2012 Rutgers Football Preview: A Rebound And A Flood

EAST HARTFORD, CT - NOVEMBER 26: Jawan Jamison #23 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights is congratulated by teammates Betim Bujari #55,Malcolm Bush #88 and Desmond Wynn #70 after Jamison scored a touchdown in the second quarter against the Connecticut Huskies on November 26, 2011 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Kyle Flood takes the reins for a Rutgers program that rebounded in 2011 and has one of the fiercest defenses in the east. Will the offense continue to hold the Scarlet Knights back? Will the defense be so good that the offense doesn't matter? Related: Rutgers' complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

For more on Scarlet Knights football, visit Rutgers blog On The Banks, plus Big East blog Big East Coast Bias and SB Nation New York.

It is amazing just how much of the intro to my Temple piece could apply to their neighbors to the northeast, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Golden Greg Schiano inherited a wasteland of a football program half a decade 11 years ago. There was little financial support, the facilities were decades behind the times, and there was no program history on which to lean for recruiting purposes -- the Owls Scarlet Knights hadn't been to a bowl since 1979 1978 and had suffered more zero- or one- (or two) win seasons in the last 20 years (seven five) than winning ones (two 6-5 campaigns in the 1980s four, the last coming in 1992).

They've had as many players picked in the last two three drafts (five six) as they did from 1990 to 2001 1985 to 2003. In the 2012 2009 draft, three four Owls Scarlet Knights were picked for the first time since 1987 and just the fourth time since 1947 ever.

In five 11 years, Al Golden Greg Schiano built a respectable program from scratch. In his first season succeeding Golden Schiano, Steve Addazio Kyle Flood raised attempts to raise the bar.

Rutgers was never relegated from the Big East, but the building job Schiano did in New Jersey was simply incredible and deserves continued celebration, even after RU slipped a bit over the next few years. Schiano left to take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coaching job, but Rutgers found a rather interesting replacement.

Known as a masterful recruiter (something he proved in 2012 and is in the midst of proving in 2013), Flood inherits a program that has not matched its 2006 heights recently but improved quite a bit in 2011 and returns one of the best defenses on the East Coast. He is different than his predecessor in plenty of ways -- among other things, he is evidently not much of a screamer -- but if he improves this program as much as Schiano did from start to finish … actually, check that. If he improves the program as much as Schiano did, Rutgers will be the New England Patriots. Schiano left this program in infinitely better shape than he found it, especially after last year's rebound. There is no replicating that.


Related: Check out Rutgers' statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Rutgers almost exactly one year ago:

This season is a bit of a crossroads for Schiano and Rutgers. He should always be appreciated for the job he did in raising the program from the dead -- he delivered four straight seasons of eight wins or more after 25 years without even one -- but whether he has forever peaked or has some more magic left in him, there's a decent chance we begin to find out in 2011. […]

Let's play another game of Optimist Versus Pessimist!

What The Optimist Sees: A team whose recent history is much better than what they produced last year, a team whose offensive coordinator might be much more in tune to the talent at hand and has 10 returning starters at his disposal, and a team that plays in a conference won by the 55th-best team in the country last year. (In other words, a team that could win a lot of games if they recover to their recent levels.)

What The Pessimist Sees: A team that went 1-6 in the aforementioned weak conference, a team that could have been much worse without some fumble luck, and a team that couldn't stop the pass in a conference that just got a lot better at passing.

As a whole, Rutgers has gotten worse in three of the last four seasons, meaning their stumble to 4-8 is not an isolated incident. In fact, it wasn't even their biggest stumble in terms of overall quality -- that came the year before. … If they are going to strike back, now's the time to start. I'm a fan of the underdog, so I have a bit of a sentimental attachment to a program like Rutgers that struggled for so long and found some sustained success, but I'm not particularly optimistic that they're going to find more sustained success. If they're going to prove me wrong, it begins in 2011.

(I removed the references to TCU and West Virginia in the Big East because, ouch.)

The process of proving me wrong indeed began in 2011. The Scarlet Knights finished a solid 9-4, five games better than 2010, but they improved quite a bit on paper, from a troubling 82nd to an optimistic 34th.

The season seemed to take on a certain ebb-and-flow:

First six games: Rutgers 23.8 Adj. PPG, Opponents 22.9 (plus-0.9)
Next three games: Opponents 28.1 Adj. PPG, Rutgers 25.0 (minus-3.1)
Final four games: Rutgers 27.6 Adj. PPG, Opponents 21.8 (plus-5.8)

That the Rutgers' offense was able to slowly-but-surely improve throughout the season was impressive, considering the turnover at the quarterback position. Quarterback Chas Dodd missed four games in the middle of the season, leaving the offense in the hands of true freshman Gary Nova. This came a year after Dodd himself had displaced an injured Tom Savage and marked the third consecutive season in which Rutgers started a true freshman for at least a portion of the year. Depending on whether you are an optimist or pessimist, Kyle Flood's first Rutgers squad either has quality depth and experience at quarterback or a budding quarterback controversy.

Offense

Though their offense was indeed better than average over the last month or so of the season, make no mistake: Rutgers won games with defense last fall. First-year offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti aimed for a mostly balanced attack, but he ended up leaning slightly toward the pass, primarily for two reasons: 1) Their line was one of the worst run-blocking units in the country, and 2) wideout Mohamed Sanu was their best grind-it-out option.

Sanu was targeted an absurd 176 times in 2011, second-most in the country (Western Michigan's Jordan White and his 203 targets were No. 1). He was used primarily as a possession option -- he was one of only two receivers who were targeted at least 125 times and produced fewer than 7.0 yards per target. It is hard to say how much Rutgers will miss him, however, since his catches were almost completely devoid of explosiveness. Sanu's reliability near the line of scrimmage allowed Cignetti to send players like Brandon Coleman, Mark Harrison and Tim Wright deep for all-or-nothing passes. The trio combined to average 18.3 yards per catch, but with just a 46 percent catch rate; Coleman's stat line was particularly extreme: 34.5 yards per catch with a 38 percent catch rate. Without Sanu, and with a new coordinator (Dave Brock), it is difficult to know what to make of Rutgers' passing game in 2012. Hell, we don't even know who the quarterback will be yet. Nova and Dodd fought a mostly even battle through the spring.

One thing is certain: if the offensive line cannot block better than it did in 2011, Brock's hands will be tied. Four offensive linemen who combined for 110 career starts are gone, including all-conference guard Art Forst, but considering the line ranked 118th in Adj. Line Yards, a little bit of fresh blood might not be a bad thing. R.J. Dill, a two-year starter at Maryland, makes his first appearance in scarlet and white this year, and thanks to some personnel shuffling through the years, five other players with starting experience return; tackles Andre Civil and Kaleb Johnson, guards Antwan Lwery and David Osei and center Betim Bujari have combined for 37 career starts. Predictably, there was quite a bit of shuffling on the line this spring, but there are options here, and from a "no way to go but up" perspective, the run blocking should expect to improve a bit.

If the blocking indeed improves, a pair of sophomores could take serious advantage. Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins each had their moments in 2011, despite just averaging a combined 3.6 yards per carry; Jamison in particular was, like a lot of Rutgers' wideouts, an all-or-nothing back: He carried 34 times for 200 yards against Cincinnati and a combined 61 times for 143 yards against Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville and UConn. He carried 27 times for 131 yards in the bowl win over Iowa State, and he carried 17 times for 54 yards against North Carolina Central. He and Huggins, a former four-star signee, are an interesting tandem, though they still have quite a bit of growing to do.

(One other person might still have a bit of growing to do: Brock. To put it kindly, his resume -- Temple offensive coordinator from 2002-04, Kansas State offensive coordinator in 2008, Boston College tight ends coach from 2009-11 -- lacks sparkle.)

Defense

When something is working, you want to change it as little as possible. For his first defensive coordinator, Kyle Flood stayed in-house and chose Robb Smith, a Schiano assistant for the last three years. If he can provide continuity with a lineup that ranked eighth on passing downs, 16th in Passing S&P+ and fifth in the red zone, Rutgers could easily challenge for the Big East title. Early impressions were encouraging in this regard; the defense dominated the spring, though as always with spring football, that could have had as much to do with the offense.

The Knights attacked the line of scrimmage in 2011, and with the return of their top five linebackers, seven of their top nine linemen, and 14 of the 17 defenders who sacked the quarterback last year, they should be able to do again this fall. The strategy didn't always pay off; they ranked eighth in Adj. Line Yards but just 66th in Rushing PPP+, which means that if they weren't making a big play behind the line, they were potentially giving up one. Still, aside from some glitches (41 points versus West Virginia, 40 versus UConn), the results were there. And they should be there again.

It's not just about who returns; it's also about who gets added to the rotation. Five-star defensive end Darius Hamilton and four-star linebacker Quanzell Lambert join a loaded two-deep that already features players like tackle Scott Vallone (8.5 tackles for loss in 2011), middle linebacker Steve Beauharnais (16 tackles for loss, three interceptions) and, of course, outside linebacker and Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene (14 tackles for loss). Greene, a senior from nearby Elizabeth who made a whopping 16 percent of Rutgers' tackles last year, is expected to be completely healthy in 2012 after suffering a gruesome injury in the Pinstripe Bowl (here's a link, but don't click on it).

As solid and exciting as players like Greene and Beauharnais were last year, the Rutgers secondary was as integral in the Scarlet Knights' nine-win bounceback season. Rutgers ranked eighth in the country in Passing PPP+ and fourth in Passing Downs PPP+, which suggests that while they could be gashed occasionally on the ground, nobody was beating them over the top. RU must replace one starting safety (David Rowe), which is always a bit disconcerting when it comes to big-play prevention, but SS-turned-FS Duron Harmon returns, and likely new strong safety Wayne Warren is rather experienced. And more importantly, star corner Logan Ryan also returns. Ryan had one of the more unique, exciting stat lines in college football: 17 passes defended (three interceptions, 14 passes broken up), 5.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

Defining Success

An incredibly manageable home schedule (Howard, UConn, Syracuse, Kent State, Army, Louisville) and a winnable road trip to Tulane suggest that that the bar should, at minimum, be set to match, or come close to matching, last year's wins. I will conservatively say that the success-or-not line is somewhere between eight and nine wins.

Prognosis

Can we combine Louisville's offense with Rutgers' defense? Because that would be one of the most exciting teams in college football. Rutgers' offense lowers the team's ceiling by a decent amount, but despite a curious offensive coordinator hire and the departure of Mohamed Sanu, the offense should improve. A patchwork offensive line should at least match last year's poor output, and the skill positions are as a whole more experienced. And if the offense can give Rutgers just a little bit of momentum, the defense should capitalize. This truly will be one of the best defenses in the east, and because of that alone, Rutgers could be just a couple of breaks away from a really enjoyable 2012 season. And with Flood's recruiting ability, this could be the start of a new, fun run for Rutgers football.

(And if they come out and lose at Tulane in the opener, forget I said any of this.)

For more on Scarlet Knights football, visit Rutgers blog On The Banks, plus Big East blog Big East Coast Bias and SB Nation New York.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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