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Rutgers Scarlet Knights 2016 Spring Football Preview

Janarion Grant

Janarion Grant

Few programs were in need of a change in leadership the way Rutgers was. Kyle Flood landed himself a three-game suspension last season from the university in what was a rough season for the Scarlet Knights, their second as a Big Ten member. Now in year three of its new conference home, Rutgers has a new coach in Chris Ash, who comes to town after being a defensive coordinator for Ohio State.

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If Ash sees just a fraction of the success Tom Herman had in his first year as a head coach after leaving Ohio State, then Rutgers will appear to be in very solid hands. With spring practices here, Rutgers hopes to establish a new path for the program as Ash leads the way in his first spring as a head coach.

5 Storylines to Watch in Rutgers’ Spring Practice

1. New coach brings breath of fresh air

Any time a new coach comes into the program, spring gives everyone a first-hand look at just how his program may operate. Ash is an unknown in this category as this is his first head coaching job, but the anticipation to see how the former Ohio State assistant runs things is reason enough to watch Rutgers with great interest this spring.

2. Improving the defense and plugging some holes

Given Ash’s defensive background, it stands to reason Rutgers will soon see improvement in the defense moving forward. This spring the defensive line is at least stable going into the spring with what is returning, but there are holes to fill in the middle and back of the defensive playing field. Three starting linebacker positions are open for competition and the secondary has been in need of a drastic makeover for some time.  The secondary was full of youth last season, so another year to grow could benefit Rutgers in this area.

3. Is Chris Laviano still the best option at quarterback in new offense?

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While Ash focuses his coaching efforts on improving the defensive side of things, there is some work to do on the offense as well. The first question that may need to be answered by Ash and offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer is whether or not Laviano will be the best option to run the new no-huddle system. Laviano led the offense last year but will have to earn the starting nod against Hayden Rettig and Giovanni Rescigno. Don’t count on a starter being named this spring, but pay attention to how each handles the new offense.

4. How will Janarion Grant be utilized?

Rutgers is lacking in playmakers outside of Grant. While his impact as a wide receiver was limited last season (35 rec., 352 yds., TD), Grant made the most of his contributions on special teams with three kickoff return touchdowns and a punt return touchdown in 2015. He could start to see more opportunities on offense this year as Rutgers looks to open things up offensively. Given his big-play ability, it will be intriguing to see if Rutgers can find ways to use Grant more in the passing game.

5. How well did offseason conditioning pay off?

Once Ash and his staff got into town, the work in the gym started. One very noticeable negative about Rutgers since joining the Big Ten is the condition of the players. The difference between Rutgers and some of the better teams in the Big Ten, especially when hitting the road, was clear as day. A transition from the American Athletic Conference to the Big Ten was expected to come with some growing pains as Rutgers catches up in a number of ways, but the focus on weight training and conditioning this offseason has been a key storyline to follow. Now we will see if it has helped this spring.

Pre-Spring Rutgers Outlook in the Big Ten

Even a vastly improved Rutgers team would be expected to be nowhere higher than the middle of the pack in the Big Ten East. Lumped in the same division as mighty Ohio State, defending conference champion Michigan State, a surging Michigan program, not to mention a Penn State team that has recruited well and is crawling out of the sanction phase, Rutgers has a long way to go before contemplating a dream scenario that has the Scarlet Knights playing for a Big Ten title. Reaching bowl eligibility, however, may not be far off at all.

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The schedule will throw some major hurdles on the road (Washington, Ohio State, Michigan State), but reaching six wins is not out of the question if the new offense takes flight and the defense improves at all. Six wins may be the ceiling for Rutgers though, but just getting through the season with a new mentality and a plan for success down the line should be the primary focus.

— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.