Rutgers won two games in head coach Chris Ash’s debut but lost 10 others by an average margin of nearly 31 points per contest. The Scarlet Knights went winless in Big Ten play, as they were shut out four times by division opponents. A bowl game is probably too lofty a goal in Ash’s second season, but with 13 starters returning this team should be able to show some improvement. How many wins that results in will depend on the how Rutgers navigates another tough schedule that besides the Big Ten East gauntlet of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan also includes Washington and Nebraska.
Previewing Rutgers Football’s Offense for 2017
New offensive coordinator Jerry Kill — the former Minnesota head coach and 2014 Big Ten Coach of the Year — will now look to work his magic with a unit that finished last nationally in total offense and next to last in scoring. Quarterback Gio Rescigno, who showed signs of promise starting the final five games, will open as the starter, but highly touted true freshman Jonathan Lewis will be fast-tracked into a prominent role. Louisville graduate transfer Kyle Bolin will join the competition this fall.
Running back Robert Martin (a team-leading 625 rushing yards last year) and Josh Hicks give Rutgers a proven 1-2 punch at the position, with Miami graduate transfer Gus Edwards providing backup help while also handling the new H-back role (along with junior college tight end transfer Jerome Washington).
Skill talent abounds at wide receiver with the return of Janarion Grant, a game-changing threat who missed the final eight games of the 2016 season due to injury. Jawuan Harris had a breakout debut season, leading the team in receptions (39) and receiving yards (481), and the addition of Arkansas transfer Damon Mitchell gives Kill three quality front-line receivers.
Repairing a scarred offensive line from a year ago will be a challenge, although there’s returning experience in left tackle Tariq Cole, left guard Dorian Miller and right tackle Kamaal Seymour. The staff is excited about the arrival of true freshmen Micah Clark and Sam Vretman.
Previewing Rutgers Football’s Defense for 2017
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With a defensive front that featured three fifth-year starters last season, Rutgers still finished 116th nationally in scoring defense and 126th against the run. But rebuilding that unit hasn’t diminished expectations for overall improvement, with the back seven returning intact. Fifth-year senior nose tackle Sebastian Joseph will anchor the line, but it’s the play of oft-injured fifth-year senior defensive end Kemoko Turay that holds the key up front. Turay can be a disruptive force when he’s on his game.
The struggles at linebacker a year ago were expected with three new starters. The promise shown by Tyreek Maddox-Williams, after he was thrown into the starting mix as a true freshman, gives the Scarlet Knights a rising star on the outside. But the unit needs to be better against the run and account for more tackles for a loss; as a team the Knights had only 66 tackles for a loss in 12 games, 12th in the Big Ten.
Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton, juniors who have combined for 45 career starts, are entrenched at the corner spots. Kiy Hester (strong safety) and Saquan Hampton (free safety) battled through injuries as starters last season. They’re being counted on to fill bigger roles now.
Previewing Rutgers Football’s Specialists for 2017
Grant, back from a broken ankle, is one of the nation’s top returners, having already tied the NCAA career record for touchdown returns (five on kickoffs, three on punts). Punter Michael Cintron set a Big Ten record with 95 punts, but his 37.9-yard average prompted the coaching staff to bring in graduate transfer Ryan Anderson, the nation’s top Division III punter. Placekicker David Bonagura was 10-of-14 on field goals but lacked range (with a long of 41 yards).
Improvement is the goal after a historically bad season — maybe doubling the win total from two to four. Having Washington on the schedule along with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Nebraska is daunting, but getting Purdue and Illinois as crossover conference games helps. The addition of Kill should have a significant impact as well. No bowl is in the offing, but neither is being shut out a combined 224–0 by Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State, as was the case last season.