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Rutgers has a defense, but that whole “scoring points” thing could remain a problem

Third-year head coach Chris Ash has built depth and boasts quite a few exciting prospects.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Anyone who’s been reading these previews through the years knows I’m a hedger. I’m bad at saying Team A is definitely going to achieve, get its coached fired, win its conference, or whatever. When I’m wrong, I try to figure out why, so I can avoid the same trap in the future, but when it comes to prognosticating about 85 18- to 22-year olds playing with a pointy ball that sometimes has a mind of its own, it’s only a matter of time until you’ve gotten everything wrong at least once.

I try to present things in terms of odds and scenarios — Scenario A is the most likely, but if these three things happen, then Scenario B is definitely on the table.

And sometimes I just punt. That was the case in last year’s Rutgers preview, entitled “Rutgers might look like a Big Ten football team by 2018.”

S&P+ projections suggested that former Wisconsin and Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash’s second Rutgers team would rise from 114th to 92nd with a record around 4-8. It went 1-for-2. The Scarlet Knights indeed won four games, thanks to the combination of four games against teams ranked 100th or worse (they went 3-1) and a midseason upset of Purdue. But they ranked 110th overall, losing to five top-30 opponents by an average of 39-8 and losing their last three games by a combined 116-13.

The strengths and weaknesses were the same as that of the 2016 team that went 2-10. The offense ranked 125th in Off. S&P+ in 2016 and 126th in 2017; the defense ranked in the mid-50s both years.

It’s not hard to see that continuing this year, considering the offense has a lot to replace (granted, leaving a pretty low bar to clear), but the defense returns most of its most exciting pieces and gets a couple of key players back from injury.

If a coach’s rebuild is going to be successful, we’ve usually seen signs by the end of his third year. Eastern Michigan, for instance, was hapless for most of Chris Creighton’s first two seasons before taking a third-year leap and maintaining in year four (which included a win over Rutgers).

Those leaps are pretty hard to see coming in advance, though, and we don’t have any reason to assume Ash’s team will suddenly boast offensive competence — in the last nine years, RU has ranked better than 84th in Off. S&P+ just once.

Still, the defense should be strong, and the first two months of the schedule feature seven games in which RU is either a favorite or a touchdown-or-less underdog. (The last month features four consecutive opponents projected in the S&P+ top 12. We should probably not talk about that.) There are potential wins on the board if the defense is as good as advertised and the offense ... does something remotely competent.


2017 Rutgers offensive radar

In 2009, John McNulty left a successful three-year stint as Rutgers offensive coordinator for the NFL. It was a good time to cash in his chips — the typically moribund Rutgers attack had ranked in Off. S&P+’s top 40 for three years.

Over the next nine seasons, he would bounce around as a position coach for the Cardinals, Bucs (under former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano), Titans, and Chargers. RU, meanwhile, posted an average offense ranking of 101.8.

Attempting to revive a flagging unit by bringing in someone who succeeded a decade ago isn’t the most surefire approach, but you can see what Ash was probably thinking. McNulty is Ash’s third OC in as many years, following Drew Mehringer in 2016 (who left for Texas) and Jerry Kill in 2017 (who re-retired).

From 2006-08, McNulty built a system around Mike Teel’s arm (he improved from 2,135 yards with a 120.6 passer rating in 2006 to 3,418 and 148.1 in 2008) and a persistent ground game. In 2006-07, Ray Rice carried the ball an average of 358 times per season, and after his departure in 2008, a trio of backs rushed 318 times.

The game’s changed, but in theory, McNulty’s principles can still work if he’s got the right personnel.

About that. McNulty’s going to need quite a few sophomores to raise their games. There’s a layer of senior leadership, but it hasn’t proved a ton.

Quarterback Giovanni Rescigno has spent the last two seasons winning and losing the starting job, completing too few passes (51 percent completion rate) for minimal yards (10.6 yards per completion) and taking too many sacks (10 percent sack rate). He also hasn’t had much to work with.

Rutgers did win three of its four games with him behind center, and he does avoid picks, but when the Knights were succeeding last fall, it was with the run game. And it was mostly with backs that aren’t at Rutgers anymore (Gus Edwards and Robert Martin rushed for 1,147 yards and nine touchdowns).

NCAA Football: Morgan State at Rutgers
Jerome Washington
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond that, the only other seniors that figure to play major roles are running back and BC grad transfer Jon Hilliman, tight end Jerome Washington, and left tackle Tariq Cole. Hilliman is a powerful runner but doesn’t usually get very far, and Washington led the Scarlet Knights in receiving last year, but only because someone technically had to. Cole’s a keeper, at least: he was honorable-mention all-Big Ten.

Enter youth.

  • Sophomore Jonathan Lewis got a few (mostly unsuccessful) reps at QB last year, and either of two true freshmen (Artur Sitkowski or Jalen Chapman) could get reps. Sitkowski looks ready to challenge for the starting job, but starting a true freshman behind center isn’t exactly the most direct path to quick improvement.
  • Sophomore running back Raheem Blackshear was a brief bright spot last year, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Granted, most of his success came against Morgan State, but it’s something.
  • The receiving corps will be incredibly young. The four leading returning WRs are sophomores Hunter Hayek, Bo Melton, Everett Wormley, and Mohamed Jabbie, who combined to catch just 19 of 45 passes for 183 yards last year. Wormley is the only of the quartet who stands at least 6’0 tall (he’s listed at exactly 6’0), but redshirt freshman Shameen Jones is 6’1, and high-three-star freshmen Daevon Robinson and Zihir Lacewell are 6’4 and 6’3.
  • Center Michael Maietti started 10 games as a freshman, and center/guard Jonah Jackson started four as a sophomore. Sophomore Micah Clark is a former mid-four-star prospect, and sophomores Nick Krimin and Mike Lonsdorf were looking like potential starters by the end of spring.

It’s hard to be slightly optimistic about the passing game because of how awful it was last year and how much turnover it has to deal with. But Washington is the only senior in the receiving corps, and his backup, Nakia Griffin-Stewart, is probably the only junior. Whatever answers emerge, they’ll remain answers for a while.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse
Jon Hilliman
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports


2017 Rutgers defensive radar

The RU defense was projected to improve more than it did last year. With what they returned, the Scarlet Knights were supposed to push the top 40 in Def. S&P+ but ended up only 53rd.

But it’s hard to be too disappointed, considering they were without two key pieces (linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams and Blessuan Austin) and they were forced to compensate for that offense.

Perhaps in part because Ash and coordinator Jay Niemann — who’d fielded an attacking defense at NIU — knew that any failed risk would result in more points than their offense could match, Rutgers fielded a terribly passive front seven last year. The Knights were 125th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 105th in Adj. Sack Rate; they reacted pretty quickly, however, and still held opponents at or below their season averages. In the Knights’ four wins, they allowed only 15 points per game.

If a retooled line holds up, a well-seasoned back seven could dominate, even if Ash and Niemann still don’t feel good enough about the offense to go damn-the-torpedoes.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Indiana
Deonte Roberts
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Only one of last year’s top four tacklers returns up front, but depth was a relative strength there, at least. Ten linemen made at least one tackle for loss, and eight made at least nine tackles.

Returning end Kevin Wilkins was maybe RU’s best run defender, recording 5.5 non-sack TFLs, and senior tackle Jon Bateky was a heck of a gang tackler — he had just six solo tackles all season but made 27 assisted tackles. Throw in junior tackle Willington Previlon and a trio of sophomores (ends Elorm Lumor and CJ Onyechi and tackle Julius Turner), and it seems like RU should still be decent up front. But if one of these young defenders could develop a more disruptive streak (it bears mentioning that the eight plays Onyechi took part in stopping averaged just 1.8 yards per play), that could make a huge difference.

Beyond that, the Knights are set. Senior linebackers Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts return, Maddox-Williams is back from an August ACL tear, and sophomore Tyshon Fogg was getting major reps by the end of the year. This was more of a reactive linebacking corps last year, but Maddox-Williams and Fogg give RU more attacking options.

The backfield could be awesome. Almost 45 percent of opponents’ incompletions were due to either an interception or breakup (third in FBS) and despite the passive front seven, RU allowed just a 128.3 passer rating and 57 percent completion rate.

Three of last year’s primary DBs — corners Damon Hayes and Isaiah Wharton, safety Saquan Hampton — all return, as does corner Blessuan Austin, who was fourth in the Big Ten in passes defensed (15) in 2016 before injuring his knee last September.

[Since this preview was first posted, Rutgers dismissed safety K.J. Gray and linebacker Brendan DeVera amid an investigation into alleged credit card fraud, and redshirt freshman linebacker Syhiem Simmons left the team. The text of this posted has been updated.]

Despite the total lack of a pass rush (and the lack of Austin), RU still ranked 36th in Passing Downs S&P+ last fall. It would be disappointing if the Scarlet Knights weren’t at least top-30 in that category.

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Rutgers
Blessuan Austin
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Rutgers had a forgettable unit in 2017, and with special teams, forgettable ain’t bad. The Knights ranked between 59th and 80th in four of five efficiency categories and 63rd in Special Teams S&P+, and Justin Davidovicz ranked 29th in kickoff success rate as a freshman.

Unfortunately, Davidovicz and kick returner Raheem Blackshear are the only returnees. No one in this unit is irreplaceable, but with new pieces, you’re just as likely to move down as up.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Texas State 123 14.1 79%
8-Sep at Ohio State 1 -32.6 3%
15-Sep at Kansas 103 2.6 56%
22-Sep Buffalo 93 4.8 61%
29-Sep Indiana 58 -2.8 44%
6-Oct Illinois 99 7.0 66%
13-Oct at Maryland 80 -3.9 41%
20-Oct Northwestern 38 -7.1 34%
3-Nov at Wisconsin 12 -23.3 9%
10-Nov Michigan 10 -18.9 14%
17-Nov Penn State 8 -20.8 11%
24-Nov at Michigan State 11 -23.6 9%
Projected S&P+ Rk 84
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 119 / 29
Projected wins 4.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.8 (103)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 53 / 60
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / 4.1
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (60%, 81%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 3.8 (0.2)

When a third-year leap happens, it’s because a coach’s culture is in place, he’s got better depth on the two-deep, and he’s got his guys everywhere.

Ash has those things going for him, at least when it comes to the defense and the rushing offense.

The passing game’s lack of quality and continuity is still going to affix a pretty low ceiling, though. S&P+ isn’t designed to see third-year leaps coming, and its emphasis on passing game continuity means the offense is projected to remain terrible.

But with a defense that could improve to top-30 levels, the Knights are favored in four games and a small or moderate underdog in three more. Rutgers won four games last year with all of last year’s limitations, and it will take only a little bit of overachievement to threaten bowl eligibility.

Still, there’s minimal margin for error. Life in the Big Ten East assures that, especially with a cross-division trip to Wisconsin. RU is a significant underdog in five games, which means the Knights will have to almost sweep their remaining contests to go bowling.

I said last year that RU could become an honest-to-goodness Big Ten team in 2018. The defense should hold up its end of the bargain, at least.

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