Rutgers settling into Big Ten in Year Two
With spring practices finally all wrapping up around the country, HuskerOnline.com continues our look at where each of Nebraska's 12 opponents in 2015 currently stand coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer. Today, we check in on the Rutgers Scarlett Knights, who will host the Huskers on Nov. 14 for NU's final road game of the regular season.
To get a feel for where the Scarlett Knights stand heading into their fourth season under head coach Kyle Flood, we spoke with Bobby Deren of ScarletNation.com to get his thoughts and perspective on the team and what to expect once the season gets underway in a few months.
This spring felt a little more normal for Rutgers from where things were a year ago when the Scarlett Knights were getting ready for their debut season as members of the Big Ten Conference. However, there were still plenty of questions needing to be answered over the course of spring ball.
First and foremost, Rutgers officially kicked off the competition to find its starting quarterback for 2015. That two-man battle was between sophomore Chris Laviano, who appeared in five games last season but completed just 11-of-28 passes for 107 yards and an interception, and sophomore Hayden Rettig, a former four-star prospect who transferred from LSU in 2014. Laviano got the bulk of the first-team reps this spring, but the competition is far from over.
The other major storyline was the introduction of new offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels, who replaced Ralph Friedgen after spending last season as the team's wide receivers coach. McDaniels made a pretty big splash in his debut spring calling plays, even dialing up a cross-field lateral from the running back to the quarterback during the Scarlett Knights' spring game. The transition has been pretty smooth so far, but it's still unclear what the system will truly look like once the season rolls around.
While the quarterback race is still taking shape, it's far from the only issue needing to be addressed for Rutgers during the offseason. Maybe the most concerning units is up front on the offensive line, which must replace three starters at center, guard and tackle. Back are left tackle Keith Lumpkin and right guard Chris Mueller, but Mueller was injured midway through the spring.
The good news is standout wide receiver Leonte Carroo turned down jumping to the NFL and returned for his senior season to lead a much deeper receiving corps. Tight end will also likely be much more involved in McDaniels' offense, and junior Nick Arcidiacono looks to be the guy there. Running back is still wide-open, as five players are all vying for the starting job, including former first-team All-AAC selection Paul James, who will return this fall from a season-ending knee injury he suffered last season.
On defense, tackle Darius Hamilton and ends Kemoko Turay and Djwany Mera give Rutgers a solid core on the line, but the front four overall will be relatively undersized compared to others around the Big Ten. Three-year starter Steve Longa and juco transfer Isaiah Johnson lead the way at linebacker, and juniors Anthony Cioffi and Delon Stephenson will provide some needed veteran leadership in a secondary that will likely rely on multiple underclassmen.
Offensive star: WR Leonte Carroo
After earning first-team All-Big Ten honors during a breakout junior campaign in 2014, Carroo had a legitimate opportunity to forego his final season at Rutgers and make the jump to the NFL. But the Edison, N.J., native decided to stay home for one more year, and his presence gives the Scarlett Knights one of the best receiving threats in the conference this year.
Carroo led the team, ranked second in the Big Ten and 23rd nationally with 1,086 receiving yards last season, which marked the sixth-highest single-season total in program history. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder, showed a knack for coming up with big plays as well, averaging 19.7 yards on his team-high 55 catches to give him the top yards-per-reception average in the country.
Defensive star: DE Kemoko Turay
It took just one season for Turay to establish himself as one of the most talented pass rushers in the Big Ten, and he will be relied upon heavily to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks once again in 2015. Turay broke onto the scene last year as a redshirt freshman by leading Rutgers and tying for seventh in the league with 7.5 sacks to go along with 8.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries.
Those numbers were good enough to earn him first-team Freshman All-American honors. He's certainly not the biggest end out there at 6-6, 235, but his quickness, athleticism and explosiveness off the line make him a difficult challenge in any one-on-one blocking matchup.
Spring surprise: RB Justin Goodwin
With James still sidelined, the main competition at running back coming into the spring was thought to be primarily between sophomores Robert Martin and Josh Hicks. But a new name emerged in junior Justin Goodwin that added another piece to an already crowded backfield battle.
Goodwin started games at both running back and cornerback last season, but he's now strictly on offense and quickly made his coaches take notice with his performance this spring. Flood raved about about Goodwin's play several times during spring ball, and there's a good chance he's going to play a big factor for the Scarlett Knights regardless of whether he earns the starting job.
Best spring position battle: Quarterback
Rutgers' quarterback competition this spring essentially came down to experience versus hype. Even though Laviano only saw spot playing time last season, he still had the advantage of having been in the fire at the major college level. Rettig, however, boasted a much more impressive high school resume as the nation's third-ranked quarterback prospect in the 2013 class.
Both showed flashes in their reps this spring, but most would agree that Laviano will enter fall camp with a leg up after being the primary quarterback with the first-team offense. Laviano was 8-of-10 passing with two touchdowns in the spring game, a big improvement from his ugly showing a year ago (0-of-9 with an interception). Rettig was 4-of-7 for 37 yards, and it's clear he has some work to do to catch up with Laviano during fall camp.
Biggest question: Will the offensive line sort itself out?
Experience was already slim on the offensive line at the start of spring practice, but when Mueller went down with a "lower body injury" midway through camp, it left Lumpkin as the only returning starter for the spring game. While the youth up front had to learn things in a hurry, it may have been a blessing in disguise as it gave several players valuable reps with the top offense.
In particular, right tackle J.J. Denman looks to have locked up the starting right tackle job, as he was named the Most Improved Offensive Player for the spring. Inside, it's unclear whether Mueller will be the top right guard or center when he returns in the fall, but Derrick Nelson took over as the No. 1 center in his absence while Dorian Miller and Tariq Cole are still battling at left guard.
Early outlook on Rutgers vs. Nebraska
Deren: "Rutgers has historically struggled against offenses that spread them out. Nebraska does not provide the best matchup for Rutgers. The timing definitely favors Nebraska as Rutgers will be coming off consecutive games against Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Facing Nebraska at the end of that stretch could mean a depleted RU squad as depth will again be an issue at a number of positions. If Rutgers can avoid being bitten too much by the injury bug, it will make for a better game, but this one looks as though it will present quite a few problems for the Scarlet Knights."
Overall 2015 win-loss expectations
Deren: "So much is riding on the play of the quarterback and the offensive line that those two positions could really play a huge part in determining the trajectory of the season. The quarterback competition was mediocre at best as neither Chris Laviano or Hayden Rettig solidified a starting job. There are depth concerns on the o-line, but if that unit can play well, it could go a long way toward Rutgers returning to a bowl game. There are question marks on the defense as well and with such a tough schedule, Rutgers could consider a .500 season or better and accomplishment in what will be its second Big Ten season."
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