Our look the Rutgers Scarlet Knights concludes this morning with some help from our friends over at On The Banks. Site manager Aaron Breitman joins us for a Q&A on the team's season expectations, strengths, and weaknesses. You can view our first Rutgers post right here.
1. Former Ohio State DC Chris Ash is the new head coach of the Scarlet Knights. That seemed like a pretty nice hire! What are the expectations for his first season? Does he even have any?
The biggest expectation this season under new head coach Chris Ash is progress. That will be assessed by their competitiveness on the field against top flight competition. The first two seasons in the Big Ten saw Rutgers routinely blown out against the top teams. The fact that they were run off the field time and time again was a major frustration of the fanbase. There is confidence that Ash will change that quickly.
He has implemented a lot of positive changes this offseason, with the biggest change being the culture around the program. Competition is the focus in everything the players do now, and the players seem to be more united in their goals for the season. Ash adopted several mantras for the program, including #10Strong and "The Hunt". They have been challenged more than ever and seem to now relish their new environment.
With that being said, Rutgers has a brutal schedule opening on the road against Washington, who is likely to be ranked at the start of the season. Of course, the schedule will always be difficult playing in the East division. Add in Iowa as a crossover opponent and New Mexico in a non-conference game, and Rutgers will play nine bowl teams from last season.
I think if Ash and the new coaching staff can get this team to 6-6 and a bowl game, the season would be considered a major success. And if not, playing closer against top teams and winning a couple of conference games will be proof of progress.
2. We're finally getting an Illinois/Rutgers football game. Putting this huge conference tilt aside, though, how has life in the Big Ten been so far? Has Rutgers started to see any benefits from our super league?
The long term view of being a member of the Big Ten has been extremely positive. In the short term, the football team has been a mixed bag. As I noted, there is a major gap between Rutgers and the conference elite programs. However, there is hope that Rutgers can quickly become a solid program in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten on an annual basis. The long term hope is that a decade from now Rutgers will be competing for division titles on an annual basis. In 2014, Rutgers did go 8-5 and finished ahead of Penn State and Michigan in the East Division. Last season was obviously a disaster, but Ash has restored hope that the program is back on the rise.
The biggest obstacle right now for the entire athletic department is money. Rutgers will continue to only get a partial share of the Big Ten revenue until 2021. Our facilities for the most part are way behind the other Big Ten schools, so improving them is the top priority of new athletic director Pat Hobbs. He has led the R Big Build fundraising campaign for facility improvements, and in just six months the drive already has Rutgers more than halfway to their 100 million dollar goal.
There is no doubt that the move to the Big Ten has changed the trajectory for Rutgers athletics in a very positive way. There is just a lot of work to get all of the athletic programs on a Big Ten level.There have been many positive changes in the attitude and approach of the administration in the past 8 months, and that has given a lot of hope and confidence to the fanbase that it will ultimately happen.
3. Star wideout Leonte Carroo graduated this offseason, so some other play makers will need to step for junior QB Chris Laviano. Who will you be keeping an eye on this season?
Janarion Grant is without a doubt the biggest playmaker on both offense and special teams. While he was underutilized on offense and plagued by drops in the past, the expectations for Grant to excel in the newly implemented spread offense is sky high. The previous staff had trouble finding ways to feature Grant, but new offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer has made him a priority. Grant flourished in the spring game with 11 catches for 140 yards. He has always been a star on special teams, where he led the country in kickoff return yards, ran back three kickoff returns for touchdowns and one punt return for a touchdown last season. Amazingly, the Big Ten coaches only voted Grant to the all-conference third team last season. He has a chance to be a legitimate star in the conference this season.
Aside from Grant, Carlton Agudosi has a great opportunity to emerge this season in Carroo's absence. He has the height and strength to be a big red zone target, while having the speed to be a true deep threat. Andre Patton is another receiver who has had his moments in his career, but has yet to be a consistent factor in the offense week after week. If both can show improvement, the passing game has a chance to be better than last season.
The biggest question leading up to this season is whether Laviano will actually be the one throwing the ball to Grant and the rest of the receiving core. He's not an ideal fit for the spread offense and Rutgers added TCU quarterback Zach Allen in June. He is a rare graduate transfer who has two years of eligibility remaining, after completing school in just three years. Allen was a top dual threat recruit out of Texas coming out of high school and appears to be an ideal fit for Mehringer's system. While Allen obviously needs to prove himself in training camp, the prevailing thought is the job is his for the taking.
In the backfield, Rutgers will continue to feature a two headed monster at running back with juniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks. Martin led the Big Ten last season with yards after contact and has benifitted from the new strength and conditioning program Ash brought with him from Ohio State. He posted recently on twitter that he has added 13 pounds of muscle compared to last season. The benefits of the new S&C program should be applied throughout the roster, but if Martin and Hicks can make a jump to the next level this season on the field, the offense has a chance to be pretty good.
4. Rutgers' defense was statistically one of the worst in the country last year (No. 116 in S&P+). In your opinion, which position group has the most dire need for talent? Do you envision any improvement this Fall?
The need to upgrade the talent exists within all three units of the defense. However, the defensive line has a good amount of talent, experience and depth that they will be the strength of the defense this season. In terms of improvement needed, the secondary has been a major problem for three consecutive seasons, both in pass coverage and stopping big runs from developing. The personnel was very young and inexperienced last season, so the hope is Ash and the new staff can fix some issues pretty quickly. I am most concerned about the linebackers, as all three starters from last season have departed. Replacing them and improving their pass coverage, which was a major weakness a season ago, is the biggest challenge for the staff. If the defense can become more competitive, it will be the biggest factor in Rutgers improving from last season.
5. Do the Scarlet Knights expect any newcomers to make big impacts this year? If not, what are some of the names we should keep in mind for later meetings?
Najee Clayton is a sophomore who the staff converted to linebacker and is expected to start this season. He is super athletic, but is still learning the nuances of the his position. The quicker he can learn and excel, the better off the defense will be. As previously noted, Zach Allen could emerge as the starting quarterback and speed up the transition from the pro style to the spread offense considerably. Michigan graduate transfer Ross Taylor-Douglas also has two years of eligibility remaining, and should be a big addition to the young secondary.
6. What would you consider to be Rutgers' best-case and worst-case scenarios? Where do you see the team ultimately finishing in the East Division?
As I said, Rutgers has a very difficult schedule. It's possible this team will show progress on the field, but still not win more or even equal the 4 games they won last season. However, I expect this team to be much more prepared, both mentally and physically, to compete in the Big Ten this season. 3 wins is probably the worst case. As for the best case, Rutgers needs to survive the first half of the schedule, in hopes of improving throughout and succeeding down the stretch. With Rutgers playing at Washington and Ohio State on the road, as well as Iowa and Michigan at home, 2-4 in the first half seems very likely. However, other than a road game at Michigan State, the second half of the schedule, while not easy by any stretch, is far more manageable. Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Penn State (at home) and Maryland should be games Rutgers has a legitimate chance to win.
There is some thought that Ash needs to pull a big upset in his first season to maintain positive momentum on the recruiting trail, where he is off to a flying start. However, I think if Rutgers can win the games they are supposed to or have a chance in, that is the more realistic hope and would prove consistent progress is happening. I think 7-5 would be the high water mark and considered the best case scenario this season. I think if Rutgers can at least finish ahead of Indiana and Maryland in the East, that will show real progress from last season. They are the two teams that Rutgers must stay ahead of now and in the future to have any real chance in climbing up the ladder of the loaded East division. I think that will happen this season.
Thank you to Aaron for answering our questions! You can follow him on Twitter at @aaron_breitman, and his Rutgers content can, again be found over at On The Banks. If for some reason you're looking for even more information on the Scarlet Knights, make sure to check out their 2016 SB Nation team preview.