TGS 2016 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW..A LOOK AT THE BIG TEN--PART II
After a look at the West half in our last installment, Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano previews the East half of the Big Ten, with 2015 straight-up, spread, and over/under numbers included. As always, teams are presented in the predicted order of finish...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
OHIO STATE (SUR: 12-1; PSR 6-7; O-U: 4-8-1)...It’s time for Ohio State to reload after losing a record five first-round NFL draft picks as well as seven other players picked in the ensuing three rounds. And very few teams can reload like OSU. The Buckeyes are 50-4 SU in four years under HC Urban Meyer, and he’s recruited as well as the team has played. The last five recruiting classes at Columbus have been rated in the top five in the nation, so there’s a stack of blue chips waiting in the wings. Seven members of this year’s new class enrolled early for spring, so don’t be surprised to see some future NFL draftees begin their rise early.
Offensively, QB J.T. Barrett was all-Big Ten after he set 19 school and conference records as a freshman in 2014 and regained his starting job last season after competing with Cardale Jones through the first half of 2015. He has completed 64% of his passes with a 45-14 TD-int. ratio the last two years, while rushing for 5.7 ypc and 22 more scores. Not a bad place to start offensively.
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The OL appears in solid shape with first-team all-Big Ten sr. C Pat Elflein and 3rd-team G Billy Price paving the way. Price has started 28 straight games, and he and team captain Elflein form a solid base. The three new starters will not be strangers to the field, as the candidates at tackle (Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince) and guard (Evan Lisle and Demetrius Knox) all played more than 100 snaps and were in every game in 2015. True frosh G Michael Jordan was in for spring and ran with the first team for a good portion of the workouts.
Replacing A-A RB Ezekiel Elliott might not be as tough as it appears on paper, as 5th-year sr. Bri’onte Dunn (5.8 ypc, 287 YR, 3 TDs LY), heavily-recruited RS frosh Mike Weber, and true frosh Antonio Williams (an early enrollee who showed promise in spring) are all capable. Lest we forget, Elliott was just another name on a sheet two years ago, as Buckeye fans pondered how the team could live without Carlos Hyde. Don’t worry, as OSU RB coach Tony Alford says, “We’ve got some good players. It’s their turn. Go play.”
A similar line of discussion can be made for the receiving corps, which lost players accounting for 75% of the catches. Again, get ready for another star to emerge. Jr. Curtis Samuel had 22 receptions as well as a 7.8 ypc average as a runner. Sr. Dontre Wilson has caught 50 balls in the last 3 seasons, and Noah Brown and Corey Smith are back from injuries. Brown, who looked well on his way to full health in spring, played in 13 games in 2014 as a true frosh, and Smith had 20 catches that season before being limited to four appearances in 2015. Early enrollee Austin Mack looks ready for play as well. This group might be deeper than last season, if not as experienced.
The OSU defense lost three starters in the first 20 picks in the NFL draft, including DE Joey Bosa (No. 3 overall). However, the cupboard isn’t bare on that side of the ball, either. LB Raekwon McMillan led the team with 119 tackles and will serve as the defensive captain this season. RS jr. DE Tyquan Lewis returns after ranking 2nd on the team with 14 TFL (he led the team with 8 sacks vs. Bosa’s 5). RS soph DE Sam Hubbard was named a frosh A-A LY after recording 28 tackles (8 TFL, including 6½ sacks). Hubbard originally came to the Buckeyes as an all-state safety and the No. 2 LB prospect in the country before taking his speed to DE last season.
Jr. CB Gareon Conley is the only returning starter in the 2ndary. RS soph CB Marshon Lattimore went through spring without having problems with his pesky hamstrings, so he could step up. And former Rutgers and Tampa Bay HC Greg Schiano, the new co-d.c. and associate head coach at OSU, hopes jr. Cam Burrows or jr. Erick Smith can recover from injuries or that frosh Jordan Fuller is the real deal to help flush out the pass defense.
Summary...Aside from the facelift Meyer must do on OSU’s lineup, the Buckeyes have three tough road games, as they visit Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Michigan State this season. That being said, the Bucks have won 18 straight regular-season road games, including stops in East Lansing and Madison. Start with a bunch of 4 and 5-star prospects playing with chips on their shoulders...sprinkle in some all-Big Ten vets...and you have to figure they’ll be a bit more than alright.
MICHIGAN (SUR: 10-3; PSR: 7-6; O-U: 8-5)...Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has attracted a lot of attention in his short tenure in Ann Arbor, and that’s not even counting NCAA investigators following him around on his visits to satellite camps, or FOX and ESPN camera crews filming him with his shirt off. The Wolverines had been going through a seven-year period of mostly mediocre (for them) results under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, and Harbaugh engineered what was arguably the most impressive team turnaround of the 2015 season. Michigan improved from five wins and no bowl in 2014 to a 10-win 2015 campaign, capped by a 41-7 blowout of SEC East champion Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Harbaugh has 14 starters returning, plus one of the better kickers in the conference, so there’s every chance this is just the beginning of a Wolverine renaissance to the elite level.
Michigan’s improvement was most dramatic on the offensive side of the ball, where it advanced from 21 ppg (109th nationally) in 2014 to 31 ppg (50th) last season. This despite Harbaugh using a stop gap “rent-a-QB” in the person of Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock. This season you can expect the team to evolve for Harbaugh somewhat like clay in the hands of Rodin. After throwing for 3117 yds. and 28 TDs as a freshman at Houston in 2013, losing his starting job in 2014, then transferring and sitting out 2015, former Cougar John O’Korn appears ready to take the reins of the Wolverine offense. Both he and RS soph Wilton Speight appeared comfortable and efficient running the Michigan attack in spring, but O’Korn might be this year’s model. Although RB De’Veon Smith was effective in gaining 753 YR (4.2 ypc), collecting 19 aerials, and scoring 7 TDs last season, 6-3, 228 Ty Isaac (6.8 ypc LY) looked ready to play a larger role this spring. Four of the five offensive line starters return to work in the “engine room” as well.
There are plenty of big, experienced, productive receivers returning. Sr. TE Jake Butt (6-6, 250) was first-team all Big Ten last season after snagging 51 passes for 654 yards, 6-2 fifth-year sr. WR Amara Darboh had 58 recs. for 727 yds. with 5 scores, and 6-3 fifth-year sr. Jehu Chesson snagged 50 for 764 yds. and led the team with 12 total TDs. Butt will be joined at times in the lineup by monster TEs Ian Bunting (6-7, 252) and soph Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. (6-6, 280), with the extra beef helping bump up the rush game.
The Michigan defense returns six starters from last year’s 4th-ranked unit, but will also regain the services of DT Bryan Mone, who was projected to start last season before breaking his leg in August and missing the entire season. Fifth-year sr. DE Chris Wormley had 14½ TFL and 6½ sacks last season and made the 2nd-team all-conference list. DT Ryan Glasgow looked good up front after making nine starts before having his season cut short with a pectoral injury. The injuries forced DL coach Greg Mattison to develop depth on the fly, and the overall performance was good enough to rank 4th in total defense and 6th in scoring. Add the nation’s top incoming frosh prospect—6-5, 290-lb. DE/DT Rashan Gary—and you begin to think the Wolverines might be even better up front this season. Jabrill Peppers, who was first-team all-Big Ten as a DB last season, will play more in the box at OLB this season to help shore up the Wolverine LB corps, which lost all three starters. The multi-talented Peppers (72 YR, 2 TDR; 8 recs.) could start for the Wolverines at five different positions, although Harbaugh didn’t work him much on the offensive side of the ball in spring. CB Jourdan Lewis, the team’s top returning tacker, was also named to the first-team all-Big Ten squad last season. The secondary ranked at the top of the heap nationally in pass efficiency defense and third in yards allowed.
Summary...Hmm? A pair of backs in the 230-lb range. Smashmouth TEs lining up next to 300-lb. tackles. A tough-as-nails top-five defense. Well-schooled, well-oiled execution. Sounds a lot like Stanford’s formula for the last seven or eight years. Who was the coach who started the turnaround up in Palo Alto? Oh, yeah, that’s right. It was Harbaugh. Harbaugh can really recruit, and he has injected remarkable discipline and execution into the Michigan program. (But Jim, please feel free to mix in a visit to the tanning booth before you’re caught on camera again with your shirt off) The Wolverines are back, and could be 11-0 heading into their Nov. 26 revenge game at Ohio State. Pointspread note: Michigan is “under” 21-10 in its last 31 games.
MICHIGAN STATE (SUR: 12-2; PSR:5-9; O-U: 7-7)...Michigan State is rebuilding after a three-year run that resulted in a 36-5 SU record. The Spartans ended last season with a Big Ten Championship, but they are likely still smarting from a 38-0 drubbing at the hands of eventual national champion Alabama in a CFP Semifinal game. Gone from that team are five first-team all-Big Ten players and five overall who were drafted by the NFL.
Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has his work cut out. The team will lean on the running game early, as fifth-year sr. QB Tyler O’Connor is in the lead to take over from three-year starter Connor Cook. However, HC Mark Dantonio won’t name a No. 1 until fall, as jr. Damion Terry and RS frosh Brian Lewerke are still under consideration. O’Connor has thrown 54 passes in the last three seasons, gaining 374 yds. with 4 TDs and 2 interceptions while backing up Cook. Spring observers feel Terry is closer to losing his backup spot to Lewerke or true frosh Messiah deWeaver, who was in for spring work, than he is to catching O’Connor.
With top receivers Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings graduated, the attack will center around a trio of RBs. L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London smashed for 1739 YR and 22 TDs last season, and the Spartans have some building blocks to work with up front. C/G Brian Allen was second-team all-Big Ten last year, and TE Josiah Price was third-team. Price wasn’t a starter, but led MSU tight ends for the 3rd straight season with 23 catches. They are joined by holdover starting T Kodi Kieler, G Benny McGowan (8 starts for injured regulars) and two “plug-ins.” There is experience especially now that G Brandon Clemons has gained a 6th year of eligibility due to early-career injuries. The WR spot is fortified by the presence of flashy true frosh Donny Corley, who enrolled early and was the talk of spring. He will pair well with R.J. Shelton (43 catches LY) as the wideouts, and another true frosh, Cameron Chambers, is expected to make an immediate impact as well.
The defense is in a bit better shape, with six returning starters, led by MLB Riley Bullough, a fifth-year sr. who topped the team with 106 tackles last season. The defense ranked 11th against the run a year ago, but the team slipped a bit in total yardage compared with 2014, when it allowed 35 fewer ypg and ranked 8th in the country and 2013, when it ranked 2nd and yielded 100 fewer ypg than in 2015. Still, the defense should be a strength. Bullough is joined by OLB Jon Reschke (75 tackles) and FS Montae Nicholson (83) and form the spine of the Unit, along with DT Malik McDowell. The LB corps might be further bolstered by the possible return of Ed Davis, who missed all of last season with a knee injury after making 12 starts (58 tackles) after being named honorable mention all-league in 2014. Davis is on track to earn his degree in the summer and participate as a graduate student.
McDowell will be moved around up front in the fall to try to fill the gap left by star DE Shilique Calhoun, now in the NFL. The defensive line lost some depth in the offseason when sophs Craig Evans and Montez Sweat left the program. Both were expected to at least be in the rotation if not starters, and Evans had shown flashes he might eventually rise to an all-conference level. Helping the shallow DL will be the arrival of Kevin Williams, a graduate transfer who will join the Spartans this fall after an injury-marred career at Nebraska. It’s still a thin unit.
The Spartans’ “No Fly Zone” secondary that had limited opposing QBs to 52% in 2013 and 2014 fell off last season, giving up 61% and 234 ypg. Fortunately, CB Darian Hicks and FS Demetrious Cox join Nicholson as returning starters, so a return to previous stingy levels can be expected.
Summary...Things were down a tick for the Spartans in 2015, and they have some questions to answer in certain areas. Last year against Michigan and Alabama, MSU rushed a total of 59 times for just 87 yards (1.5 ypc). The defense yielded more than 425 total yards four times after allowing that many just four times in the previous three seasons. The Spartans have improved their recruiting each of the last four years, but their average recruiting ranking is just 25th over that period. MSU isn’t stockpiling four-star prospects the way Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State have (or for that matter, not as many recently as Michigan), but Dantonio has done more with less before, and he gets the team’s toughest Big Ten opponents visiting East Lansing this season.
PENN STATE (SUR: 7-6; PSR: 4-9; O-U: 5-7-1)...The departure of three-year starting QB Christian Hackenberg leaves an obvious hole in the Penn State football program. However, it must be noted the team was just 14-12 SU the last two seasons, ranking 111th and 105th in total offense, repectively, in that period. Hackenberg’s draft stock sank along with his QB rating, which fell in each of his three seasons at Penn State. He was recruited by pro-style HC Bill O’Brien, not spread advocate James Franklin, who took over in 2014. But a new QB is not the most radical change this year at State College. Franklin’s staff has been remade, with the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and OL coach being fired or leaving of their own volition (along with a group of players who transferred). The new o.c. is Joe Moorhead, formerly at Fordham, and the d.c. will be Bent Pry, an internal promotion.
Soph QB Trace McSorley turned a few heads in the spring game, completing 23 of 27 passes for 281 yds. and 4 TDs as his team won the Blue-White game 37-0. Those who watched him in last season’s Taxslayer.com Bowl in Jacksonville weren’t surprised. He threw for 142 yds. with 2 TDs and no ints. in the gamel, as he rallied the Nittany Lions from a 24-3 second-half deficit after Hackenberg left with a shoulder injury. RS frosh Tommy Stevens looked like a solid option as well. Despite all the hype, it appears Hackenberg was just not a good fit for Franklin’s scheme. New o.c. Moorhead was chosen because Fordham has been running a no-huddle attack with West Coast passing, coupled with a simple zone-run game with success in the FCS. It looks as if the souped-up Penn State plan of attack has the personnel to finally transition the offense into the 21st century.
Soph RB star Saquon Barkley returns after rushing for 1076 yards and 7 scores last season, with an impressive 5.9 ypc mark. He was named 2nd-team all-Big Ten for his efforts, and was third in the Big Ten in rushing despite playing in two fewer games than Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott or Northwestern’s Justin Jackson. The receiving corps returns a pair of very dangerous targets. Jr. Chris Godwin caught 69 passes for 1101 yds and 7 TDs, the 2nd-most receiving yards in the conference in 2015. Jr. WR DaeSean Hamilton is the school’s 7th all-time pass catcher with 127 recs. in the last two years.
The offensive line is a key to any offensive improvement. That unit returns four regulars with 91 combined career starts, but it allowed 83 sacks in the last two seasons (no wonder Hackenberg left a season of eligibility on the table). Franklin has been actively recruiting offensive linemen since arriving, and now it looks as if those recruits will push for playing time. The “big uglies” up front must be in shape to keep up with the pace of the new attack, which is designed to play at a speed that will “gas” defenders, making them easier targets to block.
The Penn State defense finished 14th in the nation, and six key defenders return. The team must deal with gaps left by graduation up front, however, as the defensive line is a work in progress. Three starters were drafted, as DT Austin Johnson and DE Carl Nassib (15½ sacks) went in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, with DE Anthony Zettel in the sixth. A big group of recruits is jockeying to fit in around holdover jr. DE Garrett Sickels (35 tackles, 3 sacks).
The rest of the stop unit appears on solid ground. While there are some depth issues, “Linebacker U” is alive and well. LB Jason Cabinda led the team with 100 tackles, and OLB Brandon Bell had 65 in 11 games, with 5½ sacks. Graduate sr. Nyeem Wartman-White (75 tackles in 2014) returns to reclaim his starting position. He started the opener at Temple last year before suffering a season-ending injury in the 2nd Q vs. the Owls. Soph Manny Bowen was a highly rated prepster who will likely push for playing time at OLB. The 2ndary returns a pair of starters from a unit that ranked 8th in passing yards allowed. Safeties Marcus Allen (2nd on the team with 81 stops) and CB Grant Haley (42 tackles) return, along soph nickel-back John Reid (29 Ts, 2 ints.), and grad student S Malik Golden is back after making 4 starts and 40 Ts LY, so the dropoff could be minimal.
Summary...Franklin knows what he’s doing, and he’s rescued recruiting for Penn State. The Nittany Lions are off all sanctions, and Franklin has delivered three recruiting classes rated in the top 25 after the school had fallen into the 30s under O’Brien. Now, the recruits he’s chosen are in a position to execute his plan.
INDIANA (SUR: 6-7; PSR: 7-6; O-U: 11-2)...Indiana HC Kevin Wilson saved his job by guiding the Hoosiers to their first bowl game since the 2007 Insight.com Bowl and just their 2nd postseason appearance in the past 22 years. It’s a very low bar in Bloomington, where the football team has produced just one winning record since 1994. Six wins were apparently enough to satiate the collective appetites of the alumni and administration, and Wilson’s position was secured when he was given a new six-year contract in January.
Any further progress has to center around the improvement of a horrendous defense. The Hoosiers knew things weren’t right on that side of the ball in the opener last season, when FCS foe Southern Illinois racked up 47 points and 659 total yards. By season’s end, Indiana ranked 120th in total defense at 510 ypg and 116th in points allowed at 38 pg. The 2ndary was a mess (314 ypg passing, 32 TDP allowed), but soph S Jonathan Crawford was 2nd on the team with 76 stops and had a team-high 4 ints. as a true frosh last season. The unit returns all four starters, plus it got a bit of an infusion with the addition of juco S Jayme Thompson, but it’s difficult to say if going through the hammering absorbed last year will make them more battle-ready, or simply shell-shocked.
The defensive line will be almost completely rebuilt, as only part-time starting 5th-year sr. DT Ralph Green (3 starts, 17 tackles) returns. It will be hard to replace the production of DE Nick Mangieri, who led the team with 9½ of Indiana’s 30 sacks. The linebackers are the strength of the defense (if such a thing exists after last season’s performance). Jr. LB Marcus Oliver led the team with 112 tackles, sr. MLB T.J. Simmons had 73, and jr. LB Tegray Scalres had 64 stops despite playing in just 11 games (one start).
The offense outscored enough foes to post six wins, but lost a good amount of front-line talent. First, a replacement must step forward for graduated QB Nate Sudfeld (3573 YP, 27-7 TDs-int. LY). Juco transfer Richard Lagow (ex-UConn commit, ex Oklahoma St. walk-on) showed he’s got the arm strength to execute o.c. Kevin Johns’ spread attack with efficiency. Lagow and soph Danny Cameron got most of the work in crunchtime during the spring scrimmage, but Lagow looked like the starter after tossing several sharp throws for scores.
Although all-Big Ten RB Jordon Howard and OT Jason Spriggs were both NFL draftees, along with Sudfeld, the running game should soldier on nicely. Jr. RB Devine Redding gained 1012 yds. and had 9 TDs in 13 games, nine of those as a sub behind Howard, who missed four contests with injuries. The OL has A-A G Dan Feeney along with three other vet starters returning to pave the way for Redding and to protect Lagow, and the Hoosiers have a laundry list of returning receivers. Jr. Simmie Cobbs caught 60 passes for 1035 yards last season, 5th-year sr. Ricky Jones caught 54 for 906, while 5-7 smurf possession receiver Mitchell Paige (57 recs., 684 yds., 6 TDs) was also honorable mention all-Big Ten as a return specialist (11.1 yp punt return, 2 more TDs). Paige’s return efforts, plus the presence of jr. PK Griffin Oakes (83% FGs; 125 pts. LY; Big Ten Kicker of the Year) give the Hoosiers credence in the discussion of which team in the conference has the best returning special teams.
Summary...While you can’t expect any great leap forward, Wilson should again manage to garner a lower-tier bowl bid if his team stays healthy. The schedule is a bit tougher. But Indiana’ personnel situation is in better shape when you consider the Hoosiers lost four returning starters before Big Ten play began in 2015. Also, consider this. Wilson was on the hot seat last year. What a difference for him if Southern Illinois had made instead of missed a 2-point conversion at the end of Indy’s 48-47 win in the opener. Possibly a difference of $15.3 million...the value of Wilson’s contract extension. Pointspread note: Indiana is “over” 43-17 in the Kevin Wilson era.
MARYLAND (SUR: 3-9; PSR: 7-5; O-U: 7-4-1)...Maryland snatched Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin as its new HC last December after sending Randy Edsall packing Oct. 11, the day after a 49-28 loss at Ohio State. Things didn’t get better post Edsall, as the Terrapins dropped six of their last seven under interim HC Mike Locksley and finished 3-9 overall with just one conference win in their second Big Ten season. Durkin has a nice résumé, having also held the d.c. position in 2013-14 at Florida, and previously had coaching stops at Stanford, Bowling Green and Notre Dame. He has turned the offense over to Walt Bell, who was the coordinator at Arkansas State, which employed a no-huddle spread to score 38.5 ppg in his two seasons running the attack. Okay, Bell can put some gitty-up in the offense, and Durkin and Andy Buh (formerly d.c. at Stanford, Nevada & Cal) will keep the defense tacked down, and Maryland is set, right? Yeeaahhh...no...not going to happen.
Inconsistent QBs Caleb Rowe and Perry Hills are still battling for the starting role after seemingly “out-awfulling” each other. The hyperspeed of the attack allows them to make a lot of explosive plays, but it also exposes them to more chances for misreads, mistakes and miscues. Rowe and Hills combined to complete 21 of 41 passes for 263 yds. and 3 TDs in the spring game, but, on the day, Terp QBs appeared to have a ways to go. Still, a new scheme isn’t going solve all the problems caused by a pair of triggermen who combined to rank 126th in passing efficiency last season. Remember, Maryland was 125th in turnover margin, due largely to an offense that threw 29 interceptions and lost 7 fumbles.
There are a few serviceable weapons to work with, as returning WRs Levern Jacobs had 35 catches last year, and D.J. Moore caught 25 with 3 scores as a true frosh. Neither will remind anyone of former Terp Stepfon Diggs, but they’ll have to do until Durkin’s successful early recruiting makes a difference (or doesn’t materialize, after all, kids change their minds). Soph RB Ty Johnson gained 167 yards on 11 carries, including a 64-yard TD run in the spring game. Johnson showed some flashes of explosiveness last year when he gained 250 yds. on just 35 attempts (7.1 ypc), scoring 3 times. Sr. Wes Brown (317 YR, 4.5 ypc, 3 TD) returns, and a trio of incoming RB recruits will get a look.
The offensive line lost three starters from a unit that helped the Terps average 5.5 ypc and cut sacks from 37 in 2014 to 25 last season. Durkin has brought in some solid offensive line prospects, including some of the best 300-pounders available locally. Rebuilding that area with a new offense and some youngsters might be dicey, but RS sr. LT Michael Dunn (a three-year starter) and RS soph RT Damian Prince are a pair of building blocks to start with.
Defensively, there is work to be done on a team that is replacing six starters from a permissive unit that yielded 34 ppg, 421 ypg, and ranked 105th in pass efficiency and 123rd on third downs. Throwing a huge monkey wrench into preparations and installation of the new scheme was the sudden resignation of new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer (ex-Syracuse HC). Shafer quit April 1, after less than four months on the job and right in the middle of spring practice. No truth to the rumor he just didn’t like the looks of the talent on hand at College Park...at least, we think there’s no truth to that rumor. The key returning players on defense are LB Jermaine Carter, Jr., and CB/KR Will Likely. Carter led the team with 103 tackles last season and was named honorable mention all-Big Ten, while Likely was first-team as a return man and second team on defense. Maryland’s 3.7 ypc allowance in 2015 was aided by 35 sacks, good for 13th-most in the country. But Yannick Ngakoue (13½ sacks) and Quinton Jefferson (6½) were drafted into the NFL along with S Sean Davis. Sr. DT Roman Braglio will have to get help from soph DT David Shaw (injured in Game Four LY) and jr. DE Jesse Aniebonam (3½ sacks) to pump air into the pass rush.
Summary...Durkin has added experience to the coaching staff to make up for his lack of experience as a head coach. Mike London (HC at Virginia and Richmond) and Pete Lembo (Ball State) can advise him on the pitfalls of the position. But the Big Ten schedule is unrelenting, so scrounging up six wins for a bowl looks unlikely this fall.
RUTGERS (SUR: 4-8; PSR: 4-8; O-U: 7-5)...Chris Ash takes over as head coach after Kyle Flood’s flameout last season. After way too many arrests and missteps by his players, Flood was investigated, suspended, and ultimately fired. Ash arrives after serving as defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at the mega-program at Ohio State. Flood’s defensive expertise should come in handy.
Rutgers’ defense yielded 30 ppg in 2013-14, then slipped to 35 ppg last season, and clearly has been heading in the wrong direction. The Scarlet Knights are replacing all three starting linebackers, who also were the top three tacklers on the team, combining for 280 stops. It will be a young group of replacements, with three sophs listed as starters heading into the fall.
Rutgers ranked 111th in total defense and 118th in passing yardage and pass efficiency defense last year, so it’s a mixed blessing that the entire 2ndary returns. That unit is led by sr. S Anthony Cioffi (45 stops, team-high 4 ints.) and soph CB Isaiah Wharton (57 Ts). Wharton made a lot of tackles for a corner in part because the opposition completed a lot of passes when they threw his way, so he’s part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Soph CB Blessuan Austin proved better in coverage while playing as a true frosh a year ago.
However, the run defense wasn’t much better, as the Scarlet Knights gave up a league-high 33 TDs on the ground and were last in the conference at 5.7 ypc in Big Ten play. There is hope for the DL, as all three of last year’s starters return, plus 5th-year sr. DT Darius Hamilton. Hamilton was a team captain last season and had been a starter in 2013 & 2014, but missed 11 games with a knee injury. His healthy return could make a difference, and he participated in about 80% of spring practice. A return to form by Hamilton might help alleviate one defensive problem. Last season the Scarlet Knights recorded just 14 sacks, and Hamilton had 10½ total in 2013-14.
The offense loses its most productive weapon, WR Leonte Carroo, who led the team in touchdowns despite playing in just 8 of 12 games. The new scheme will be a clone of Ohio State’s attack (the “power spread”) of recent seasons. Offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer must decide between jrs. Chris Laviano (61%, 2247 YP, 16-12 TD-ints.) and ex-LSU transfer Hayden Retting (56%, 233 YP, 2-0) at QB. Laviano has the edge after starting 11 games LY, but it’s a new system requiring a new set of skills. The top two rushers were jrs. Robert Martin and Josh Hicks, who combined for 1437 YR and 10 TDs.
With four starters returning on the offensive line, that production figures to be repeated. The one hole that needed filling, left tackle, seemed to be handled nicely in spring by 6-7, 320 soph Tariq Cole, who got a vote of confidence from Mehringer. The receiving corps will miss the star power that Carroo brought to the table, but it should be decent. Srs. WR Andre Patton and Janarion Grant combined to catch 69 passes LY, but scored just 2 TDs. Meanwhile, 6-6 sr. WR Carlton Agudosi averaged 18.4 ypc on his 17 receptions, but he managed just 1 score in nine games. The 6-4 Patton got a vote of confidence by the player he hopes to replace, with Carroo saying, “I’ve seen Andre completely take over games. He’s physical, strong...a guy that deserves to be the next great receiver at Rutgers.”
Summary...Rutgers’ 2015 was embarrassing on several levels. On the field, the Scarlet Knights didn’t have one high-quality win, beating only Norfolk State, Kansas, Indiana and Army. The team’s 1-7 mark in conference games last season includes beatings by combined scores of 146-33 in a three-week stretch against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan. The off-field problems were a major distraction, with seven players arrested on assorted charges ranging up to and including armed robbery. Flood was let go for losing control of the program as much as for the results, as he was suspended for three games for violating university compliance policies and for the player misconduct. Ash made a difference in Ohio State’s defense in his two seasons with the Buckeyes, as OSU improved from 23 ppg in 2013, the season before he took over, to 15 ppg last season. Rutgers might have some upside, but it’s tough to see more than four wins on the schedule.
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