With Gary Nova off to the NFL and The Fridge off to semi-retirement, there are a few interesting subplots in the 2015 version of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Let's take a look at three personnel files that could shape the season for the State University of New Jersey.
Year: Redshirt Sophomore
2014 Stats: 11/28, 107 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 64.2 Rat, 7 Rushes, 69 Yards, 46 Long
Laviano is the great unknown. While technically still in a battle with heralded recruit Hayden Rettig, he is the presumptive starter for the Scarlet Knights in 2015. With both Gary Turnova and Gary Supernova graduating, the QB position is wide open for the first time in (more or less) 4 years; an eternity in college football.
Looking back to 2014, Laviano look terrible. I mean, terrible. In all my years of watching competitive football, I've never seen a quarterback at any level look that uncomfortable in the pocket. While he came off the bench in tough situations each time, he looked twitchy, confused, and jumpy. The white-knuckle results were predictably underwhelming and went a long way towards silencing the "Bench Gary" vocal minority.
The one glimpse of potential came in a tough game against Nebraska, where nothing was going right. Flushed from the pocket, Laviano ripped off a 46-yard run down the sideline, moving with sudden athleticism and providing a hint that maybe there was an athlete under the nerves.
Flash forward to 2015 and it looks like being thrown to the fire has payed major dividends for the young signal caller. Throughout the offseason, while everyone talked a mean game about Hayden Rettig and his cannon arm, the coaches raved about Laviano's experience, decision-making and overall play. In the spring game, we saw it. Big time.
Laviano was decisive, accurate and deadly on the perimeter. No running bootlegs or scrambling under phantom pressure. Laviano aggressively pushed the ball downfield with a lightning-quick release while staying calm in the pocket, stepping up when needed, and delivering strike after strike to a shell-shocked Rutgers defense. This wasn't a "mobile quarterback" scrambling outside the hashes and heaving it downfield. This was a precision deconstruction of the defense on all levels.
Still, questions remain. Is Laviano that good or is the Rutgers defense that bad? Laviano is one of the highest rated quarterbacks ever to play on the banks. Will that potential translate to the field? What will happen when he gets his first taste of an overmatched Rutgers offensive line being shredded by the elite defenses of the Big Ten? Can Laviano hold off blue chip recruit Hayden Rettig through training camp?
We'll find out very early in the season. This revelation will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this iteration of the Scarlet Knights.
Position: Offensive Coordinator
Weight: 175 (when he played QB at Kent State)
2014 Role: WR Coach
Notable Coaching Experience: Denver Broncos QB Coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offensive Assistant, Minnesota Graduate Assistant
While Laviano will be pulling the trigger, Ben McDaniels may have a bigger impact on the offense at large. At first glance, it looks like there should be little difference on offense between 2014 and 2015. McDaniels - brother to Pats Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels - served under outgoing OC Ralph Friedgen in the same pro style system with a largely retained coaching staff.
From a recent NJ.com article:
"In coaching, when you get the opportunity to coach with guys you have a lot of respect for and can learn from, you jump at those chance," McDaniels said last August. "Ralph was a big part of piece when it came to why I was excited about (the job). He can coach every position on the field. He has 40-plus years of coaching experience. When you have the opportunity to coach with a guy like that, you can't do anything but learn on a daily basis."
However, there are subtle differences that may hint at a fundamental shift away from Rutgers' pure pro style attack to a more multiple set reminiscent of the offense run in Denver. With past Rutgers offenses relying heavily on a fullback and Ray Ransom Loves Brian Leonard Versatility in Blocking, Rushing, and Receiving Fullback of the Year Award-winner Michael Burton off to the NFL, it seemed there was a great opportunity for Jacob Kraut, the top fullback in the nation for his recruiting year, to step in as a 4-year starter. However, whispers of the fullback being de-emphasized in spring ball, along with Kraut's transfer out of the program may signal a new direction.
Likewise, it sounds like more motion is in the cards, with NJ.com's Dan Duggan breaking down a few interviews with players:
Most of the tweaks involve the alignment of players. McDaniels shuffled players all over the formation during spring practice, with tight ends lining up in the backfield and running backs motioning out wide.
"A little bit of tweaks that I like, especially moving guys in different spots," senior receiver Leonte Carroo said of the differences between Friedgen and McDaniels. "As far as receiver, placing receivers like myself in the slot and things like that. It's been fun so far. I love the offense. It's not too much different from Coach Friedgen, but just some little tweaks."
One thing you have to love about McDaniels is his energy and his attention to detail. Last season, he was the first to huddle with Nova after a series to emphatically break down what the defense was doing. In practice, he frequently seen sprinting around the field, working intensely with players to rapidly discuss nuances before moving onto the next drill. Former receiver TJ Johnson called him a "Technique Freak" (incidentally the greatest nickname ever).
As with the rest of the offense, this season should be an exciting one. Hopefully McDaniels will stick around for a few years to cement his legacy as a young, innovative coach before cashing in on a new contract at Rutgers when the Big Ten full share is realized. In the short term though, if spring ball was any indication, the new look of the Rutgers offense could mirror that of its leader. High octane, high intensity, aggressive.
Year: Redshirt Sophomore
2014 Stats: 26 Tackles, 8.5 TFL, 7.5 Sacks, 3 Blocked Kicks
Kemoko Turay is going to be one of the most fun players to watch in college football, let alone on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Incredible athleticism, great hustle and a humble demeanor make him an easy player to root for, especially given his Jersey roots. Great production in his Redshirt Freshman season was notable, but what's incredible is that it was only his second season of competitive football ever! The guy played one season of high school ball, amazed the Rutgers coaches at a camp, and committed to the school he knew he wanted to go to before anyone in the country found out about his X-Men-level physical gifts.
One of the most fun parts about watching Turay play is that he impacts the game in so many ways. As a 3rd down rush specialist, he's involved in every play, getting sacks, pressures or doubles on almost every passing down. When he arrives, he brings violence to the hit and then walks away like a stone cold badass. How awesome is that?
On special teams, he has a gift for spotting and timing the ball, leading the nation with 3 blocked kicks. Did we mention it was only his second year playing organized football?
Finally, at the end of the season, we started to see the light come on with is run defense. To whit, the best play of the year for Kemoko may have been this simple run stuff at the end of the Maryland game to secure the biggest comeback win in Rutgers' century-plus of intercollegiate football. If Turay can stay on the field for more than just passing downs, he has a chance to take his game to level never before seen on the banks.
Between the arm (Laviano), the brain (McDaniels), and the body (Turay), this Rutgers team could be special. With question marks up and down the roster, it's going to be essential for these three to be on the top of their game if this edition of Rutgers football wants to be a memorable one.
WEDNESDAY - Rutgers Potluck
THURSDAY - Wild Card: "We're Halfway There..."
FRIDAY - Self Hate: "Are You Rutgers?" by Sportsthodoxy's Richard Dansky