some SEC speed and freakish size to the middle of this D-line alongside returning big men Kyonte Hamilton and Mayan Ahanatou. Stop the run, get pressure on the QB, and give the guys on the back end a chance to make some plays.

Andrew Rice: Running Back.

Rutgers offense needs a solid running game. Plain and simple. A solid running game is crucial for sustaining long drives and converting on short downs. These types of drives wear down opposing defenses and allow the Knights defense time to rest. Running the ball well will not only tire out opposing defenses, but it will also keep them honest, allowing for more opportunities in the passing game. Having a solid run game will take a lot of pressure off of Wimsatt’s shoulders. A solid run game is a necessity for any young quarterback to develop.

Jack Schocket: Offensive Line.

Rutgers might have Gavin Wimsatt under center, Samuel Brown V in the backfield, and have brought in multiple big-time transfer receivers, but none of that matters if the offensive line doesn’t step up in a big way this season. Rutgers’ offense will only be as successful as their O-Line lets it be, and if the Scarlet Knights’ offense can’t stay on the field, their defense won’t be as good either.

Wagner v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Who will be the breakout player for Rutgers offensively this season?

Greg Patuto: Jaquae Jackson.

Rutgers hit a home run with the transfer commitment from Jackson in May. The DII All-American totaled 77 catches for 1,178 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Jackson is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver who has a chance to be a No. 1 receiver in the Big Ten. Could it happen? If so, Rutgers will be an improved offense right away.

Jackson came to Rutgers over the likes of Miami, Pitt, West Virginia, Texas A&M, and Michigan State, among others. He was a highly-touted player in the transfer portal and came to Rutgers with hopes of showing what he can do. Both Wimsatt and Kirk Ciarrocca will like Jackson on the outside.

John Catapano: Gavin Wimsatt.

I’m honestly still amazed the kid can: 1. stand upright and 2. is still with the program, considering the bumbling offense and horrific line play the past couple of seasons. That’s a testament to the culture head coach Greg Schiano has built, where players no longer look for greener pastures at the first hint of trouble but instead are committed to working and earning playing time. Wimsatt is a physical specimen to behold at 6’3”, 225 pounds. Consider that past Heisman Trophy winners Bryce Young (5’11, 204 pounds) and Caleb Williams (6’1, 215 pounds) are significantly smaller. Size and speed aren’t the issue with Gavin. Making quick reads and accurate passes have eluded him the past two seasons. With an offensive coordinator in Ciarrocca who relies heavily on the running game and quick reads with unforced passes to open receivers, along with the likely improved offensive line play, I hope that Gavin can finally live up to his potential. The Knights will only go as far as their QB can take them.

John Dean: Chris Long.

Rutgers desperately needs to create more big plays this season through the passing game. Long flashed some ability in this area with long catches against Michigan and Wagner last year. This year with more playing time I see him adding more of these plays with his speed and ability to run after the catch.

Matt Forno: Hollin Pierce.

Who is the last LT you remember as an anchor on the blindside? First one that comes to mind has to be Anthony Davis. There were some solid replacements after Davis went onto the NFL, but his level of dominance was never replicated. Pierce has to the chance to put his talent on display this season. I believe he has the size and motivation to compete in the Big Ten, a conference that regularly produces All Pro NFL offensive lineman. Pierce joined Rutgers as a walk-on when he weighed over 400 lbs. Shedding over 100lbs, Pierce’s physical transformation and continue improvement over the last 2 season demonstrates his committed to the program and, most importantly, himself. His road to starting at LT for Rutgers has not been easy by any measure, but that is why I believe he can breakout as a star for the team and also within the conference.

Francis Hearne: Samuel Brown V.

The offense will literally and figuratively run through Samuel Brown V this season. This young man had a breakout game against Indiana and seemed poised to take over the workload at RB. Unfortunately, he went down with a season ending foot injury the following week. Word from training camp is Brown is fully healthy and ready to run wild like Isaiah Pacheco in the Super Bowl (shoutout Pop, the fastest player to ever wear #10 on the Chiefs). If the offensive line can hold up, and Brown can break into the secondary then WATCH OUT!! Opposing defensive back will have to make some business decisions.

Andrew Rice: Johnny Langan.

With his first full training camp at Tight End and some help added through the transfer portal, Langan is primed to have a breakout year this year. With the new crop of receivers taking up most of the attention, Langan has the opportunity to become a reliable safety valve for Wimsatt if all other options are covered. In addition, his 6 ft 3 in frame could prove valuable if Wimsatt wants a larger target down near the goal line. Couple these elements with the fact that he seems to be jack-of-all-trades athletic talent who Schiano loves to use in trick plays, and the stage is set for Langan to be a breakout player this season.

Jack Schocket: Johnny Langan.

“Johnny Offense” has had a storied Rutgers career. After transferring from Boston College, he was thrown into the fire when Nunzio Campanile relieved Chris Ash of his duties and effectively spent the season as a triple-option quarterback. He’s made the transition to tight end and last season played a very similar role to the Saints’ Taysom Hill. I’m expecting his pass-catching to improve this season, while he still maintains his production as an H-back-like player. Bonus: How can you root against a guy who’s worked so hard for the program?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Penn State at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who will be the breakout player for Rutgers defensively this season?

Greg Patuto: Moses Walker.

Breakout doesn't always mean All-Big Ten caliber player. Sometimes, it means a young player showing great promise and setting himself up for years to come. That is what Moses Walker can do in 2023.

Walker was a huge recruit for Schiano and was expected to get on the field as a true freshman. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury that kept him out last season. Walker is preparing to return to the field to add depth to the group of linebackers. Deion Jennings and Tyreem Powell return to bolster the position. Walker is healthy and so is Mohamed Toure. Walker is an extremely talented and athletic linebacker with a very high ceiling. This season, he should get plenty of chances to show what he can do.

John Catapano: Isaiah Iton.

The Ole Miss D-line transfer logged significant time in the rugged SEC during the prior three seasons. The 6’3” Houston, Texas native brings size and speed and the potential to be a disruptive force. Iton also lettered in track in high school, so look for DC Joe Harasymiak to move him around the line to get to the QB.

John Dean: Moses Walker.

Moses Walker was one of the biggest wins on the recruiting trail during Greg Schiano’s second stint on the banks. He has a unique blend of size and athleticism, and he is one of the most talented football players on the roster. The starting linebackers for Rutgers are both talented veterans in Tyreem Powell and Deion Jennings, but I think by the season's end, that Moses Walker will force himself onto the field.

Matt Forno: Kenny Fletcher.

The offseason attention has been on the defensive line. Expected to be the strongest and deepest unit on the team, it is also where we will find our breakout star on defense — Kenny Fletcher. Rotating fresh legs on the d-line will be key in order to generate constant pressure in the backfield, and that is where I believe Fletcher will play a key role. With a unique combination of speed and bend, Fletcher has shown glimpses of promise coming off the edge last season. I would not be shocked if Fletcher fights his way into the starting lineup in 2023.

Francis Hearne: Desmond Igbinosun.

Rutgers secondary is losing two starting safeties in Avery Young and Christian Izien. This leaves a hole on the back end which opens up a big opportunity for Desmond Igbinosun to step up. Schiano has a great track record of developing DB’s ( see current and former NFL Knights Tre Avery, Christian Izien, Christian Braswell). A Jersey native ( FENCE THE GARDEN) with the size to fill lanes in the run game and the speed to cover in the pas game, Igbinosun should step into the starting role and excel.

Andrew Rice: Aaron Lewis.

Lewis led the nation in quarterback hits last year, yet somehow did not lead the team in sacks. With some other pass rushers coming back from injury and the improvements made to the defensive line over the offseason, Lewis has a golden opportunity to become a top three pass rusher in the B1G ten.

Jack Schocket: Mohamed Toure.

The edge rusher led the team in sacks in 2020 and 2021 with 4.5 in each season before tearing his ACL in the spring of 2022. Toure missed what could’ve been a huge 2022, so I’m looking to him to have an even bigger 2023. Toure’s over 16 months removed from the tear, so he should be fully recovered and ready to pick up right where he left off in ‘21. He should be a problem off the edge for even the best of the Big Ten.

Syndication: The Record Kevin R. Wexler/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

If Rutgers continues to struggle, what will be the reason why?

Greg Patuto: Talent Gap Offensively.

The defense will compete in the Big Ten. The question is, can the offense? This is why Rutgers brought in Ciarrocca because last year, the answer to this question was no.

Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa (defensively), Wisconsin. The Big Ten is loaded and Rutgers has to play it all. With a young quarterback and question marks along the offensive line, the Scarlet Knights are still steps behind other programs. The coaching staff has improved, which is important, but that does not mean that the offense will be all the way back.

John Catapano: Offense.

Doubtful it’s the defense or special teams. Those are Big-Ten-ready units. If the offense can move the ball on the ground and have a sustainable passing game (again, see the 2022 Minnesota Golden Gophers), the defense will be more rested, and the special teams won’t be over-taxed.

John Dean: Offensive Ineptitude.

This season will be a struggle if new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca is unable to turn Rutgers into a respectable offense. Rutgers offense has struggled in the past few season, and it has severely impacted the defenses ability to stay fresh and keep Rutgers in the game. If the offense continues going three and out and gassing out the defense then Rutgers will struggle to get to 6-6 and make a bowl game.

Matt Forno: Inability to Identify a #1 Option in the Passing Game.

Johnny Langan CANNOT be the #1 option in the passing game. He was second on the team in receptions and Chris Long is the only WR returning who had double digit reception last season. If Rutgers fails to identify a “go to” option in the passing game, we could find ourselves back at the wishing well hoping for better days in 2024.

Francis Hearne: Big Plays.

Big plays in all 3 phases will hold this team back. Lack of big plays on offense and giving up too many on defense and special teams. Schiano is always preaching the need to play complimentary football, and its no secret that the offense has not held its end of the bargain lately. The offense will need to create some explosive plays to keep the chains moving and put up points so the defense can catch their breath, but also because I don’t expect them to consistently sustain long drives. The defense got in trouble giving up some big plays last year. The safety position will be inexperienced, so potential struggles on the back end with deep passes and missed tackle could lead to some deficits the team can’t overcome. Finally, Rutgers loses the greatest punter is the history of football. Without Adam Korsak’s ability to flip the field and prevent returns, there is potential to give up some big plays in special teams which are demoralizing to the whole team.

Andrew Rice: Poor Passing Game.

It is no secret that Rutgers passing game held them back tremendously last season. Back breaking interceptions, disastrous sacks, and completely missed throws undid some many drives for the knights last season. If this continues the Knights will be right back where they were last year.

Jack Schocket: Conservative Offense.

Greg Schiano’s known for his conservative game planning, and while that may have worked in the Big East, it’s made Rutgers an easy rollover for many Big Ten teams over the past few years. If Ciarocca can change some of that and get the offense going then the Scarlet Knights are going to be much improved, but if we continue to see draw plays run on third-and-6, and Johnny Langan running QB power every time he's taking the snap, then Rutgers will continue to struggle. The Scarlet Knights just simply can’t afford to be one-dimensional on offense anymore.

Indiana v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

What is the best chance for a Rutgers upset victory this season?

Greg Patuto: Maryland.

Let’s try and speak one into existence. Maryland has been far ahead of Rutgers over the last two years. Can the Scarlet Knights close the gap? Maybe, maybe not. This will be a home game for Rutgers. Iowa will be on the road. Michigan State is also a contender but how much of an upset will that game be? Who knows where the Spartans will be. The Terps are expected to make some noise this season and it will be a great chance for Rutgers. Just like 2021, the Scarlet Knights could enter the final week of the season with five wins looking for a bowl berth. They will hope for a different outcome this time around.

John Catapano: Michigan.

Why not? No idea why, but even when Rutgers’ offense is abysmal, they seem to give the Wolverines a game up in Ann Arbor. Watch the 2021 matchup when Pachecho did his best impersonation of a steamroller. The matchup against the Wolverines will be Game No. 4 and Harbaugh’s first back after his suspension, creating another interesting storyline.

John Dean: Michigan State.

Rutgers is facing Michigan State this year at home during homecoming. Rutgers had its best offensive performance on the road at Michigan State last year, and put a scare into them. Michigan State did not have a strong offseason losing star receiver Keon Coleman and others in the transfer portal. If Rutgers is able to play better defense and score a few more points offensively, then we could see the Scarlet Knights post their biggest win of the season against the Spartans.

Matt Forno: Iowa.

The schedule is hard and, besides Ohio State, all of the tough opponents come on the road. Rutgers has already beaten MSU (on the road might I add), so I think the most realistic chance at an upset win comes * deep, deep breathe * on the road against Iowa. Kinnick Field is one of the toughest places to play in the entire country, but luckily Iowa’s offense is quite bad. Truthfully, I’m not buying Cade McNamara as the savior of the offense. The defense is always ELITE, but if Rutgers can limit turnovers, this can turn into a classic big ten game: Punt, Punt, Punt, FG, Punt, Muffed Punt, FG, Punt, Turnover on Downs, Punt.

Last year, Rutgers and Iowa met in Piscataway for a night game, so if this game is later announced as a 8pm kickoff on FS1... Lord, please forgive me for suggesting this as a potential upset.

Francis Hearne: Michigan State.

A homecoming game against Michigan State feels like the perfect opportunity for an upset. MSU seems to have had a tough offseason losing some of their key contributors from last season to the portal, and they return a defense that was gashed by Kyle Monangai and co. in East Lansing. Some extra motivation could be found as Mel Tucker continues to try and steal the “CHOP” mantra made famous by Schiano.

Andrew Rice: Michigan State.

Rutgers fell to Michigan state last year by only 6 points. That game was at Michigan States house. Now they are coming to Rutgers for their homecoming game. In addition, last season Michigan state was carved up last season by Rutgers running game without Sam Brown on the field. With the setting changed and their starter back, Rutgers has a prime opportunity to stun the Spartans.

Jack Schocket: Michigan.

I’m with John on this one. The Scarlet Knights came ‘oh so close’ to beating the Wolverines in 2020 and 2021, only to fall just short by a single score. Does that mean that Rutgers beating Michigan makes any sense this year? No, but it doesn’t have to, that’s the beauty of college football! Samuel Brown V will go for 150 yards on the ground, and the defense will force a late turnover to seal the victory.

Rutgers Spring Football Game Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

What will the final record for the 2023 Scarlet Knights be?

Greg Patuto: 5-7.

This seems like best-case scenario when looking at the Rutgers schedule this year. At worst, the team can be 4-8, which would be the same record as last season and considered a failure in 2023.

There are six wins on the schedule. Can Rutgers get there? If so, it has to start 4-1 (wins over Northwestern, Temple, Virginia Tech, Wagner). Entering Big Ten play, the swing games will be Indiana and Michigan State. These are back-to-back games in mid-October. There are two things holding back the thought of six wins.

First, all has to go right for Rutgers and in the past, it hasn't. The Scarlet Knights need those two wins because they end the year with Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, and Maryland. Second, if Rutgers beats Michigan State and Indiana, it could be 6-2 on Oct. 21 entering the bye week. That just seems foreign. It seems like a five-win season coming here.

John Catapano: 5-7.

My brain wants to say 4-8, and my heart wants to believe 6-6 and a bowl game, but until I see evidence of a functional offense in Piscataway, this team will always be sub-500. Prove me wrong, Coach Schiano.

John Dean: 5-7.

Rutgers falls just short of 6-6 due to the brutal back half of the schedule. Rutgers has six wins on the schedule, but it will take a flawless performance from the team to get there. I predict them to get 5 wins and have one Rutgers style brutal loss to just miss Bowl eligibility.

Matt Forno: 6-6.

There are six wins on the schedule if Rutgers can FIGURE IT OUT on offense.

Francis Hearne: 5-7.

I really want to believe Rutgers will make a bowl game this year, but the back half of the schedule looks so tough. The potential for 6 wins is there, but we’d have to see almost perfect football from this team to get it done. A strong September will lead to a 5-7 finish.

Andrew Rice: 6-6.

If Rutgers can finish September 4-1 and get momentum going, they should be able to steal two games later in the schedule to make a bowl game.

Jack Schocket: 6-6.

As a Rutgers fan, pessimism is in my blood, but if the offense can show just any shine of life, the optimism in me believes this team can go bowling.

Rutgers v Temple Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Final thoughts:

Greg Patuto: Just keep doing forward. Schiano seemed to be on the right track following the Covid-shortened, Big Ten-only schedule in 2020. That was not the case. Last season was a taste of rock bottom, especially offensively. This needs to improve. Schiano has brought in improvements on the coaching staff. He navigated the transfer portal well and is recruiting 2024 hard. It is time to improve.

John Catapano: I don’t want to talk about potential. Let’s see the results. Rutgers has a chance to get off to a good start in the conference against the Northwestern Wildcats at home. Northwestern is reeling from a turbulent offseason that resulted in the firing of their head coach. Can Rutgers finally bring the hammer down on teams it should beat?

John Dean: This could be the best defense Rutgers has had in years. There are NFL players at every level of the defense. Aaron Lewis and Wesley Bailey could be draft picks. Tyreem Powell and Moses Walker could be drafted. Robert Longerbeam and Max Melton will be playing on Sundays. Enjoy the defensive performance this year, and hope the offense can keep them off the field as much as possible.

Matt Forno: Schiano was brought back on the Banks to do one thing: Get Rutgers out of the basement of Big Ten Football. After year one, heads started to turn (slightly), but years 2 and 3 did not show much improvement. Rutgers needs to get to Bowl game. We are a long way from achieving his goal of being ranked #1 in the country (his words not mine!!). First, we got to make it to a bowl game, and while its possible, it’s also necessary!

Francis Hearne: This team has a ton of potential. There is NFL talent all over the defense, the O-line has the look of a real Big Ten unit, there is speed and toughness across all the skill position groups, and for the first time in years there is a clear #1 QB named before training camp. I know Gavin Wimsatt has the talent, so let’s see if Ciarocca can put him in position to make plays and execute. I’m pumped, football is back, lets CHOP!

Andrew Rice: Schiano is a defense oriented head coach. We saw that during his first stint on the banks and we are starting to see it again. However if his offense does not pick up the pace, Rutgers will remain in the gutter of the B1G ten. He has started the turn around defensively, now its the offense's turn to contribute.

Jack Schocket: Schiano, for all his faults, is the only coach this century that has shown the true ability to win games at Rutgers. He’s gone out and recruited, he’s hired a new offensive coordinator, but now it’s time to see his team put it all together on the field. The defense should be great, but this team is only going as far as the offensive line and Gavin Wimsatt will take it.