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Reviewing the 2017 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Rutgers is better in 2017...but this week, it’s less about the opponent and more about Nebraska not beating themselves.

Morgan State v Rutgers
This week, it’s not about them. For the Huskers, it’s about us.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Folks, Rutgers is much improved this season.

Of course, that probably isn’t much of an achievement because Rutgers was so painfully awful last season. But they ARE better.

The Scarlet Knights began the season with a 30-14 loss to Washington; a game that Rutgers led for most of the first half until UW’s Dante Parris returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown. In week two, Rutgers lost to Eastern Michigan of the MAC 16-13. This past weekend, the Scarlet Knights pounded 1-AA Morgan State of the MEAC 65-0. How good is Morgan State? The Bears have yet to score a single point this season, losing 10-0 to Towson and 26-0 to Albany prior to last weekend.

Senior Kyle Bolin is the Rutgers’ starting quarterback; he had a decent game against Washington, completing 24 of 34 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. Against Eastern Michigan, Bolin struggled in completing just 46% of his passes with two interceptions. Bolin isn’t a rushing threat, losing 14 yards this season on five carries. True freshman Johnathan Lewis is, however. In last week’s blowout, Lewis rushed 11 times for 58 yards and four touchdowns; he also completed two of two passes for 18 yards and another touchdown. While Bolin is the clear starter, don’t be surprised if Lewis doesn’t start seeing a few snaps.

Miami transfer Gus Edwards is starting at running back, rushing for 201 yards and a touchdown, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Backup Robert Martin has rushed for 158 yards and a touchdown, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Receiver Janarion Grant has been joined by tight end Jerome Washington (also a Miami transfer) and receiver Damon Mitchell to give Rutgers more options than they had last season. Grant and Washington have each caught 12 passes for 113 and 108 yards respectively and a touchdown each. Mitchell has caught eight passes for 106 yards.

Defensively, Rutgers is led by linebackers Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris with 22 and 16 tackles respectively. Defensive ends Darnell Davis and Kemoko Turay have two sacks and two quarterback hurries respectively; they’ll be the guys Nebraska’s offensive line will need to keep controlled this week. Junior safety Kiy Hester leads Rutgers with five pass breakups and an interception.

Throwing aside last week’s game against Morgan State, Rutgers appears to be a team that Nebraska should be able to beat, as long as Nebraska doesn’t beat themselves. Nebraska basketball coach Tim Miles has a motto that probably applies now to Nebraska football: “It’s about us.” It’s not so much about the opponent and what the opponent does, it’s about Nebraska and what Nebraska is doing in this game.

After the jump, you’ll find the preseason preview of Rutgers.

There were many reasons why Jim Delany pursued Rutgers when the Big Ten expanded to 14 teams.

2016’s version of Rutgers football was definitely not one of them.

In fact, last season’s Rutgers season certainly seemed to validate the notion that inviting Rutgers into the Big Ten was a colossal mistake. Sagarin’s computer rankings had the Scarlet Knights the ninth-worst division 1-A football team in the nation last season and lower than many 1-AA teams, such as 4-7 South Dakota, 4-7 Southern Illinois and 6-5 Liberty.

Michigan defeated Rutgers 78-0 in a game that arguably wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. Rutgers didn’t get a first down until midway through the fourth quarter, and had -1 yard of total offense midway through the third quarter. They ended up with more penalty yards (41) than total offense yards (39).

And Rutgers had a few other games just like it:

So yeah, Rutgers was really, really bad last season. Could they be, well, not quite so awful this season? Probably. (Let’s be would be pretty tough to be worse.)

Football today is very much quarterback driven, and last year, Rutgers’ quarterbacks were pretty bad. Chris Loviano and his 100.2 quarterback efficiency rating transferred to San Diego State, leaving junior Giovanni Rescigno (6’3” 224 lbs.) as the returning starter. Rescigno wasn’t significantly better (102.6 efficiency rating), completing 53% of his passes for 889 yards and five touchdowns with five interceptions. He gained 107 yards on the ground with two touchdowns, one of which was a 42 yarder against 1-AA Howard. But I suspect that Rescigno probably won’t be the first option for Chris Ash this fall.

Senior Kyle Bolin (6’2” 210 lbs.) took the graduate transfer route out of Louisville after being passed up by Lamar Jackson on the depth chart. He played sparingly last season but started five games in 2015, completing 57% of his passes for 1,154 yards and seven touchdowns with six interceptions. The former four-star recruit is purely pro-style, losing 91 yards on the ground in his career. True freshman Johnathan Lewis (6’3” 225 lbs.) arrives this summer as the quarterback of the future; he’s a dual threat quarterback who’ll certainly get a strong look this season to play.

It may be unfair to place all of the blame for 2016 on Rutgers’ quarterbacks, because someone has to catch the ball, and that was a huge struggle once Janarion Grant (5’10” 180 lbs.) broke his ankle on a 76 yard reception against Iowa. At that time, Grant led Rutgers with 20 catches for 210 yards, plus 16 rushes for 138 yards and three touchdowns. He’s two-for-two passing in his career, including a five yard touchdown pass against the Huskers in 2015. Sophomore Jawuan Harris (5’9” 192 lbs.) led Rutgers last season with 39 catches for 481 yards and three touchdowns. Harris also plays baseball, and led the the Big Ten in stolen bases in 2016. Arkansas graduate transfer Damon Mitchell (6’2” 205 lbs.) should also provide some depth at a position that was rather woeful last season.

The one not-so-dim spot for Rutgers offense last season was running back Robert Martin (5’11” 210 lbs.) who fought multiple injuries to rush for 625 yards and two touchdowns. Martin found himself in the coaches’ doghouse with how he reacted in frustration, but this spring, found himself back in the good graces of head coach Chris Ash. Miami graduate transfer Gus Edwards rushed for 290 yards and a touchdown last season; this addition should make Rutgers stronger on the ground this season.

The offensive line returns just two starters in senior left guard Dorian Miller (6’2” 294 lbs.) and junior left tackle Tariq Cole (6’6” 313 lbs.). A youth movement at center with sophomore Jonah Jackson (6’4” 295 lbs.) and at right tackle with sophomore Kamaal Seymour (6’6” 294 lbs.) may pay off down the line, but it could remain a bit rough up front for Rutgers.

Rutgers defense wasn’t quite as incompetent as their offense in an injury filled 2016 season, but it wasn’t all that good either. The one high point was a respectable 56th ranking in Bill Connelly’s defensive S&P+ rankings. Up front, the Scarlet Knights will need to replace their best playmakers. Senior defensive end Darnell Davis (6’2” 250 lbs.) did have eight tackles for loss last season. But the guy who might be the best is senior defense end Kemoko Turay (6’5” 241 lbs.), who’s missed most of the last two seasons with two shoulder surgeries. In 2014, Turay earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors with 7.5 tackles for loss and three blocked kicks.

The linebacking corps was pretty green last season, starting two sophomores and a true freshman. Juniors Trevor Morris (6’1” 226 lbs.) and Deonte Roberts (6’1” 238 lbs) led Rutgers in tackles with 102 and 95 respectively. Sophomore Tyreek Maddox-Williams (6’0” 214 lbs.) added 47 tackles after injuries forced him into the lineup. We’ll see if another year of experience will make this a better unit in 2017.

Junior corners Isaiah Wharton (6’1” 202 lbs.) and Blessuan Austin (6’1” 198 lbs.) combined to break up 19 passes last season and 15 as freshmen in 2015. They should be solid this fall, especially if junior safeties Saquan Hampton (6’1” 207 lbs.) and Kiy Hester (6’0” 203 lbs.) stay healthy this year; they missed nine games between the two of them in 2016.

Considering how bad Rutgers was in 2016 and the influx of talent coming in, it seems likely that the Scarlet Knights hit rock bottom last year. How much they will improve likely depends on staying healthy, as they still compete in the Big Ten’s east division. But by drawing Illinois and Purdue as their other two west division opponents, getting a conference win or two in 2017 isn’t out of the question.

Of course, merely avoiding another 78-0 loss might be enough to declare success this season.