Anytime you're facing a team with a completely new coaching staff in its first year, there's always going to be a certain level of uncertainty on what kind of offense they run, and their tendencies. Are they going to run the same offense they ran previously? How much does the new offensive staff adjust their schemes to the new personnel?
Rutgers Head Coach Chris Ash and his OC Drew Mehringer (previously WR coach at Houston) haven't coached a single game for the Scarlet Knights, so nearly everything is speculation and looking at their previous coaching destinations.
Rutgers is currently in transition with their completely new head coach and staff. Old head man Kyle Flood preferred a pro-style offense, while Ash and new OC Drew Mehringer are installing a wide open run-based spread attack. The offense will be similar to what Mehringer called plays for in his lone season as an OC, at James Madison University. You can see some highlights of that offense here, here, and here (same video, just at different points). You'll notice a lot of shotgun formations, zone reads, jet sweeps, and trying to put players in space. They also like a heavy dose of RB and WR screens to take advantage of aggressive defenses ganging up to stop the rushing attack.
A lot of this offense depends on having a dual-threat QB, which Rutgers does not appear to have on the roster. Redshirt freshman Giovanni Rescigno can run but it's unclear if he has a B1G-quality arm. How much will this offense be tailored to the current talent? Will we see the Michigan disaster of 2008, with RichRod trying to run the spread with QBs David Cone and Steven Threet, or something more akin to how Sark adapted his pro-style concepts from his USC days to fit the mold of former Husky QB Jake Locker? These are tough questions to answer and we won't know until this Saturday.
So, let's a take closer look at each position group and see what we can find.
Chris Laviano: 2,247 yds, 16 TD, 12 INT, 60.1% completion, 131.8 QB rating, 7.3 yds/attempt.
From spring on through to fall camp, junior Chris Laviano was locked in a dead heat with fellow junior Zach Allen. Laviano, who started 11 of 12 games last year, ultimately won the QB job. The 6'2" 221-lb signal caller will face a tough challenge running a new offense he was not recruited to run. That said, his 60.1% completion percentage was third best in the Big 10 behind Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard of Michigan and Iowa, respectively. He was most accurate on short passes, which is huge for the spread offense he's now running, where putting the ball in a place where the receiver can run through the catch is crucial for big gains. It sounds easy, but think back to Cyler Miles throwing a WR screen versus Keith Price running those same plays, often to Jaydon Mickens. The ball placement is key, and can mean the difference between getting tackled at the line of scrimmage, or a first down or big play.
He took a lot of heat last year, including getting booed at the Maryland game by his own fans. How Chris Ash and Drew Mehringer handle their embattled QB could be key to the type of season he has. Laviano is a solid-not-spectacular passer and it should be interesting to see how his strengths as a thrower are incorporated into a such a run-heavy attack.
Sr. Justin Goodwin: 11 rushes for 20 yards and 1 TD. 13 receptions for 93 yards.
Jr. Josh Hicks: 130 rushes for 674 yards and 4 TDs. 4 receptions for 25 and 1 TD.
Jr. Robert Martin: 141 rushes for for 763 yards and 6 TDs. 5 receptions for 17 yards.
Overall last season, Rutgers was fairly average running the ball, averaging 4.35 yards per rush and getting 170 yards per game total. They had some bright spots: even though they only ran for 72 yards against Michigan State's tough front, they averaged 4.4 yards per carry. However, only against Kansas and Indiana (pretty awful defenses) did they really produce notable rushing statistics, going for over 200 against Indiana and topping 300 against the Jayhawks.
Even with last year's pedestrian numbers, there's a lot of optimism for this group, especially from position coach Zak Kuhr. Notably, each of these running backs have averaged 5 yards per carry at least once in their careers, so the potential is clearly there. How will they adapt to the new offense, which calls for running backs catching more balls out of the backfield? That could give a huge hint as to why Justin Goodwin was named the starter ahead of Hicks and Martin, who seemingly had better 2015 seasons running. Goodwin was a freshman sensation but did very little his sophomore and junior years, and his resurgence could be a sign that the new staff has big plans for his senior year.
We see it here all the time: players buried by the last staff are given a new lease on life when the coaches arrive. The spread offense requires talented skill players, especially versatile athletes in the backfield, and Rutgers appears to have 3 capable options.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Sr. Andre Patton: 34 receptions, 432 yards, 1 TD.
Sr. Vance Mathews: 4 receptions, 38 yards.
Sr. Carlton Agudosi: 17 receptions, 313 yards, 1 TD.
Jr. John Tsimis: 2 receptions, 10 yards.
Sr. Janarion Grant: 35 receptions, 352 yards, 1 TD. 8 rushes, 80 yards.
Sr. Nick Arcidiacono (TE): 12 receptions, 92 yards.
Jr. Matt Flanagan (TE): 11 receptions, 110 yards, 3 TDs.
At first look, these are fairly mediocre numbers, and no one really jumps off the page. Most of this is due to the departure of WR Leonte Carroo, who paced the team with over 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. It's going to be hard for any one player to reproduce that production, especially in a new offense that's fairly run-heavy. However, they do have nice size to work with. Patton is 6-3 220 and is expected to be Laviano's primary target this season. In addition, Agudosi is 6-6, and Mathews 6-3 as well. TE Matt Flanagan has good size at 6-4 260, and caught 3 TDs last season on only 11 receptions, priming him to offer a red zone target.
Janarion Grant is another type of athlete that should flourish in a spread system. He's an electric player who can catch passes and take fly sweeps for big gains. He's also a dangerous return man, handling kickoffs and punts. He's explosive and the team has high hopes for him to be a key piece of the offensive puzzle this year.
Left Tackle: Soph.Tariq Cole. 6-6, 313 pounds. 0 career starts
Left Guard: Jr. Dorian Miller. 6-2, 294 pounds. 12 career starts
Center: Sr. Derrick Nelson. 6-3, 295 pounds. 11 career starts
Right Guard: Sr. Chris Muller. 6-6, 313 pounds. 37 career starts
Right Tackle: Sr. J.J. Denman. 6-6, 313. 1 career start.
Rutgers returns 4 starters from last year's line, and 61 total starts coming back (though 37 are from one player, RG Chris Muller). This line paved the way for 170 yards on the ground per game last year, which is a respectable though not amazing number. They tied for 65th nationally in sacks allowed, allowing just over 2 per game. For reference, that is better than Washington's 2.58 sacks given up per game last season. It's hard to project this group to be dominant, but I don't anticipate they'll be a liability either.
Like I said at the start, with so much uncertainty around scheme and coaches, who knows how Rutgers will line up on Saturday. However, we do know they will operate out of a run-heavy spread system, even if the players don't fully fit the system. QB Chris Laviano appears to be a solid pro-style QB but doesn't have any standout receivers, and could struggle with the athleticism required to run the spread as a QB. He'll have some help with 3 strong, experienced running backs and a decent offensive line. TE Matt Flanagan appears to be a nice red zone threat, turning his barely double-digit catch season into 3 TDs. There's also Janarion Grant, an explosive athlete they will line up all over the field. At least on paper, he seems like the closest fit to the new spread system getting implemented at Rutgers, and the coaches will be trying to get him the ball in a variety of ways. With his talents in the return game, explosiveness as a WR, and rushing threat on fly sweeps, he reminds me a bit of John Ross.
I think Rutgers will struggle on offense in this game as they adjust to a new system with a QB not built for it. I think Janarion Grant and some of the RBs will have a little bit of success if they find space and can make people miss, but it'll be up to their OL to block waves of Husky defensive linemen that will rotate in. First game in a new system against a rugged defense playing at home, I can't see this going well for Rutgers. If they eclipse 350 yards and 20 points, I would be surprised.