Earlier this week we talked with Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman), manager for the SBN blog On the Banks regarding the Rutgers football team.
Here's what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Rutgers has a new head coach in Chris Ash. When a team is 4-8 and a new coach comes in, there is always talk about a change of culture (losing less hopefully). Optimism reigns supreme with the new staff in place?
Optimism is very high for the future of the program with the arrival of Chris Ash at Rutgers. Since he took over last December, he has completely revamped multiple aspects of the program. The most immediate and impactful change was bringing Kenny Parker with him from Ohio State to run the strength and conditioning program. It helped transform the culture and mindset of the players by making competition a focus in everything they do, both on and off the field. The physical impact on the players has been striking and they are the strongest and best conditioned they have ever been. Training camp was especially grueling, but many players cited the offseason workouts as properly preparing them for the grind.
The players are graded in so many ways now, including things like hydration. Another big change was Ash hiring Allison Kreimeier from Houston to completely revamp the nutrition program for the team. The players have raved about this change as well, which not only helped them build muscle, but many have experienced significant reductions in body fat % as well.
Ash has hired a first class staff with a good balance of veterans like defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, who left Northern Illinois, and rising stars like offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer, a protégé of Houston head coach Tom Herman. The other assistants are loaded with Big Ten experience and I can confidently say Rutgers has never had such an experienced staff leading the program.
Recruiting has improved dramatically early on, with Ash making in-state recruits a priority. New Jersey has always been a top ten state talent wise, but Rutgers has never been able to fend off programs like Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State from stealing all the top talent from the garden state. There is now real hope that Rutgers will "fence the garden", as the staff coined it, and the class of 2017 is currently rated in the top 30 by every major recruiting service as of now.
As for progress on the field this season, the fan base is hopeful but also reasonable. Last season was a disaster on many levels, so being more competitive and operating in a way that the fan base can be proud of the program is really the only expectation. However, this is a veteran team and only five players transferred out since Ash has arrived, none of which were in line for playing time. They have all bought in and based on their experience, coupled with improved coaching, there is legitimate hope the team can win six games and make a bowl game.
The schedule is loaded, starting of course with Washington, and includes nine bowl teams from last season. Playing in the Big Ten East means every season Rutgers will be playing the bluebloods of the conference, but the hope is the program can solidify a middle of the pack slot quickly and build from there in the future. They start the Big Ten schedule this year with Iowa, at Ohio State, and then Michigan, so a 2-4 start is likely. However, the back half of the schedule is much more reasonable and the goal is for Rutgers to improve as they go and capitalize from mid-October on.
UWDP: On offense, Rutgers fans have a love/hate relationship with quarterback Chris Laviano. His stats from a year ago were not bad, but there seemed to be a collective hope that he would be beaten out for the starting job. What are the expectations for this season and can you please describe the strengths of the 6’2" 220 lb signal caller? What type of offense does Rutgers run and tell us what it would take for backup QB Zach Allen to get the call? How does his skillset differ from Laviano?
Aaron: Honestly, I don’t know if Rutgers has ever had a more polarizing player than quarterback Chris Laviano. His stats were pretty solid for a first year starter last season, but he struggled terribly against the conference elite. He lacked arm strength on the deep balls, had a tendency to throw behind receivers, and almost got a few killed. Our star receiver from last season and current Miami Dolphin Leonte Carroo, was injured on a ball Laviano threw short, forcing him to miss action on and off the rest of the season. He also had an issue of fumbling snaps in multiple games. Still, and I think somewhat unfairly, Laviano became the focus for fans venom over the team’s debacle of a season. A big part of the problem was former head coach Kyle Flood refusing to sit Laviano at times when he did struggle badly, and even when he looked beaten and hopeless on the field. That created an animosity towards Laviano that was unfair and he admittedly didn’t handle it well at times, even lashing out in the season finale on the field and on social media.
The new coaching staff forced Laviano to reevaluate his commitment to the team and challenged him by bringing in TCU graduate transfer Zach Allen to compete for the starting quarterback position. Ash and Mehringer have praised the work Laviano has put in this summer and throughout training camp. Players have raved about him as well, and he is said to be universally respected in the locker room. Feeling Laviano would earn the starting job and knowing a large portion of the fan base would not be happy about it, I wrote on why all Rutgers fans should root for him, whether he started or not. If you want the full story on Laviano, you can read it here.
With that being said, I am optimistic Laviano will have a strong season. While there are concerns he is a pro-style quarterback and Mehringer has implemented a new spread offense, they are tailoring it to his strengths. Laviano had a completion percentage of 60% last season, and he is stronger with short to intermediate passes. The spread Mehringer implemented is predicated on finding players in space that can capitalize on it and Laviano is being asked to be more of a game manager than anything else. The run game will be a focus, with juniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks returning after both averaged 5+ yards per carry last season. Martin missed some time during camp with a hamstring issue, so Justin Goodwin will start Saturday and he can contribute as well. Expect to see all three backs. The offense will be up tempo, mostly no huddle, and Laviano will take all the snaps out of the shotgun. Don’t expect to see Allen unless an injury occurs, although he is still fighting Gio Rescigno for the backup spot.
Ultimately, Mehringer wants a true dual threat quarterback and they have true freshman Tylin Oden, who is expected to redshirt, and class of 2017 3-star commit Jonathan Lewis on the way. Both project to be very good fits with the preferred style of spread offense Rutgers wants to run in the future. A big problem last season in my opinion was that the playcalling was predictable and conservative, which put Laviano in difficult spots and a lot of third and long situations. I am confident this will be far less an issue this season. It’s a tough first game for Laviano against Washington’s impressive defense, but it will be a litmus test for how he will fare against the best of the Big Ten later this season.
UWDP: Rutgers had a hard time getting off the field on 3rd downs last season, allowing almost a 45% conversion rate to opposing offenses. Do you expect the defense to improve and what are the strengths? Weaknesses? Which defensive players stand out?
Aaron: You are being kind. Rutgers has had historically bad defenses the past three seasons, but last year was the worst. It was a combination of woefully conservative schemes, a lack of adjustments with what the opposition was doing, and an incredibly green secondary. Four key defensive backs were kicked off the team less than a week before the season opened last year, and true freshman were thrust into action before they were ready. However, there is talent there and now they have a lot of experience entering their sophomore seasons. Ash is a defensive backs coach first, and hired two assistants to tend to the secondary. There is a lot of confidence this position group will be much better this season. The new staff is very high on safety Saquon Hampton and the other safety is Anthony Cioffi, who is a ball hawk and led the team in interceptions last season. Corners Isaiah Wharton and Blessaun Austin are sophomores who are big and physical.
New defensive coordinator Jay Niemann has a history of producing results at Northern Illinois, where he beat three Big Ten teams over four seasons and held Ohio State to 20 points in Columbus last year. The defensive line is the unquestioned strength of the unit, with only four and five year players starting on Saturday. Three-time captain Darius Hamilton returns after missing all but one game with a knee injury last season. He has gained close to 40 pounds since the 2014 season and after being undersized his whole career, he finally looks the part of a star lineman. Julian Pinnix-Odrick will line up on the end of one side and could be their best pass rusher. Niemann wants to create pressure with the front four and will rotate eight to nine guys in hopes of doing so. They will run a quarters defense and look to create more pressure on the opposing receivers than the last few years, when Rutgers played off their marks, which they were repeatedly burned in allowing way too much open space for opposing quarterbacks to throw to. Niemann has stated he doesn’t want to blitz much, so the front four must create consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The major concern on defense is with the linebackers, as all three starters from last year are gone. By the way, one of which is Steve Longa, who was undrafted and fighting for a spot on the Seattle Seahawks roster. Deonte Roberts is the only linebacker to start a game, with a total of one, but he could be in line to be a tackling machine this season. How they read what the offense is doing and how they cover the passing game will be a key to watch.
UWDP: How would you rate the special teams and Rutgers’ kicking game? WR Janarion Grant is a terrific kick returner. Tell us about him. Is he expected to be more of a focal point of the offense as well?
Aaron: Janarion Grant is a tremendous kick returner and arguably the best in college football. He ran three kickoffs back for touchdowns last season, including one against Michigan that was the longest return in the history of the Big House. He is an explosive punt returner as well. We all fear opponents will wisely kick away from Grant, but special teams coordinator Vince Okruch has already hinted at countering that in some way. There are huge expectations on Grant this season, as he is expected to be a focal point within the spread offense. He is the type of player that needs one block or open gap and he can run it all the way. He will get a few carries on offense as well, and he averaged 10 yards per touch from scrimmage on offense last season. One of the most frustrating things about the previous coaching staff was their inability to consistently get Grant the ball on offense. There is reason to believe that won’t be an issue this season, as Grant had 11 receptions for 140 yards in the spring game.
As for the kicking game, there is concern based on a lack of experience from both specialists. David Bonagura won the placekicker job out of camp, but has never kicked in a college game. He does have a big leg and kicked a 48 yard game winning field goal with just seconds left in the state championship in high school. However, Ash has cited consistency as an issue in the spring and summer. Bonagura is expected to handle kickoffs as well as field goals, and it will be interesting to see how he handles his collegiate debut. This also means I will, as will most Rutgers fans, be a nervous wreck on any field goal attempts that come his way on Saturday.
Our punter is Michael Cintron and he has just three punts for his Rutgers career, with two being for 50+ yards.
Another aspect of special teams play that fans are hoping resurfaces is Rutgers penchant for blocking kicks. Before last season, Rutgers averaged 4 blocks a season for almost a decade, which was the most in college football during that stretch of time. Last season, special teams overall was a mess, so this is another aspect Rutgers fans are hoping is on the rise this season.
UWDP: With Washington ranked in the top 20 and Rutgers coming off a 4-8 season, what are fans expectations for the opener?
Aaron: In a word, progress. Rutgers has gotten blown out and embarrassed countless times the past two seasons when playing top end Big Ten teams, with the exception of conference champion Michigan State last season. Coming into this game as almost four touchdown underdogs, the hope is that Rutgers can make this a much closer contest. No one is expecting a victory, but we are optimistic this team shows immediate improvement under the new coaching staff. This is a senior laden team that has something to prove, and I personally expect Rutgers to come out fired up on Saturday. They also have experience opening the season in Seattle from playing Washington State two years ago. We know Washington is a much better team than your rival was in 2014, but there will be a certain level of confidence from the veterans who were part of that 41-38 upset over the Cougars. Overall, most fans would be happy with a closer than expected game, in which Rutgers showed some toughness and gave Washington a battle to the very end.
UWDP: Are many fans making the trip to Seattle since this is a rare opportunity to take in a Scarlet Knights’ road game in the Pacific Northwest?
Aaron: My guess is 3-5K fans will make the trek to Seattle and we have quite a few of our readers expected to attend, as well as one of our contributors. There has been a good back and forth with readers from your site visiting with us at OTB, and they have been extremely welcoming, inviting Rutgers fans to attend various tailgates before the game. We appreciate that and I wish I was making the trip myself. I will make sure we return the favor next season when hopefully a lot of Husky fans make the trip to the east coast for the rematch.
UWDP: What is your prediction for this game?
Aaron: While this is a very difficult opener for Rutgers, I actually think this is a perfect start to the season, even if it doesn’t end in a victory. This is a great way for Ash and the staff to truly assess where this team is at against a ranked opponent. Washington is explosive on offense, but I really think our defensive line will cause some problems for your offensive line in this game. I think defensive coordinator Jay Niemann will throw a lot of different looks at Jake Browning, hopefully frustrating him throughout the game. It will be a difficult challenge for our offense and Chris Laviano against such a stout defense, but if we can move the chains and not turn the ball over, I think this game will be much closer than expected. I think Washington pulls it out late in the 4th quarter and this game will be looked at as a positive experience that makes this team better later in the season.
Washington 27, Rutgers 20
Best of luck to you all in this game and during the season.
UWDP: Thank you Aaron, and good luck in the tough Big-10 East this season!
To Read my answers to Aaron's questions about the Dawgs, click here.