The news that Rutgers was joining the Big Ten was pretty much met with derision or bewilderment by most. Frankly, it was difficult to see a football reason for the Knights to join the Big Ten, even if it might help draw a little attention to the conference in the New York market. Certainly, Rutgers would struggle in the Big Ten, right?
Well, that didn't exactly happen. With former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen taking over as offensive coordinator, the Knights offense improved. They weren't going to challenge in the Big Ten's east division, but they still improved enough finish 8-5 and get to a bowl game. And Rutgers debut in the Big Ten against Penn State was the most watched football game in New York City that day.
So hey... maybe Jim Delany knew what he was doing. Well, for year one anyway. Year two might be another matter entirely. Friedgen stepped down as offensive coordinator to be a "special consultant"; at age 67, he simply wasn't interested in continuing to put in 18 hour days as an assistant coach. He'll still be available to review game plans and discuss strategy; he's just not going to be a daily contributor to the program.
That's going to be a challenge with the need to replace a four year starter at quarterback in Gary Nova. Two sophomores are battling for the job: Chris Laviano (who replaced an injured Nova in the second half last year in Lincoln) and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig. Laviano only completed 11 of 28 passes last season for 107 yards and an interception, while Rettig sat out the last two seasons. Both guys are traditional pro-style quarterbacks. Laviano has a slight edge in experience (he's played in a few games), but Rettig has the four-star pedigree and potentially a higher upside. Laviano held a slight edge after spring practice, but once he was suspended for the first half of the season opener, the job fell to Rettig by default for game one. After halftime, who knows...but for now, Rettig will get the first shot.
The good news for Rutgers is that senior running back Paul James (6'0" 225 lbs) is back; the bad news is nobody knows for how long. In 2013, it was a broken fibula and last season, it was a torn ACL. When he's played, he's averaged a healthy 5.7 yards per carry, so he's clearly a productive back when healthy. If he somehow manages to avoid injuries in 2015, he's capable of putting up numbers worthy of all-Big Ten honors. Sophomore Josh Hicks (5'10" 205 lbs.) spent most of the season bouncing between running back and safety on the scout team before cracking the lineup late in the season. In the Quick Lane Bowl against North Carolina, Hicks rushed for 202 yards. He also rushed for 114 yards against Indiana to give him a season total of 440 yards on 69 carries in just five games. Sophomore Robert Martin (6'0" 200 lbs.) started his freshman season slowly, but his playing time increased week by week in the second half of the season. He rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the Quick Lane Bowl as well; for the season, he rushed for 434 yards and seven touchdowns. Of the three, James is probably the most complete back, Hicks is more of a bruising runner and Martin is the flashy playmaker. With this depth and an uncertain quarterback situation, look for Rutgers to run the ball a lot in 2015 - especially if James is healthy again.
One thing that will certainly help Laviano or Rettig is having senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo (6'1" 205 lbs.) as a target. As a first team all-Big Ten honoree last season, Carroo caught 55 passes for 1,086 yards and ten touchdowns. Because he was priority one to stop in the passing game, Carroo wasn't always able to catch the ball, but when he did, he made defenses pay. Interesting dichotomy in stats: SBN's Bill Connelly notes his sub-60% catch rate, but Hawkeye Gamefilm says Carroo didn't drop a single pass. How to explain the difference? Balls were thrown his way often, but many were either uncatchable or broken up by the defense. If defenses continue to try to shutdown Carroo, then that should create opportunities for the other receivers. Last year, the other receivers didn't really take advantage of their one-on-one opportunities. Junior Janarion Grant (5'11" 175 lbs) caught 25 passes for 312 yards, while junior Andre Patton (6'4" 200 lbs) caught 20 passes for 223 yards. Patton finished the 2014 season strong with 11 catches for 168 yards and three touchdowns coming in the final two games against Maryland and North Carolina, which could be a premonition of bigger things to come.
Only having two returning starters on the offensive line could be a problem for a team with a young, inexperienced quarterback. It is good, though, to have one being senior left tackle Keith Lumpkin (6'8" 317 lbs) to protect the blind side. Lumpkin is a two year starter and a third team preseason all-Big Ten honoree by Phil Steele who considered declaring for the NFL draft after last season. Junior right guard Chris Muller (6'6" 312 lbs) has started all but one game in his Rutgers career, and could also play center if needed. Junior right tackle JJ Denman (6'6" 305 lbs) seized a starting job this spring by winning the most improved offensive player award. Still, you have to expect Rutgers' line to be a little less solid when 10 years of starting experience aren't returning.
Rutgers' defense had been pretty stout until the last couple of years - and with only five returning starters on defense, it's going to be difficult to turn that around in 2015. If they do, it might be because of sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay blossoming on the line. Last year, as a pass rushing specialist, he was named a freshman all-American with 7.5 sacks, 26 tackles and three blocked kicks. NFL.com's Mike Huguenin named Turay #8 on his list of 15 "freakish athletes" in college football. He's still learning, as Turay only played one season of high school football, which might mean that we've only seen the beginning of what he can do. Senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton (6'4" 255 lbs.) is rather undersized to play in the middle, but can utilize his athleticism to overcome bigger offensive linemen. Sophomore Sebastian Joseph (6'4" 298 lbs. - and growing) might provide the bulk to finally solve the Knights' issues with stopping the run.
Linebacker play could be improved in 2015 when junior weakside linebacker Steve Longa (6'1" 225 lbs.) and junior strongside linebacker Quentin Gause (6'1" 220 lbs.) are joined by South Carolina graduate transfer Kaiwan Lewis (6'0" 230 lbs.) Longa was a freshman all-American middle linebacker in 2013 with 123 tackles, and shifted to the weakside last season. His numbers dropped a bit to 102 tackles last season, which still led Rutgers...but bigger things were expected. Gause was the second leading tackler last season with 72. Lewis started 11 games for South Carolina in 2013 with 54 tackles, but saw his playing time drop last season with just one start. Before choosing Rutgers, Lewis also considered Nebraska, but the New Jersey native decided to stay closer to home.
Only one returning starter could return in the Rutgers' secondary, and even that's up in the air. Junior cornerback Nadir Barnwell (5'11" 185 lbs) had 29 tackles and four pass breakups last season, but could be ruled academically ineligible. Until the school rules on his eligibility, Barnwell continues to practice. That could mean that sophomore Dre Boggs (5'11" 175 lbs.), true freshman Blessuan Austin (6'1" 180 lbs.) or redshirt freshman Isaiah Wharton (6'1" 200 lbs.) could get thrown into the fire early. Boggs played a bit as a reserve last season, racking up 16 tackles while tying Barnwell for the team lead with four pass breakups. At safety, junior Davon Jacobs (6'0" 205 lbs.) and freshman Kiy Hester (6'0" 205 lbs.) are battling out for the strong safety job, while junior DeIon Stephenson (511" 190 lbs.) and junior Anthony Cioffi (6'0" 185 lbs.) are fighting for the free safety job. Stephenson had 37 tackles last season, while Jacobs added 34 and Cioffi had 29 last season. Hester, though, is an impressive four star recruit who transferred from Miami at the start of last season because of homesickness.
The Barnwell situation may get a little more dicey for Flood and Rutgers, as NJ Advance Media reports that Flood is being investigated for sending an e-mail from his personal e-mail address to a faculty member regarding Barnwell, which could be against University and NCAA policy. If Flood is found to have attempted to obtain an impermissible benefit for Barnwell, he could face a reprimand, suspension or even dismissal. Flood denies any ill-intent, but the investigation continues. If all Flood did was inquire about where his player was academically, if only to make sure his player was doing what he needed to be doing academically, then Flood probably only gets a handslap for not following procedure.
With so much uncertainty surrounding Rutgers football, it's a little tough to see Rutgers getting to a fifth straight bowl game in 2015. Not impossible, mind you. There are some intriguing options to answer each of the major questions, so it's not out of the question. Just not terribly likely this season - especially in the Big Ten's east division.