2012 Record: 9-4 (5-2 in Big East; 4-2 home; 5-2 road; 0-1 vs AP ranked)
Head Coach: Kyle Flood (Second year; 2012 co-Big East Coach of the Year)
Last Bowl Game: 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl: lost to Virginia Tech 13-10
Stadium: High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J. (capacity: 52,454)
Notable alumni: Ray Rice, Gary Brackett, Shaun O’Hara
Big Games: 9/21 vs. Arkansas, 10/10 at Louisville, 11/21 at UCF
Football Outsiders 2012 FEI Ranking: 34th out of 124 teams
Pro: Outscored opponents 279-184
Con: 34% third-down conversions; 71% red zone efficiency
Phil Steele’s returning starters – offense: 6; defense: 4
Key losses: RB Jawan Jamison (All-Big East Second Team), OL Antwan Lowery (All-Big East First Team), LBs Khaseem Greene (Big East Defensive Player of the Year, All-Big East First Team) and Steve Beauharnais; DL Scott Vallone (All-Big East First Team), CB Logan Ryan (All-Big East First Team), S Duron Harmon (All-Big East First Team)
Players to watch: QB Gary Nova; OL Kaleb Johnson (All-Big East Second Team) RB Savon Huggins; WR Brandon Coleman (All-Big East Second Team); DLs Darius Hamilton and Jamil Merrell; LBs Steve Longa, Jamal Merrell and Kevin Snyder; S Lorenzo Waters; and K Kyle Federico
CFBZ: Rutgers enters its final season in the Big East/American Athletic Conference, never having won a football title. Kyle Flood had the team soaring and poised to do so last season, but the Scarlet Knights dropped three of their last five games. Do they have what it takes in 2013 to put some hardware on the shelf as a memento of their time in the Big East?
Matt Hladik: I think there is enough talent to contend for an AAC title this year, but there are some definite question marks, most notably with quarterback and offensive line play and replacing losses on defense. Flood has brought on a quality staff of assistants, but this year will go a long way in telling how he and his staff adjust after a year on the job. I think the schedule will make it tough, if not impossible, for Rutgers to win the league title, but there are enough weapons for the Scarlet Knights to stay in the hunt.
CFBZ: Gary Nova’s inconsistency has been a factor the last two seasons. What did he look like this spring and do you think new OC Ron Prince will have any impact on his game this year?
Matt Hladik: The end of last season was the worst I’ve seen Nova look since he’s arrived on campus. This spring was the best I’ve seen him look since coming to Rutgers. Physically, he slimmed down and tightened up his physique, and his stamina and arm strength seemed improved. A teammate said he became more of a leader on and off the field. If he keeps that up heading into fall camp and then into the season, Rutgers’ offense will stand a good chance to make strides this season.
I’m interested to see Prince’s scheme start to take shape this summer after the guys have had even more time to work with it and every piece of the puzzle is in place. There’s been lots of talk about Prince knowing how and when to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers, so it bears watching how he attacks defenses and gets his unit into a rhythm.
CFBZ: Jawan Jamison is playing on Sundays this year, leaving Savon Huggins as the lone feature back. Is he finally ready to live up to his 1,000+ yard potential?
Matt Hladik: Savon and those in his corner have always contended he is the type of back who gets better with increased reps as games wear on. He will have a chance to test that theory this year. Paul James has been hampered by injuries and Desmon Peoples emerged in the spring but is likely best used as an 8-10 carry change of pace back. Huggins has shown that he can produce when he receives good blocking (Cincinnati last year) but I’d like to see him run with more decisiveness and power. He tends to almost be too patient at times and it hurts him, especially when he tries to bounce plays outside.
CFBZ: RU lost two pillars of its defense: Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais. How do the Knights stack up on that side of the ball in 2013 and who will be the new face of that unit?
Matt Hladik: There is still a lot left in terms of talent and athleticism, but losing those guys as well as veteran leaders Scott Vallone, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan will take a toll. I expect linebackers Kevin Snyder and Jamal Merrell to assume leadership roles but there will definitely be a learning curve for someone like Steve Longa if he plays the MIKE. Longa has immense potential but still has to prove he can handle the mental side of the game that Beauharnais mastered in the middle over the last three seasons.
In the secondary, there’s several unproven commodities, but having graduate transfer Lewis Toler from Western Michigan should help cornerback depth and Lorenzo Waters will be counted on to make strides in his second season as a starter at safety.
Jamil Merrell and Marcus Thompson are solid assets on the defensive front, and I’m very interested in seeing the development of Darius Hamilton in his second campaign.
Rutgers is a much different team personnel-wise than it was in 2012. Though the Scarlet Knights have consistently recruited well, they need to replace the experience they have lost.
The key returning player is QB Gary Nova. After sharing time with Chas Dodd in 2011, he was at the helm of the offense all last season. He played well at the start of the schedule as the team won its first seven games, but a late swoon contributed to four losses in RU’s last six games. Nova threw 15 TDs and three INTs in the early wins and seven TDs and 13 INTs after that. New offensive coordinator Ron Prince needs avoid a similar lapse this year because the defense and running game have question marks at this point. Savon Huggins was a four-star recruit out of nearby Jersey City, but has yet to live up to his billing. He’ll be the feature back in the 2013 offense. Talent is not lacking, but he has not emerged yet as the dominant player expected.
The defensive live has great size if not longevity. It promises to be the best personnel group in the unit. There’s significant talent in the linebacking corps too, with Steve Longa, Kevin Snyder and Jamal Merrell – but not that much experience. Lorenzo Waters is the best of the players in the secondary, but Ian Thomas, a converted wide receiver, has shown promise at corner.
The schedule is not too onerous. Arkansas comes to northern New Jersey on September 21 looking to avenge a 35-26 loss last year in Fayetteville. That game and trips to Louisville and UCF should be the only real challenges. Still, Rutgers likely winds up the bridesmaid yet again.
Predicted record: 8-4.
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