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Rutgers Football: 2021 Scarlet Knights Season Preview and Prediction

Isaih Pacheco, Rutgers Scarlet Knights Football

Isaih Pacheco, Rutgers Scarlet Knights Football

After inheriting a Rutgers program that was riding a 21-game losing streak in Big Ten play, Greg Schiano knew there would be low expectations in his return as the Scarlet Knights head coach.

Rutgers was universally picked to finish last in the Big Ten in his first season but instead defied expectations with a road upset of Michigan State in its opener and wins at Purdue and at Maryland late in the year.

While a 3–6 record might've been disappointing to most fan bases, it was viewed as a colossal feat in New Jersey. And it only heightened expectations for Schiano in his second act at Rutgers.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Rutgers' Offense for 2021 

In three of the previous four years, Rutgers finished last in the Big Ten in scoring. But under offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson's direction in 2020, the Scarlet Knights ranked eighth in the 14-team league.

Rutgers scored at least 20 points in eight games after reaching the mark just 12 times in its first 52 games in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights were the fourth-most improved team in the nation offensively, averaging 13.4 more points per game than in 2019.

The two-deep in Rutgers' season finale returns virtually intact, including quarterback Noah Vedral. The Nebraska transfer seized the Scarlet Knights' marquee position in training camp, then went out and completed 61.5 percent of his passes in 2020. "He's really efficient at running our offense, and there's a lot that goes into it that you don't see in addition to throwing," Schiano says.

There are plenty of playmakers for Vedral to get the ball to in Gleeson's fast-paced spread offense, including running back Isaih Pacheco and wide receiver Bo Melton.

Pacheco will be Rutgers' primary ball carrier for the fourth straight season after ranking eighth in the Big Ten with 515 rushing yards.

Melton finally lived up to the billing as one of the top recruits from the Chris Ash era, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards (638), sixth in receptions (47) and third with nine total touchdowns.

Rutgers also retains its entire offensive line, including a pair of third-year starters in center Nick Krimin and left tackle Raiqwon O'Neal.

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Previewing Rutgers' Defense for 2021 

The Scarlet Knights disguised their defensive warts last season by turning teams over at an exceptionally high rate (their 19 turnovers gained were the nation's 18th-best tally) and by wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage (their 7.9 tackles for a loss per game ranked 11th nationally).

Rutgers boasts one of the Big Ten's best linebacker corps, headlined by Olakunle Fatukasi, the conference's leading tackler with 101 stops a year ago. After turning down the chance to be an early-round NFL Draft pick, Fatukasi figures to be a disruptive force at the weakside spot for the third straight year. Tyshon Fogg is another three-year starter who engineers the defense from his middle linebacker position. Fogg finished second on the team with 70 tackles last year.

Rutgers is equally deep in the secondary. Transfers Patrice Rene and Christian Braswell join Avery Young, Tre Avery and Max Melton to form a unit with a combined 69 starts. Young has started at corner in 30 of 33 games for Rutgers since his freshman year, but he could be moved to play alongside Christian Izien, a senior safety who tallied six takeaways over the final three games.

Rutgers' 21 sacks a year ago were the most for the program since joining the Big Ten in 2014. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith's unit appears primed to exceed that total thanks to the return of edge rushers Mike Tverdov (4.0 sacks) and Mohamed Toure (4.5 sacks). While Julius Turner is a proven nose tackle, the other defensive tackle spot will be up for grabs in training camp.

Previewing Rutgers' Specialists for 2021 

Rutgers will have an embarrassment of riches in the return game thanks to the return of Aron Cruickshank, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns en route to earning the Big Ten's Specialist of the Year honor, and the addition of Kansas State transfer Joshua Youngblood, who was the Big 12's top special teams performer in 2019.

The Scarlet Knights ranked eighth nationally with a 42.3 net punting average and should be just as strong thanks to the return of Adam Korsak, whose rugby-style punts pinned opponents inside their 20 a Big Ten-high 21 times in 2020.

After he left the school's soccer program to walk on to the football team in training camp last summer, Valentino Ambrosio seized the placekicker duty by drilling nine of his 11 field goals.

Final Analysis

Schiano needed five years in his previous stint at Rutgers to lead the Knights to a bowl game. He's not expecting it to take that long in his second go-around. Schiano has proven adept at using the transfer portal to restock the roster, and his first two recruiting classes have been promising. With 19 of 22 starters returning, Rutgers won't be sneaking up on anyone after tying Michigan and finishing ahead of Michigan State in the East Division standings.

"We'll have new players, but how do they phase in with the veteran players and how does the chemistry grow? That's harder to predict," Schiano says. "But I like the team overall and I like the way they work, which is a good first step."

National Ranking: 75

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(Isaih Pacheco photo by Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics)