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TGS 2017 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE BIG TEN--PART I

                                      by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Following is our preview of the Big Ten, beginning with a look at the Eastern half of the loop; the West analysis will be included in our next update.  Teams are listed in order of predicted finish, with 2016 straight up, spread, and "Over/Under" results included. 

OHIO STATE (SUR: 11-2; PSR: 6-7; O-U: 6-7)...Ohio State epitomizes the old chestnut, “They don’t rebuild, they reload.” Seven more Buckeyes were drafted into the NFL this spring, but another group of future pros is getting ready in Columbus. Success breeds success, and OSU is 61-6 SU under HC Urban Meyer. Alabama has lost more games in the same period. Being in the national championship discussion, winning at that rate, and sending dozens of players to the NFL makes Columbus a desired destination for the best preps in the nation. And they just keep coming.

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There are plenty of tools left in the shed, starting with QB J.T. Barrett, who holds 22 school records, including career TD passes (69). He’s just five yards from becoming the team’s all-time total offense leader. Barrett is the first three-time captain in school history, and has twice finished in the top 10 in voting for the Heisman. The team has four offensive line starters back, including all-Big Ten selections C Billy Price and left tackle Jamarco Jones. The OL paved the way for soph RB Mike Weber to gain 1096 yds. at a 6.0 ypc clip last year. Weber had an exceptional spring, and the 2016 all-conference selection should take his production to an all-America level this year. Demario McCall (5.5 ypc, 4 TDs LY) will get a chance to cushion the loss of Curtis Samuel in the RB/SB hybrid spot.

Although the top three pass catchers departed, Weber, third-year WRs K.J. Hill and Parris Campbell and TE Marcus Baugh combined for 78 receptions. The coaches are very high on Campbell, and jr. WR Terry McLaurin had a solid showing in spring work. Baugh missed the spring recovering from shoulder surgery, but he’s expected to recover fully. Meyer said the TEs were the most improved position on the team despite Baugh’s absence in offseason practices.

One key addition offensively is o.c. Kevin Wilson. Wilson lost the head coaching job at Indiana despite taking the Hooisers to consecutive bowl games for the first time in a quarter century. Clearly, Urban Meyer was paying attention, as Indiana led the Big Ten in passing in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and finished second LY.

Last season the Buckeye defense was a major question mark early. The unit had lost a ton of NFL talent, and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash left to take the HC job at Rutgers. The hiring of ex-Rutgers  and Tampa Bay Bucs HC Greg Schiano to coordinate the defense, coupled with the availability of high-quality talent, fixed any perceived problems. OSU wound up third in the country, allowing just 15.5 ppg. Three of four starters in the 2ndary and LB Raekwon McMillan (the team’s top tackler with 102) were drafted to the pros, but Schiano isn’t losing much sleep. The defensive line returns intact, and that unit will be the strength of the “D” led by all-Big Ten DE Tyquan Lewis. The return of starting sr. DT Tracy Sprinkle will be a major plus. He injured his knee after 14 plays in the opener and missed the remainder of 2016. The DL is exceptionally deep, especially at DE. As an example, DE Nick Bosa, a frosh all-American LY, is the 4th in an impressive rotation at his position. LBs Chris Worley and Jerome Baker combined for 153 tackles last season, and Dante Booker would’ve been an impact starter last year if he hadn’t suffered an injury in the 77-10 opening win against Bowling Green. So the front seven is not a problem.

The secondary might not be a problem, either. Juco CB Denzel Ward and 2016's nickel-back Damon Arnette had excellent springs, and were being pushed by several freshmen. Starting sr. S Damon Webb returns improved and in better shape. Sr. Erick Smith (rated top-five prospect at his position as a prep) will get his chance at the other safety spot after his trajectory to a starting job was derailed by an injury in 2015. He’ll be pushed by soph Jordan Fuller (New Jersey HS player of the year in 2015; played in every game LY).

Summary: Meyer has lost some great players in his five years in Columbus, but there are plenty of great players still at his disposal (and more lined up to sign letters of intent). The Buckeyes host tough games against Oklahoma and Penn State, and the visit to Michigan won’t be as daunting this season (Wolverines return just five starters, only one on “D”), so a trip to the CFP for the third time in four years is a distinct possibility.


PENN STATE (SUR: 11-3; PSR: 10-3-1; O-U: 10-4)...HC James Franklin had a lukewarm start in his first two years at Penn State, as the team went 7-6 each season (6-10 in conference games in 2014-2015). However, last season’s Big Ten championship run answered many questions about his progress in bringing the program back to the level it enjoyed before the Sandusky scandal rocked the University Park world. Defending the conference title might be a different story, however, with a massive Big Ten East game against revenge-minded Ohio State scheduled for Columbus this season.

The attack should achieve close to the same production as last season, when the Nittany Lions scored 37.4 ppg. Nine starters return on offense, including 4th-year jr. QB Trace McSorley, who threw for 3614 yds. with a 29-8 TD-interception ratio and was named 2nd-team all-Big Ten in 2016. McSorley threw for 338 ypg in the final three games of the season (vs. Michigan St., Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, and Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl), tossing 4 TDs in each game. Jr. RB Saquon Barkley ranked second in the Big Ten last season with 1496 YR and led the conference with 18 rushing TDs. Barkley’s 5.5 ypc mark was better than the top ground-gainer in the league, Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (1524 YR, 5.1 ypc). A solid “contract year” performance could set Barkley up to be the first RB chosen in the draft. Four offensive line starters plus all-Big Ten TE/H-back Mike Gesicki also return. The OL should be in good shape, as the move of soph Connor McGovern from guard to center during spring went well. Penn State cut its sacks to 1.7 per game (24 total) after giving up 3.1 (83) in 2014-15. That unit has a group of quality youngsters that make it one of the deepest and most talented on the team.

Replacing lead receiver Chris Godwin (third-team all-Big Ten; 59 recs. for 982 yds.; drafted by Tampa Bay) is the prime offensive worry, but there are plenty of targets for McSorley. Giesicki was second on the team with 48 catches for 679 yds. and five scores last season. Holdover starting WRs Saeed Blacknall (15 recs., 23.1 ypc in 9 games) is back, along with fifth-year sr. wideout DaeSean Hamilton (161 career catches) and jr. Deandre Thompkins (27 recs. LY). Hamilton and Thompkins combined for 61 catches a year ago, and Barkley grabbed 28 receptions coming out of the backfield. Soph Juwann Johnson is a big (6-4) target who’ll make a bid for a starting spot. Despite losing Godwin, Penn State should have one of the top WR groups in the country.

The defense returns six starters overall, including four of the top six tacklers, and a pair of senior all-Big Ten players in S Marcus Allen (team-high 110 tackles) and LB Jason Cabinda (181 stops the last two seasons). A rash of injuries at linebacker hurt the team’s performance LY, but the chance to play helped develop jrs. Manny Bowen (68 tackles) and Koa Farmer (29 stops). However, the defense had a setback in the spring when shutdown corner John Reid suffered a knee injury that will likely cost him the season. Reid will be replaced by sr. Christian Campbell (31 tackles LY), who figures to be a key element after a somewhat disappointing career.

A major defensive issue is replacing DEs Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, who tied for the team lead with six sacks each (Penn State had 40 last season). Soph DE Shareef Miller (5½ TFLs LY) appeared ready to step up during spring. Soph DE Ryan Buchholz, soph DT Kevin Givens and Farmer combined for 10½ sacks last year, so the pass rush should fill in adequately. The Nittany Lions allowed just 3.8 ypc last season, making a huge improvement in the final 10 games after allowing Pittsburgh (341 YR, 6.1 ypc) and Michigan (326 YR, 6.7 ypc) to run over them in September.

Summary: Franklin has upgraded Penn State recruiting since taking the helm. The Nittany Lions have finished 2nd, 4th and 3rd in the Big Ten in recruiting in his first three seasons. His systems and players are in place, and the Penn State faithful can fully expect double-digit wins. But to get back to the conference title game, that likely means they have to win at Ohio State. That’s not out of the question (they won there in 2008 and 2011), but the Buckeyes had won four straight against the Nittany Lions prior to last year’s Penn State upset (as a 19-point underdog!). The recruiting is turning around, but it’s still trending behind Ohio State every year.


MICHIGAN (SUR: 10-3; PSR: 6-7; O-U: 9-4)...Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh continued his non-traditional run as a head coach this spring, refusing to release a depth chart or even an official roster, holding a spring game before 57,418 and before finishing out the team’s two remaining weeks of practices. And then the team took a trip to Italy. Harbaugh is having fun, and so are Michigan fans, as the team has improved from 12-13 SU mark in the two years before he took the job to 20-6 in his first two seasons.

Michigan had 11 players drafted into the NFL and seven more signed as undrafted free agents. If you think losing eighteen pro players will faze Jim Harbaugh, you don’t know Jim Harbaugh.

Four offensive starters return, primary of which is QB Wilton Speight. Speight captured the starting position in camp last season, winning the competition with Houston transfer John O’Korn and the graduated/transferred Shane Morris. Speight did a solid job, completing 62% of his passes for 2538 yds. with an 18-7 TD-int. ratio despite missing the Indiana game. Speight retained his starting spot in spring work, but RS frosh Brandon Peters demonstrated the team has depth at the position, as he shouldered his way in front of O’Korn for the backup job.

Speight will have help, despite the attrition of talent. Two starters return on the offensive line, soph G Ben Bredeson and sr. Mason Cole (2nd team all-Big Ten) . The OL lost quite a bit of experience and quality, as one 1st, two 2nd-team all-Big Ten players are gone. Cole moves back to his more natural left tackle position after starting every game at center last season. He made 25 straight starts at LT before moving to C for 2016. The remaining pieces are still being fit together, but the Wolverines ranked 5th and 6th in the country in recruiting the last two seasons. Soph G Michael Owenu played on both sides of the ball in 2016, and highly-touted C Cesar Ruiz will get plenty of playing time as one of the Maize and Blue’s top incoming recruits.

Chris Evans didn’t make a start at RB last year, but he was on the field enough to carry 88 times for 614 yds. (7.0 ypc) and score four TDs. Evans played a bit of WR in 2016, but enters the fall as the heir apparent to De’Veon Smith at RB. Sr. Ty Isaac has rushed for 622 yds. and six TDs with a 6.0 ypc mark in his two seasons at Michigan since transferring from Southern California. Jr. Karan Higdon showed spurts of explosiveness last season, carrying 21 times for 220 yds. off the bench against Rutgers and Illinois in back-to-back games in October. UM also has a pair of bulldozing FB/H-backs returning who started a combined nine games in senior bruisers Khalid Hill (13 TDs on 41 touches; 263 lbs.) and Henri Poggi (6-4, 257 lbs.).

The receiving corp lost some talent, as the top three pass-catchers from a year ago all went in the draft. But don’t fret for the Wolverines. Incoming frosh Donovan Peoples-Jones is the top WR recruit in the nation and Tarik Black was ranked 17th. Both impressed enough in spring to be projected starters this fall, and could might make Michigan’s attack instantly-explosive. Sr. TE Ian Bunting backed up A-A Jake Butt LY and should be ready.

The Wolverines have just one returnee from a defense that ranked first in total yards and second in points allowed, but several youngsters appear ready to step up. Vet starting LB Mike McCray (76 stops LY) will get help from Khaleke Hudson (taking over Jabrill Peppers’ “viper” spot) and soph Devin Bush. The front four could be formidable if jr. DT Bryan Mone (310-lb.) stays healthy, soph Rashan Gary makes improvement and lives up to his “best overall recruit in the country” hype, and jr. DE Chase Winovich (2 starts, 35 Ts and 5 sacks) can build on last year’s apprenticeship. The incoming frosh will help with depth. Jr. S Tyree Kinnel will assume the role as the 2ndary’s leader, and it’s “next man up” for a group of a half-dozen frosh and sophs moving into starting positions. Incoming frosh Ambry Thomas and Jaylen Kelly-Powell got long looks as early enrollees in spring.

Summary: It’s difficult to question Jim Harbaugh’s coaching acumen after he rebuilt Stanford, the 49ers, and now Michigan. We won’t underestimate him, and the Ohio State game is in Ann Arbor this season. However, the Buckeyes are loaded again, the Wolverines open with Florida in Dallas, and the game at Penn State will be a major challenge. Ten wins and a major bowl again would be impressive, but not surprising.


MICHIGAN STATE (SUR: 3-9; PSR: 4-8; O-U: 5-7)...Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State team had a precipitous fall from grace last season, a fall as sudden as any college football team has suffered in recent memory. After upsetting Notre Dame on the evening of September 17 last year, the Spartans owned a 40-5 SU record since late in the 2013 season. Then things unraveled, beginning with a 30-6 home loss to Wisconsin. Ultimately the attack ranked just 105th in scoring, and MSU lost 9 of its last 10 games in a remarkable “crash-and-burn” season.

MSU fell from 4th in the country in turnover margin in 2015 to 101st last season due to a young defense that wasn’t nearly aggressive enough. The stop unit was younger than planned due to a number of injuries (29 lost starts in the final 10 games). If the offseason is any indication, Dantonio’s Spartans will have a tough time regaining the magic of the 2013-15 teams led by QB Connor Cook and RB Jeremy Langford.

The Spartans return just eight starters from a team that recorded a losing regular-season mark for the first time since 2006. MSU’s depth was additionally sapped by the departure of eleven underclassmen for various reasons. Four players were dismissed after being charged with sexual assault, and an assistant coach was fired for mishandling reports of the assault incident. One of the dismissed players was the team’s top returning pass catcher, soph Donnie Corley (33 recs. LY). Including those four, a total of 15 players didn’t suit up for the spring game, including RB L.J. Scott (949 YR, 5.1 ypc, team-high 7 TDs; recovering from injuries in spring).

Sr. QB Damion Terry, who was last season’s backup, missed spring entirely recovering from an injury. That opened the door for soph Brian Lewerke (54%, 381 YP LY) to move into position to take over the starting job this season, although the competition will continue in the fall. The offense will lean heavily on Scott, sr. RB Gerald Holmes (966 YR, 13 rushing TDs L2Ys), and jr. Madre London (614 YR, 5 TDs L2Ys). The receiving corps is clearly rebuilding with youth after losing its top five pass-catchers. Emerging true frosh Hunter Rison (son of former Spartan and NFL star Andre), plus 6-3 sophs Trishton Jackson and Justin Layne must all step up. Layne is a two-way player who was the top WR in Ohio as a prep and started five games at CB for the Spartans last season. It’s hoped that Layne can be a gamebreaker on offense this year, and he seems poised to become a two-way starter. The OL returns four players who started at least three games in 2016, including two-time all-Big Ten sr. C Brian Allen, who has also played extensively at both guard positions the last two seasons. The Spartan offense must stay healthy, and must have either Lewerke or the athletic (but often scatter-armed) Terry develop a rapport with the young receivers.

The MSU defense lost a pair of NFL draftees in DT Malik McDowell and S Montae Nicholson, as well as LB Riley Bullough (a free agent with Tampa Bay) and two additional starters in both the DL and 2ndary. The 2016 defense was a disappointment against the run, ranking 10th in the Big Ten at 167 ypg allowed. That was the Spartans’ worst mark since 2004, and the 28 ppg the defense yielded on the season was the most since 2006. As mentioned, injuries hit the defense especially hard, but Dantonio prior to the season had proclaimed his team the deepest he’d ever coached. The front seven was punched around on the ground by BYU RB Jamaal Williams (163 YR, 2 TDs), Illinois’ Kendrick Foster (146 and 2 TDs), and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (188 YR) among others. Additionally, MSU’s 2ndary was anything but air tight against Penn State (Trace McSorley threw for 376 yds. and 5 TDs with 0 ints.) or in the loss at Indiana (Hoosiers’ Lagow threw for 276 yds. & 2 TDs and caught a TD pass that sparked the Indiana rally). The defense let down in the 2nd half far too often last season, holding foes to 9.4 ppg in the first half, while yielding 18.3 ppg after the intermission.

Summary: MSU suffered its most injuries for the past several seasons in 2016. However, attrition and lack of a proven passing game have taken a toll. Dantonio is a fine coach and recruiter, and a tough schedule is softened by seven home games, so peg the Spartans to rebound and return to the bowl picture.

INDIANA (SUR: 6-7; PSR: 6-7; O-U: 4-9)...HC Tom Allen begins his first full season as a head coach after taking over following Kevin Wilson's abrupt (and forced) resignation on Dec. 1. Allen, Wilson's defensive coordinator in 2016, was promoted the same day. Allen and the Hoosiers suffered a 26-24 loss to the Utes in the Foster Farms Bowl, and then Allen started making staff changes and hit the recruiting trail. The Hoosiers return 16 starters for 2017, including a pair of sr. all-Big Ten 2nd-team defensive players in LB Tegray Scales (126 tackles) and CB Rashard Fant.

Defense is Allen’s specialty, and he improved Indiana from 120th in total defense in 2015 to 45th in just one season as coordinator. With nine starters and 10 of the top 12 tacklers back, the “D” should be able to at least maintain last year’s level and could be poised to continue the improvement. The defensive line is stocked with big, athletic players and held foes to a very reasonable 3.7 ypc in nine Big Ten games and ranked 6th in the conference in sacks. Scales is a one-man wrecking crew at inside linebacker, and the secondary, which returns intact, held foes to 53% (only Michigan and Ohio State’s pass defenses had better marks in the Big Ten). Granted, the Hoosiers ranked just ninth in total defense (380 ypg) and 10th in scoring defense (29 ppg) in conference play, but in the five years prior to Allen taking the d.c. job, Indiana yielded 36 ppg (never fewer than 33 ppg) and 479 ypg overall.

Although 62 lettermen return along with all those starters, there are problems that need to be addressed in Bloomington, especially on the offensive side of the ball. QB Richard Lagow, a former juco who came in last season and threw for 3362 yds. and 19 TDs remains in place. He has a big arm, but must improve his accuracy and cut down on his 17 interceptions while improving on his 57.8%. Lagow has some high-quality wideouts returning in jr. Nick Westbrook (54 catches for a team-high 995 yds. & six scores LY) and jr. Simmie Cobbs. Cobbs caught 60 passes for 1035 yds. and four TDs in 2015, but was limited to one appearance last season, as he was suspended for the opener and then suffered a season-ending ankle injury vs. Ball State.

A new lead rusher must step forward. Devine Redding went to the NFL Chiefs as a free agent after rushing for 2197 yards the last two seasons. Redding’s successor appears to be former JC star and fifth-year sr. Camion Patrick, a converted WR who is coming off an ACL injury. He missed time in spring while recovering, so it might be jr. Mike Majette (180 YR, 4.5 ypc LY), who was held out of the spring game. Those 2016 injuries put walk-on Alex Rodriguez on the field for every snap in the spring game. The leading returning ground-gainer is 270-lb. soph Tyler Natee, who had 237 yds. on 61 carries LY. Retooling the run game will also be set back by the departure of talented RB coach Deland McCullough, who was not retained.

The development of the OL is crucial and uncertain. The Hoosiers’ best player, G Dan Feeney, was picked by the Chargers, and OT Dimitric Camiel (Texans) was signed as an NFL free agent. C Wes Rogers graduated after starting every game in 2016. Indiana also lost G/T Jacob Bailey, who was one of the team’s top reserves, making four starts at right guard when Feeney was injured and then taking that spot when Feeney moved out to tackle for the final four games of 2016.

Summary: Oddly, Tom Allen is on a bit of a hot-seat, believe it or not. Allen was in his first year with Indiana as d.c. last season, and he’s never been at any college for more than three seasons. His contract is incentive-laden, and the buyout is cheap, making it easier to fire him. The entire offensive staff is brand new. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord spent the last two years at Tennessee and was with Michigan coaching Tom Brady, Brian Griese and Chad Henne back in the day. The defense is improving, and DeBord has credentials on that level, so Allen’s wallet might be getting fatter. His deal calls for $100,000 bonuses for each win north of six and $300,000 for winning a bowl game, which hasn’t happened since 1991. We’ll see where the Hoosiers are right off the bat, as they host Ohio State (where former HC Wilson has landed as the co-o.c.) in their opener August 31.


MARYLAND (SUR: 6-7; PSR: 4-9; O-U: 5-8)...Maryland has 14 starters returning, but HC D.J. Durkin has some key holes to fill. Durkin has made rapid progress in recruiting since arriving at College Park last season. As an example, the Terps have recruited eight players from DeMatha HS. Just before his arrival, there were no players on scholarship from that storied, D.C.-area, athletically-dominant team. Durkin’s 2017 recruiting haul was ranked in the top 20 nationally despite losing out late on two targets who decided on Notre Dame and Penn State. No matter, the class of recruits is still considered the best ever at the school, with 11 four-star prospects.

The Terrapin offense will be directed by a new QB with the graduation of Perry Hills, who led the Big Ten in completing 62% of his throws. Jr. Caleb Henderson is a strong candidate to replace Hills. He transferred from a crowded North Carolina QB race and enrolled at Maryland prior to 2016. Henderson has thrown just one pass in his collegiate career, but he’s likely to start Sept. 2 at Texas despite missing the spring game with an ankle injury. Also in the competition are sophs Max Bortenschlager (16 of 33 for 209 YP with a TD and 0 ints. LY) and Tyrrell Pigrome (37-71-322-2-2). So the battle for the job is far from over, and all three might step aside when four-star QB Kasim Hill arrives on campus. Whoever wins the job will target jr. WR D.J. Moore, who has made 23 straight starts and led the team with 637 yds., 6 TD catches and 15.5 ypc marks.

The offense ranked just 95th last season, but the explosive run game netted 4.9 ypc despite the OL giving up 49 sacks, ranking 127th in that department, just one ahead of San Jose State. This season speedy jr. Ty Johnson (1004 YR, 9.1 ypc six TDs) hopes to have more consistency and build off of his 163 YR, two-TD performance vs. Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl. It was feast or famine for him last season, as he had five games in which he gained 115 yds. or more, but was held to 27 ypg rushing in the other eight. Offensive line failures were at the root of the sack problems and Johnson’s roller coaster output. That unit remains suspect after losing its top two players from last season. Incoming frosh Anthony McFarland, one of Durkin’s prizes from DeMatha, is considered a top-ten RB prospect and will get plenty of touches, but OL development is key.

Maryland’s offense, defense, and special teams will all miss graduated CB/KR/WR Will Likely III. The diminutive two-time all-Big Ten playmaker was one of the most versatile players in the country, making starts on offense, defense and special teams in many games, scoring TDs via interception returns (2), punt returns (4), KO returns (2), and receiving (8) in his Maryland career. The Terps were 4-1 last year when Likely suffered a season-ending ACL injury against Penn State, but then lost six of their last eight. Likely is with the world champion Patriots now.

Still, aside from Likely, Maryland retained the majority of its defensive playmakers. Sr. LBs Shane Cockerille and Jermaine Carter were 1-2 on the team in tackles with 108 and 106, respectively, and combined for nine sacks. Jr. S Darnell Savage was third with 59 stops and joins jr. CB JC Jackson and sr. S Josh Woods (combined 81 Ts) in the 2ndary. Sr. DEs Jesse Aniebonam (46 Ts, team-high nine sacks) and Chandler Burkett (35 Ts, 2 sacks) shared the “Buck” position, and 300-lb. sr. NT Kingsley Opara (41 Ts, 11½ TFL, three sacks) give Terp fans hope that the defensive line can improve. The front seven needs to do a better job stopping the run (99th LY; 215 ypg/4.8 ypc) and continue to put pressure on opposing passers after getting 37 sacks in 2016, 15 in the final three outings.

Summary: The schedule is tougher this season, as Maryland draws division-favorites Wisconsin and Northwestern out of the Big Ten West instead of Purdue and Nebraska, as well as the usual suspects from the East. The visit to Texas will be difficult, and the home game against 2016 bowl participant UCF will be a challenge for the Terp defense. Durkin has made a positive start in College Park, but advancing on last season’s six wins and bowl appearance will be difficult, if not impossible. But the Terps, who suffered five losses by 21 points or more and covered just four of 13 games in 2016, should be more competitive in 2017.


RUTGERS (SUR: 2-10; PSR: 4-8; O-U: 6-6)...Chris Ash probably knew the Rutgers job wouldn’t be easy. However, it’s doubtful he anticipated the bottom falling out in New Brunswick to the extent it did last season. After all, the Scarlet Knights weren’t too far removed from a run of four straight bowl appearances (2011-2014) when Ash, off of a stintr as Urban meyer's co-d.c. at Ohio State,  took over for Kyle Flood in December of 2015. Last season opened well, with a 2-1 preconference start. Then things went south fast. Rutgers was winless (0-9) in the Big Ten, taking the bloodiest beatings suffered by Scarlet Knight football teams in this century. Rutgers scored just 14 points in its first four conference games last season, being outscored by a composite 174-14 in those games, which included a 78-0 home humiliation at the hands of Michigan. That loss to the Wolverines was the worst since Princeton beat Rutgers 82-0...in 1888!

The offense managed to show up with average production against Minny, Indiana and Maryland, in the 2nd half of the conference schedule, but still lost those games. The fact that Rutgers was outscored 146-0 against Ohio State Michigan State and Penn State (aside from the Michigan fiasco) underscores just how wide the gulf is between the Big Ten’s top and bottom halves.

Ash has 99 problems and QB is one. Soph Gio Rescigno and jr. Chris Laviano split the starter’s job last season, completing a composite 50.6% for 1637 yds. with a 10-7 TD-int. ratio, and the team finished 122nd in pass offense and 127th in both pass efficiency and scoring. TCU transfer Zach Allen was to be given a chance at the job, but he tore his ACL in spring and is through for this year, if not for his career. Although Rescigno was listed as No. 1 coming out of spring, this fall Kyle Bolin (graduate transfer from Louisville) and incoming frosh Johnathan Lewis will join the team. Odds are Bolin, who completed 141 of 242 (58%) for 13 TDs and 10 ints. as a backup to the Cards’ Lamar Jackson the last two seasons and Will Gardner in 2014, will very likely get the job. Louisville HC Bobby Petrino pitched Bolin to new Rutgers offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, and most of these graduate transfer moves aren’t made just because the QB really wants to go to grad school.

Kill came out of a medically-induced retirement to take over after Drew Mehringer decided discretion was the better part of valor and left to coach wideouts in the greener pastures of Austin, Texas. Apparently, Mehringer is a better recruiter than coordinator. Kill’s teams at Northern Illinois scored 30 ppg, but his Minnesota offenses scored in the mid-20s and only once generated more than 200 ypg passing (in his final year, when he left the team in midseason). Kill has to turn lemons into lemonade. Sr. RB Robert Martin gained 625 yds. (5.2 ypc), sr. Josh Hicks (1271 career YR), and soph Trey Sneed will share the touches, with Martin being the big dog.

One crucial piece is WR/KR Janarion Grant, who was granted a medical redshirt after breaking his ankle last season. Grant is a dynamic, multi-purpose weapon who’s gained 4251 all-purpose yards in 42 games at Rutgers. He had 20 catches in the team’s first four games, when the Scarlet Knights went 2-2 SU. Soph WR Jawuan Harris (39 recs., 3 TDs) is back as well.

The defense suffered as a result of the offensive ineptitude, staying on the field far too long and in terrible field position. Jr. punter Michael Cintron and the punt coverage team threw gas on the fire. He punted 95 times, and the Scarlet Knights ranked 128th and last in the FBS in net punting, forcing Rutgers to defend a short field far too often. The Scarlet Knights return eight starters from last season’s stop unit, but lost their two best defensive linemen and top tackling DB, who ranked 3-4-5 in tackles LY. Jr. LBs Trevor Morris (led team with 102 stops) is solid, and LB Deonte Roberts (greatly improved in spring, according to Ash) had 95 stops last season. The DL lost two good players, and that unit yielded 264 ypg rushing and 5.7 ypc last season, so that’s an obvious problem.

Summary: It’s time for a reality check. If Grant remains healthy and productive the whole year, and if Bolin is a cut above average, and if Kill can recapture his mojo and pump life into the offense, and if the defense can keep Rutgers in games, and if new special teams coordinator Vince Okruch can make a difference, then maybe Rutgers can win three or four games this season. That is the ceiling for Ash and the Scarlet Knights.

NEXT UP:  BIG TEN WEST


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