Earlier this week I talked with Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman), manager for the SBN blog On the Banks regarding the Rutgers football team. For the second year in a row I have had the pleasure of swapping questions with Aaron. Here's what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Rutgers has a new quarterback in senior grad-transfer Kyle Bolin. The former Louisville signal caller is an obvious upgrade at the position. When a team comes off a disappointing season, the only thing that gives fans more hope than a different coaching staff is a fresh face at QB. How excited are the Scarlet Knight faithful about an experienced, accurate quarterback running the show?
I think fans are very excited to see what Bolin can do. He has some high level experience and while sometimes there are major questions about a transfer player, Bolin lost his job to Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. He is known for having an accurate arm and has become a leader as soon as he arrived on campus this past spring. While it wasn’t surprising that Bolin was named the starting quarterback, it was that his teammates named him a captain. It speaks volumes for how he has come into the program and made such a positive impression from day one. No one is expecting a superstar, but there is no question the position is in much better hands this season with Bolin behind center.
UWDP: The offensive struggles last season weren’t limited to QB play; Rutgers finished 12th in the B1G in rushing yards and 13th out of 14 teams with a 3.6 yards-per-carry average. The good news is leading rusher Robert Martin returns after averaging 5.2 YPC. There is some new depth at the position as well. Tell us what to expect in the running game and how the offensive line looks heading into the season.
Aaron: In terms of running back, another grad transfer in former Miami Hurricane, Gus Edwards, has come into camp and seized the starting job. He is a big back, who is fast for his size and can be an every down back. Martin is also in his last year and one of his strength’s is gaining yards after contact. He was inconsistent last season and missed some time early on in camp, so it will be interesting to see how many plays he and Edwards get on Friday.
There are other options as well, in senior Josh Hicks, who can explode through the line, but has struggled with consistency throughout his career. Sophomore Trey Sneed played some last season and may get a few carries on Friday. One pleasant surprise from camp has been the emergence of true freshman Rasheem Blackshear, who demonstrated his speed out of the backfield.
That being said, expect Edwards to get the bulk of the carries early on, with it depending how successful he is and how Martin does with his opportunities in the first half. They could emerge as a potent, 1-2 punch this season.
As for the offensive line, the clear strength is on the left side with tackle Tariq Cole and guard Dorian Miller. Cole could be a breakout star this season and is the leading pass blocker, in terms of efficiency, returning in the Big Ten in 2017. Miller is entering his third season as the starter and is also a team captain. Jonah Jackson played last season but enters his first year as the unquestioned starter. Right guard Marcus Applefield is coming off of an injury from last season and missed spring camp, but had a great training camp this summer and won the starting job. Kamaal Seymour started five games at right tackle last season and is a converted defensive lineman. He has learned a lot and could take a real step forward this season.
Overall, offensive line play is a concern, simply because the starters haven’t played a lot together and last season the unit was a major weakness for the offense. However, I think they have a chance to be much better this season. It will certainly be a difficult first test against Washington and they’ll need to generate holes for the run game early on or Rutgers will be forced to throw more than new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, known for wanting to pound it on the ground, probably wants to. A real issue last season was the offense not being able to put together consistent drives, which wore out the defense. Rutgers needs sustained drives against Washington to stay in the game.
UWDP: Janarion Grant is an electric player who can go the distance every time he touches the ball. He missed the last 8 games last season after an opponent stepped on his ankle. He’s still listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Any details on his health and availability for Friday? Who else can step up as a playmaker in the receiving game?
Aaron: Grant was wisely held back through most of training camp, but has ramped up his activities the past week plus and has been deemed 100%. It’s been said he needs to take a hit early on to help his confidence, as any player deals with coming back from an injury like he suffered. Hopefully, he doesn’t have too much rust to shake off, as Rutgers needs his “A” game against Washington to have any chance of winning the game. He is a dynamic player and will be utilized all over the field, including likely a handoff or two as well.
A third grad transfer will be starting for Rutgers, aside from Bolin and Edwards, in Damon Mitchell, who transferred from Arkansas. Head coach Chris Ash was the defensive coordinator there and recruited Mitchell back then, so that relationship led him to Rutgers. In addition, his brother Ahmir, transferred from Michigan and joined the program last season. He was expected to start alongside his brother this season, but Ahmir suffered an ACL tear in the spring. Amazingly, he is expected back by mid-season. Damon has been praised by the staff, but Friday will be the first time Rutgers fans will see him in action.
Speaking of new, three true freshmen made the two deep and will see time on Friday. 4-star recruit and true speedster Bo Melton is a deep threat. He has Rutgers fans excited and there are big expectations for Melton to develop into a star during his career. Everett Wormley and Hunter Hayek are the other newcomers who made a great impression during training camp. Of course, how these freshmen will perform under the lights on the big stage remains to be seen.
Two other receivers of note are Dacoven Bailey, who excels in the slot, and Jawuan Harris, who was the leading receiver last season after Grant was out for the year with his ankle injury. Surprisingly, Harris isn’t listed on the two deep and hasn’t gotten many reps with the first or second team in camp. He could get a chance on Friday and is a big play guy, so he is a wild card to watch for.
UWDP: How do the ‘Knights stack up on defense this season? The secondary should be a strength with the experience returning. I was particularly impressed with safety Kiy Hester at times last season; smart player. Who are some other names to watch?
Aaron: The secondary is undoubtedly the strength of the defense. Cornerback Blessuan Austin has a chance to be a star and is the best player on the defense. On the other side, Isaiah Wharton is also entering his third year as a starter and is very good as well. Sophomore Damon Hayes showed a lot of promise last season and will see plenty of action in the pass game too.
Hester is entering his third season as a starter in the back of the defense, but has struggled to stay healthy. However, all signs point to him having a big year and he is the heaviest hitter in the Rutgers secondary. He is paired with Saquan Hampton, also a third year starter, giving Rutgers a very experienced back four on defense with Austin and Wharton.
The defensive line has three new starters and the linebackers were all new last season, creating a lot of growing pains. Deonte Roberts is the middle linebacker and the best of the group. There is talent and on the line experienced players like Sebastian Joseph and Kevin Wilkins will need to be more consistent. Jon Bateky is a player to watch and someone the coaches have praised this offseason. Kemoko Turay is our best pass rusher, but has battled injuries for two plus seasons now. He is battling something again, but Ash said he expects him to play on Friday. Obviously, how much pressure Rutgers can generate on Jake Browning is a major key to the game.
UWDP: How would you rate the special teams and overall kicking game? Grant excels in the return game (understatement), who else is in the mix for kick returns?
Aaron: Special teams has historically been one of the program’s strengths, including blocking kicks, which made last season’s debacle so upsetting. They were awful in every phase last season. Ash and the staff have made this unit a priority and expect to see a lot of newcomers on the coverage teams.
Grant will be looking to break the NCAA record for most career kickoff and punt returns for a touchdown this season, as he is tied with multiple players with eight scores.
As for the kicking game, it could be an adventure. As of this writing, Rutgers hasn’t decided between David Bonagura or Minnesota transfer Andrew Harte. Bonagura was the guy last season and made 10 of 14 attempts. However, he struggles from 40+, making just 1 of 4 and limiting Rutgers’ chances from that distance. True freshman Justin Davidovicz will handle kick-off duties and is said to have a big leg. EDIT: Andrew Harte has been named the starting placekicker.
Rutgers punted early and often this season, but Michael Cintron was inconsistent and lost his job to transfer Ryan Anderson. He has been very consistent in camp and is a former Division III All-American. The battle for field position is obviously key and the hope is Anderson can be a big help this season.
UWDP: With Washington ranked in the top 10 and having jumped on Rutgers early on a year ago in Seattle, what are fans expectations for this season opener? Any tank-top wearing, Jacuzzi-going fans smelling an upset on the banks?
Aaron: Haha, John. At least you didn't make any Jersey Shore TV show jokes, which by the way, most of them weren't from the garden state. I don’t think anyone having a sound mind expects Rutgers to beat Washington, but there is hope that this team shows improvement in this game. It’s a very difficult opening game for a team playing so many newcomers, including grad transfers and true freshmen, but it’s also a good barometer to see where this group is at the start of the season. The Big Ten is treacherous and Rutgers was miserable against the conference’s elite teams last season. The hope for this year is that Rutgers can be more competitive against top teams and Washington is their first opportunity.
UWDP: It’s year two for head coach Chris Ash and Jerry Kill takes over as offensive coordinator. What can be expected in terms of change in the offensive mindset? Any other new additions to the staff?
Aaron: Last season, Ash’s biggest mistake as a rookie head coach was hiring a rookie offensive coordinator who stubbornly tried to fit a round peg into a square hole. Rutgers ran a pro-style offense for a decade plus, but the new staff was determined to run a true spread offense last season. It was a disaster and the offense simply didn’t have the personnel. Once Grant went down, Rutgers had the worst offense of any FBS team.
What is encouraging about Ash is he has seemed to learn from his mistakes and made a solid hire with Jerry Kill as offensive coordinator. While Kill hasn’t been an OC for many years, he has a ton of experience and is a big help to Ash in him growing into the job as head coach as well. Kill has been adamant about tailoring the offense to its personnel and that it will be more of a mix between pro-style and spread. Rutgers will utilize the tight end much more so than last season and I think Miami transfer Jerome Washington could emerge as a big threat in the pass game. Overall, Kill will engineer a more balanced offense that game plans specific per opponent. Not groundbreaking by any stretch, but I expect the offense to be much improved under Kill, especially with an upgrade in front line talent this season.
An underrated hire this offseason was running backs coach Lester Erb, who held the same position at Iowa for over a decade, before spending the past few seasons at Nevada. He replaces an inexperienced coach as well and he has plenty of talent and depth to work with. Knowing that Kill likes to run the ball, I think Erb will be a great addition in helping this unit be more effective.
UWDP: Quite a few Husky fans are making the trek cross country for the season opener. Any good resources for places to go, things to do before and after the game?
Aaron: The obvious answer is New York City is just a 45 minute train ride away from New Brunswick and there are endless activities for fans to explore there. In New Brunswick, Steakhouse 85 and Clydz are very good upscale dining options. On game day, there are some college bars along Easton Ave, as well as a Brother Jimmy’s near the train station.
The Rutgers campus has some nice buildings and architecture and there are plenty of shuttle buses along College Avenue to bring fans across the river to the game. You can walk it as well, it’s about 20 minutes to the stadium from College Avenue. As for tailgating, there are plenty of lots near the stadium and Rutgers fans do put together some nice spreads. I think most groups of Rutgers fans are very welcoming and Washington fans will find that by walking through different areas around the stadium. Overall, I think Rutgers offers a nice game day experience. Here is our story giving an overview on new offerings by the school on game days.
UWDP: Prediction time. What are you thinking for Friday night, Aaron?
Aaron: After Washington blowing the doors off of the Rutgers defense in the first quarter of last season’s matchup, obviously surviving the first 15 minutes is a must. I think that the Rutgers offense will be a lot more interesting this season and that they’ll be able put some points on the board against Washington. Time of possession will be key, as Rutgers needs to produce some sustained drives to keep the ball away Browning and the Washington offense. I don’t think the Rutgers defense will be able to stop them enough to win, but limiting big plays and making the Huskies work for their scores is key. I’m actually more concerned about stopping the run game with Gaskin and Coleman, more than anything, as defensive line were horrific in this area last season. I think Rutgers will show they’ve improved and represent themselves fairly well, but the Washington depth and experience will prove to be too much.
Washington 37, Rutgers 20.
Best of luck to you all in this game and during the season.
UWDP: Thank you Aaron for the great insight, and good luck to Rutgers in the tough B1G East this season!
To Read my answers to Aaron's questions about the Dawgs, click here.