The “birthplace of college football” has been reborn in 2014.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights, 144 years after taking center stage in the first collegiate football game, are finally back in the spotlight with their move to the Big Ten conference. Unfortunately, that light may be a bit too harsh for RU this season.
Rutgers’ season undoubtedly rests on the arm of QB Gary Nova, whose play is closely tied to the Knights’ record. Since becoming a starter in 2011, when Nova finishes a game with a passer rating of 100 or better, the Scarlet Knights have lost just three times: once in 2011, once in 2012 and once in 2013. However, after tossing 13 touchdown passes and three interceptions in RU’s first five games last season, the former New Jersey prep star imploded, surrendering six interceptions with just four touchdowns before being removed as the starter. There is some hope, however, that QB guru and ex-Maryland Terrapins head coach Ralph Friedgen could solve the senior’s issues in his first season as the Knights’ offensive coordinator.
While their QB’s play is the reason for concern in the passing game, the question marks about RU’s backfield aren’t due to poor performance. Junior running back Paul James was well on his way to a monster season in 2013 (881 yards) before injuries cost him a chance at 1,000-plus rushing yards. If the former walk-on can stay on the field, he provides Rutgers with the type of workhorse back made for the Big Ten. True, sophomore Justin Goodwin (521 rushing yards) proved he was more than capable in James’ place last season as the feature back and small back Desmon Peoples should bring a change of pace, as well.
Rutgers is certainly going to miss NFL-bound WR Brandon Coleman‘s unique combination of length and big-play potential, even if he wasn’t utilized enough last season. Sophomore Carlton Agudosi, however, is an intriguing prospect at 6-foot-6 and Leonte Carroo, the Knights’ top returning receiver (478 yards), is a 1,000-yard threat when he’s healthy. Ruhann Peele (281 yards) is the projected starter in the slot, but true sophomore Janarion Grant, who made a name for himself last season in the kick-return game, will also get playing time. Tight end Tyler Kroft should be one of the Big Ten’s best at his position after hauling in 43 passes for 573 yards in 2013.
The Scarlet Knights return all five of their 2013 starters on the line, but also feature talented, young second-stringers who could see the field in Brandon Arcidiacono, Ryan Brodie and J.J. Denman.
Darius Hamilton, son of former New York Giants star Keith Hamilton, should emerge into a star this season (48 tackles, 11.5 for loss in 2013), despite concerns of his size limiting him against Big Ten offensive lines. He will be joined by tackle Djwany Mera (34 tackles, 5.5 for loss), Kenneth Kirksey and sophomore Quanzell Lambert, with Julian Pinnix-Odrick and David Milewski also providing the potential for productive play.
While the Knights were stout against the run last season — allowing just 1,310 rushing yards on 3.1 yards per carry — RU’s pass defense was uncharacteristically awful, allowing 31 touchdowns after surrendering just 40 in the previous three seasons combined. Seniors Lorenzo Waters (62 tackles) and Gareef Glashen (41 tackles) bring some much-needed leadership at strong safety and corner, respectively, while sophomores Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi return as much wiser players at corner after getting thrown into the fire in 2013. Ian Thomas, who is back with the Knights after a mid-season decision to pursue a baseball career didn’t pan out, could be a good player this season if his early 2013 play is any indication. Either Jonathan Aiken or Delon Stephenson will man the other safety spot.
At linebacker, Rutgers returns two starters and a key reserve in Steve Longa (123 tackles), Kevin Snyder (96 tackles, 7.5 for loss) and Quentin Gause (53 tackles, 8.5 for loss), with Longa and Snyder switching spots in 2014 in a move designed to take advantage of Longa’s athleticism and pass rush ability.
The Knights will kick off their season with a tough non-conference game against Pac-12 foe Washington State in Seattle and will also travel to Annapolis to take on Navy, which is not a guaranteed win. Home games against Howard and Tulane will be layups.
Rutgers really got a tough draw with their cross-over games, as they will have to play top West division squads in Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Simply said, Rutgers’ bowl chances look slim with this schedule.