The Rutgers Scarlet Knights took a step forward in Chris Ash's second season. After a 2-10 record in his debut, Rutgers doubled its win total to four and won three Big Ten games. Ash has the program on the right track, but improving on last year's four wins won't be easy. John McNulty is the program's ninth offensive coordinator in the past nine years, and he inherits a group that averaged only 13.8 points in Big Ten games last fall. Uncertainty surrounds the quarterback position once again, and the receiving corps lacks proven playmakers. After giving up 37.5 points per game in 2016, the defense cut that total to 28.3 last year. With eight starters back, this unit is the strength of the team. Ash has Rutgers trending up, but this team is at least a year away from a bowl.
Previewing Rutgers Football's Offense for 2018
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There's a critical question facing new offensive coordinator John McNulty as he tries to inject life into a unit that was next to last nationally in total offense a year ago: Does he stay with experience at quarterback or hand the keys over to a talented true freshman? Senior Gio Rescigno has been largely ineffective during his 12 starts the past two seasons, throwing for just 517 yards a year ago. The spring arrival of four-star recruit Artur Sitkowski, a strong-armed 6'5", 215-pounder, could tempt McNulty to believe the future is now.
With graduate transfer Jonathan Hilliman (638 yards rushing yards for Boston College last season) and rising star Raheem Blackshear, who displayed big-play ability as a freshman, the running game will be solid. The return of three offensive line starters, including tackles Tariq Cole and Kamaal Seymour, should result in improvement for the unit.
Outside of NFL-caliber tight end Jerome Washington, there's mostly uncertainty with a young receiving group. Hunter Hayek, with eight catches, is the leading returning receiver among the wideouts, though fellow sophomore Bo Melton (four catches for 83 years) appears poised for a breakout year.
Previewing Rutgers Football's Defense for 2018
If the defense is to carry this team to a bowl game, much depends on the back seven -- as promising a group as Rutgers has had in a while. Weak-side linebacker Trevor Morris (a team-leading 118 tackles last year) is seeking his third straight 100-tackle season, while middle linebacker Deonte Roberts is coming off a 104-tackle junior year. The return of Tyreek Maddox-Williams from an ACL injury and the emergence of sophomore Tyshon Fogg make this is a sold, active unit. The secondary is brimming with talent too, with the Knights featuring three Big Ten-quality cornerbacks in four-year starter Isaiah Wharton, Blessuan Austin (returning from an ACL tear that limited him to four starts) and Damon Hayes. Returning starter Saquan Hampton and proven backup K.J. Gray make strong safety a strength.
The key is what happens up front after losing the sack leader and a three-year starting nose tackle. Kevin Wilkins returns to one end spot, with sophomore Elorm Lumor, who made three starts last year, manning the other one. Jon Bateky will again handle one tackle spot with sophomore Julius Turner taking over at nose tackle. Staying healthy is a priority for this group since there's little in the way of proven depth.
Previewing Rutgers Football's Specialists for 2018
Australian Adam Korsak appears to be the answer to the void at punter created by the departure of All-Big Ten selection Ryan Anderson, with sophomore Justin Davidovicz adding placekicking responsibilities to the kickoff chores he handled last year. The return game, once a Rutgers strength, was nonexistent a year ago and needs to show dramatic improvement.
A bowl game is the hope for Chris Ash's third season -- a goal he is not shying away from. But if bowl eligibility does happen, it will likely be achieved early. Six of the first seven opponents Rutgers faces were a combined 20-52 last season, including three that lost 10 games or more. The closing five-game stretch of Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State -- a combined 52-14 last year -- isn't conducive to making bowl headway. In the end, it all comes down to offensive improvement and the play at quarterback for this team.