While relaxing at the Jersey Shore this week, or whatever else people from actual Big Ten country do for fun during summer months, this content should keep you busy long enough to tell your significant other you are too busy reading to perform other more important tasks instead.
It’s a shame the conference is abolishing divisions, because Rutgers will never get a chance to play in their rightful place, the Big Ten West.
Well ... based on their philosophy more so than actual results. Rutgers has only won 13 conference games since they joined the Big Ten in 2014 mostly with a ground and pound, punt well, and win the turnover battle game plan. So first off, you’re welcome for those 66 wins spread amongst your rooting interests. Unfortunately for Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Purdue (unfortunately since RU is 2-0 against them) they won’t be able (barring a championship game appearance) to test their mettle against the following in 2024 ...
The Scarlet Knight defense has had varying degrees of success over the past decade, but boasts at minimum Big Ten middle of the pack position groups at all three levels in 2023. If you do find yourself trailing to Rutgers and have tackles with below average mobility, your quarterback may be terrorized. Michigan transfer Aaron Lewis returned to the Garden State to be closer to his ill mother and was over his head as a true freshman. By last season she saw her son become an impact player with 55 tackles (8.0 for loss), allegedly offered significant NIL money to go elsewhere. Across from him is Canadian import Wesley Bailey who is still learning run defense, but can get to the quarterback in obvious passing situations with raw athleticism.
Phil Jurkovec spurned the Big Ten thrice and got this back-to-back sack karma. They have Big Ten replacement level depth behind them at edge as well. On the interior, Minnesota transfer Mayan Ahanotu gets a little more credit than he deserves based on his pedigree and has some other options around him that have caused opponents some problems such as Kyonte Hamilton, with or without the cock-nose alignment. If they are on the field too much against teams that have the discipline to pound the rock or the ability to kill you with quick passes, they will break down like almost every other defense in college football.
Rutgers could be near the top of the conference in linebacker play in 2023, but is one injury away from being near the bottom. Rutgers went from the most experienced LBs in the Big Ten in 2021 to the least in 2022 when they could never comfortably play a 4-3 or even a 3-3-5 due to depth issues. The Scarlet Knights possess two quality Big Ten level players in Deion Jennings and Tyreem Powell as their returning starters. In addition Mohamed Toure, cousin of Kemoko, led the team in sacks in 2020 and 2021 and is now considered fully healthy after missing all of 2022.
Former four star recruit Moses Walker also returns from injury and could be an impact player. Defensive Coordinator Joe Harasymiak was put in some terrible situations including the game losing touchdown to Nebraska and two fourth and goal conversions from the one yard line by Michigan with walk-on freshmen linebackers in the game for those crucial snaps.
Defensive back is the one position group on the entire team that is near the top of the Big Ten. Despite losses of both multi-year starting safeties in Christian Izien and Avery Young, Rutgers still has plenty of safeties with experience, most notably Desmond Igbinosun (55 tackles) who took a lot of steps forward even if he is unfortunately most well known for the trucking he got against Nebraska and Shaquan Loyal (27 tackles) who played in the 4-2-5 Big Nickel looks. They also added Flip Dixon from Minnesota because when three of your top five tacklers on the team are safeties, there is no amount of depth that can make you feel too safe.
At corner, they lost Christian Braswell whose pick six against Indiana was played endlessly upon his 6th round draft selection back in April, even though Max Melton was considered a better NFL prospect and elected to return to school. Kessawn Abraham received accolades in the 2021 season but lost snaps to Robert Longerbeam. They will be pressed for reps by an infusion of two guys who look to bring some MACtion to the Big Ten this fall in Eric Rogers (NIU) and Charles Amankwaa (Akron).
Rutgers loses arguably the nation’s best punter in Adam Korsak, so they will be dropping down the PISS leaderboard this year. He hand-picked his successor though in Flynn Appleby who was a professional Australian Rules Football player. So there is reason to still expect a level that would not embarrass the conference both in terms of kick quality and tackling.
Welshmen Nigel Gruff Irishman Jude McAtamney was inconsistent at placekicker and is being pushed by local star Jai Patel.
The Scarlet Knights have also been statistically the best long snapping team in the nation dating back to at least 2003 starting with Clark Harris’s tenure but don’t return a starter for the first time since 2014. That will jinx it, I’m sure. At return man, former Badger Aron Cruickshank is finally out of eligibility, so the question is whether Melton is allowed to return kicks and/or punts or not.
Kick and punt blocking gets its own paragraph since it is so important for Rutgers to stay competitive. The emphasis remains in New Jersey, so you would expect everyone knows this and should just go max protection punt against Rutgers and kick high/short. Even Michigan. Nebraska saved a TD at least. Forcing a fair catch even if the Rutgers offense has to go a few less yards is way less dangerous than momentum shifting punt blocks or returns.
Rutgers has faced the classic chicken and egg problem dating back to at least 2018 with when Kyle Flood’s last recruits on the offensive line exhausted their eligibility. That was when incumbent starter Giovanni Rescigno (most Jersey name ever despite being from Michigan) after leading the team to three conference wins the year before was replaced by true freshman and future Illinois signal caller Art Sitkowski. Yea, reminiscing for anything Kyle Flood is not where you want to be. So ... is it the quarterback or is it the offensive line?
Let’s start with the offensive line since this is the BIG Ten after all. Knowing that they needed to upgrade the offensive line in the short term to buy time for what is a pretty deep group of freshmen, the Knights went to the portal prior to last year and brought in four transfer offensive linemen who became starters at three of the five spots. Unfortunately, this turnover caused both left tackles with experience to take their talents to more southern coastal beaches: Raiqwon O’Neal (UCLA, started all 13 games at LT on a 9-4 team) and backup Brendan Bordner (FAU, 2nd team All CUSA at LT). So for the first time since 2010, Rutgers had a complete turnstile at left tackle in pass protection too often. Rutgers got one below average season out of Willie Tyler who joined Louisville as his 5th college stop. Tyler and Minnesota transfer right guard Curtis Dunlap to their credit were above average run blockers who ate up second level defenders when given the opportunity. Other than Tyler and the team’s best lineman J.D. DiRenzo everyone else who saw action is back, including Hollin Pierce who could move to left tackle and maybe Reggie Sutton at some point who was the team’s best lineman in 2021 before a catastrophic knee injury. None of that scares anybody in the conference.
The real key to the whole thing is which of the seven OL members of the 2022 is ready to play as a redshirt freshman and leapfrog the returnees? If none are ready, there’s only so much NFL vet offensive line coach Pat Flaherty can do.
With the quarterbacks, both showed flashes, but the level of play was simply not good enough in any facet of the game. Despite the lack of production, true freshman Ajani Sheppard is the only scholarship newcomer. No one was brought in from the portal to offset the loss of Noah Vedral who missed most of the season with a hand injury. To recap, Gavin Wimsatt is the returning starter. The former four-star recruit is as fast and powerful as former Husker Jammal Lord (6’2-6’3 and a solid 220 pounds) though not quite as agile, and not any more accurate. Wimsatt’s presumed floor as a thrower is AJ Bush, but he is nowhere close to the 54% completion Bush had at Illinois.
If Wimsatt is the man again, new offensive coordinator and Big Ten veteran Kirk Ciarrocca needs to move him around to force defenses to play multiple angles in the pass game as well as respect the scramble. He has a cannon of an arm, but Gavin is best when receivers have more than a step on their defender since his ball placement is a work in progress.
As the only healthy scholarship quarterback for a long stretch of the season, Evan Simon was seemingly doing anything to avoid hits in what appeared more of a coaching move than his inability to absorb a little punishment. Simon’s ceiling in the right situation would be something similar to Brian Lewerke (remember these stats Spartan fans) in his ability to complete the routine plays through the air and surprise with an occasional scramble. It’s basically like Simon was playing quarterback for Iowa but without the NFL quality line, tight ends, and defense. Instead, despite being the only QB in 2022 to throw for 300 yards against the Hawkeyes under tremendous pressure (see below), he lost his spot after being unable to rally the team to victory against Nebraska when they kept stalling out on the edge of field goal range.
Will Wimsatt or Simon get help from the skill positions?
The Wide Receiver position may be better in 2023 with two intriguing transfers, but like the LB spot, lost a ton of experience and is one injury away from bottom of the barrel. The Scarlet Knights have extremely poor depth after losing five of their top six receivers heading into last year. Of the returnees, Isaiah Washington had his worst year last year, while former four-star Chris Long moved from cornerback to third team receiver to starting in a very short period of time. Long was running around open a lot but could not be found usually. When the ball entered his vicinity, Long made some circus catches. JaQuae Jackson (D2 All-American) and Naseim Brantley (53 catches, 893 yards, 9 TD at Western Illinois) will probably both start and are tall enough to play some basketball as possession receivers at minimum. In both cases, it’s a massive step up in competition. Speaking of which, there could be true freshmen who also get some burn, most of which would be more likely to make an impact in other positions at programs that didn’t need them at wideout.
Running backs are Big Ten average with Kyle Monangai (ran for 162 yards against Michigan State) and Aaron Young (51 career receptions) who can get some yards with adequate blocking. One home run hitter is Al-Shadee Salaam who had a hand injury that caused him problems securing the ball in the second half of the year. Then there’s former four-star recruit Sam Brown who single handedly won the game against Indiana and probably should have against Nebraska before a season ending foot injury. There is potential for elite play if Brown is healthy and even better than last year, with passable depth at minimum if he’s not.
The true wildcard is the Tight End position where Swiss army knife Johnny Langan was the only real contributor in 2022. Langan is at his best when used in a variety of roles, rather than pure inline blocking or running two yard out routes on first down. Victor Konopka and Mike Higgins are tall former basketball players who have upside the team really needs. To buy time for them to round out their skillsets, the program did get a commitment from Shawn Bowman who starred at Maine in both facets and could be an NFL player. Despite repeated attempts to reverse the trend in coaching and personnel, Rutgers has not had above average contributions from the tight end spot since 2014, Tyler Kroft’s last season on the banks. If they show promise, we could see a situation like the Iowa approach against the Knights last year when the Hawkeyes won the game with just one catch for five yards from their entire wide receiver corps.
For Rutgers to be in that five or six win range, it comes down to the combination of QB play and offensive coaching.
To his credit, Simon seemed to grasp better than anybody what former offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson was trying to do, but like Gleeson struggled to balance it with Schiano’s mistake-averse approach. Gleeson ran an offense that was predicated on going against a defense’s tendency, whereas Schiano prefers a run on first and second down mixed with occasional deep shots downfield (as long as you don’t turn the ball over.) Gleeson wanted the ball out quick, but Schiano doesn’t like to risk interceptions on early downs so against teams like Temple and Wagner (both wins), Simon seemed to be throwing the ball away almost on purpose unless his receiver had no defender anywhere near him. Wimsatt had a similar fate when his game is predicated on the ability to run, but the staff feared he would re-injure himself and forced him to purely pocket pass without the needed accuracy. And then there’s basic coaching that resulted in this, breakdown courtesy of RU in VA.
Personally, I think the aggressive nature and no fear attitude the team had in 2020 was correct when you are as undermanned as Rutgers was and is. Despite the wide open approach and a weaker defense, that team only lost one game by more than two possessions (Ohio State of course). In fact, that was how Schiano built the team to prominence in the early 2000s. It wasn’t until they had the horses that the pound the ball, milk the clock, rely on the defense was successful against legit opponents. If the opposition has the superior talent, you need to be the aggressor which Schiano understands on defense and why his teams have so much more success than Chris Ash at RU on that side of the ball. At Ohio State it was the reverse because they always have the talent advantage, so play safe cover 2, read and react defense can work. 2023 Rutgers has the defense to make some plays, but likely is not elite enough to carry the team on their own.
On offense, balancing accurate self-scouting without compromising the long-term vision is difficult, especially at a place like Rutgers. Ciarrocca has experience with this task under the biggest control freaks in the conference having previously worked with Schiano and his disciple P.J. Fleck. So if anyone can figure it out under these circumstances it’s probably Kirk who received a hefty payday to do so, even though his teams at other stops needed a full (2013 WMU and 2017 Minnesota) or at least half season (2020 Penn State) to get things right. The question is, what if that level is not achieved until 2025 when the schedule doesn’t include the four Big Ten East Blue Bloods and the offensive line is loaded with veterans?
This team is probably between three and five overall wins (1-2 in Big Ten play), though the offense could be so challenged, it ends up way worse than that. The discouraging thing is that the losses have been less competitive over time culminating in the season ending dud at Maryland, which is one major reason fan confidence has dwindled. That said, Rutgers has won three conference games in 2014, 2017, & 2020, so that means they are due for three this year, right? Right?!?!?!?!?!?
Week 1 against Northwestern is a little like Daytona, in that it is both teams’ Super Bowl to start off the season. Rutgers laid a complete egg in their last meeting, and all paths to bowl eligibility and continued recruiting momentum include beating the Wildcats for the first time since 1991.
Did The Big Ten get it right by giving Rutgers one protected rivalry game, that being Maryland?
This poll is closed
No, should have been Penn State
Does it matter?