The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 73 Rutgers.
Previewing Rutgers’ Offense for 2014:
New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen — the former Maryland head coach — inherits a wealth of experience and one major decision: Should inconsistent senior Gary Nova be the quarterback to lead Rutgers into the Big Ten or should it be an unproven newcomer? Nova made 23 consecutive starts before being benched for the final three games last season. Redshirt freshman Chris Laviano will challenge Nova for the position through the summer and into preseason camp.
Beyond that, the offense is set. All five offensive line starters return, with four-year starter Kaleb Johnson anchoring the unit at left guard after briefly considering entering the NFL Draft.
The running back tandem of Paul James (881 rushing yards in nine games) and Justin Goodwin (521 rushing yards as a true freshman last year) also returns, along with fullback Michael Burton.
Tight end Tyler Kroft, who caught a team-leading 43 passes last season, has All-Big Ten potential. The wide receiver spots will have a new look, but Leonte Carroo (nine TD catches and a team-leading 17.1-yard average) flashed star potential before being injured at the end of last year. Slot receiver Ruhann Peele (28 catches) will concentrate strictly on offense this season after also being forced to start at cornerback a year ago. Andre Patton, a sophomore, has offered hints of being a No. 1 receiver.
Previewing Rutgers’ Defense for 2014:
A year after the team set school records for total yards allowed (5,366) and passing yards allowed (4,056), there’s a new defensive coordinator, Joe Rossi. Philosophically, there won’t be a noticeable change, but Rossi has already left his imprint on the unit with a bold personnel move. Steve Longa, a Freshman All-American last season, and senior Kevin Snyder will switch positions. Longa’s speed is better suited for the weak side, while Snyder’s size makes him an ideal fit at middle linebacker.
The secondary, which was roughed up a year ago, offers Rossi his biggest challenge after seven different players started at corner — including two true freshmen in the same game — during the 2013 season. Most of the young players now have experience after their trial by fire. Chief among them are Anthony Cioffi, expected to handle one starting corner spot, Delon Stephenson and Nadir Barnwell. All three were forced to play as true freshmen last year. Three-year starter Lorenzo Waters will lead the unit from his strong safety spot.
The defensive line will undergo some change, though tackle Darius Hamilton and end Djwany Mera are returning starters. A key to the line will be the play at nose tackle, where senior Kenneth Kirksey will share time with promising redshirt freshman Sebastian Joseph. Julian Pinnix-Odrick is being counted on to provide a pass-rushing presence at the other end spot.
Previewing Rutgers’ Specialists for 2014:
Kyle Federico overcame inconsistency and injuries to establish himself as the starting placekicker, a role the junior will handle again after going 12-of-18 on field goals last season. But there’s uncertainty at punter, where junior Joe Roth appears to have the advantage despite never appearing in a game. The return game is in game-breaking hands once again after Janarion Grant dazzled as a true freshman last year on both punts and kickoffs.
Rutgers welcomes back a solid group of returning starters, but there is uncertainty at the all-important quarterback position, and the schedule is the most difficult in school history. The defense, torched by teams from the American Athletic Conference in 2013, must show significant improvement. There is a chance Rutgers will be better in 2014 but fail to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010 and only the second time since ’04.