Sometimes a new coach has to let his new program get worse before it gets better. That’s the hope at Rutgers after a year under Coach Chris Ash. The Scarlet Knights didn’t do much well in 2016, but at least it was relatively young while it struggled. Fourteen starters are back in 2017, which should at least offer a basic foundation for whatever comes next.
Eight offensive coordinators in eight years, that’s Rutgers’ current plight. Maybe Jerry Kill, the former Minnesota coach and new Rutgers OC, can offer some much needed steadiness. There are some new weapons with which to work, including Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin at quarterback, Miami transfer Gus Edwards at running back and brothers Ahmir and Damon Mitchell at wide receiver, formally of Michigan and Arkansas respectively. Add those guys to wide receivers Janarion Grant and Jawuan Harris and there could be some explosive-play potential, the surest way to stay in games and maybe spring an upset or two along the way. Improvement beyond that will require some serious progression on the offensive line.
Ash is a defensive coach and played defensive back at Drake, so look for the Scarlet Knights to make some gains in pass defense in 2017. Three starters return in the secondary and three return on the line, meaning there should be a better interplay between pass rush and straight-up pass defense this year. Rutgers needs some work on defending the run, particularly in this conference, but the explosive-run numbers weren’t terrible, and that’s generally good sign of a defense’s overall soundness. There aren’t many easy-to-identify stars here, but team defense is probably always going to need to be the name of the game at Rutgers.
Look, Rutgers beat two teams a year ago — Howard and New Mexico. You might only immediately identify two wins on the 2017 schedule, too — Eastern Michigan (even that’s shaky after EMU went 7-6 last year) and Morgan State. Washington has to come all the way across the country for the opener, but the trip length won’t be enough to keep that one close. The West-draw includes Nebraska but also Illinois and Purdue. Judge Rutgers in 2017 by games like the latter two there. Any steps forward at all represent some significant progress.
It really can’t be down, but that doesn’t make it automatically up either. No, FLAT seems fair here. Transfers offer at least some hope for quick improvement on offense, but until Ash and Rutgers can establish some sort of identity defensively, it’s a race against time and a conference that’s improving as a whole. Fall too far behind and it can be hard for a program to claw its way back.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.