Dienhart: Rutgers Scarlet Knights' offseason to-do list
B1G HIGHLIGHT - Janarion Grant finds quarterback Chris Laviano for the touchdown vs. Nebraska.
Chris Ash continues to put his stamp on the Rutgers program after taking over for Kyle Flood. Job No. 1: change the culture. Offense? Defense? Special teams? It all needs work. Rutgers ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten in total defense in 2015 (462.0 ypg) and 12th in scoring (34.9 ppg). The back seven needs a lot of work, as the linebacking corps is being rebuilt and a young secondary needs to mature.
The offense has work to do, as well, as it is undergoing a scheme change. RU will use a “power spread” scheme that is similar to what Ohio State operates. The line loses big left tackle Keith Lumpkin, but four other starters are back up front to offer stability. And there are some playmakers returning at wideout and running back, but stud receiver Leonte Carroo will be missed. And who will be the QB, as Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig battle?
Here is Rutgers’ to-do list.
1. Find a QB. No decision was made in the spring for an offense that is operating an attack that will be similar to Ohio State’s offense, as coordinator Drew Mehringer is a protégé of former Buckeye OC and current Houston coach Tom Herman. Both of last year’s signal-callers are back in Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig. Laviano has an edge in the competition since he started last year and is the favorite to win the job. His skill set seems suited to what this attack wants to do from a dual-threat aspect. But Rettig has a bigger arm.
2. Develop the secondary. There is now way to sugarcoat this: This group struggled mightily last season, as Rutgers was No. 12 in the Big Ten in pass defense (275.9 ypg). And the Scarlet Knights were last in the conference in pass-efficiency defense, as foes completed a Big Ten-high 64 percent of their passes. The RU secondary was riddled with youth last season, as three freshmen started. Perhaps that baptism by fire will pay dividends in 2016. Corners Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin are the most promising youngsters in the back end of this defense and need to develop this offseason.
3. Hone the linebacking corps. Lots of help is needed, as three starters are gone: Kaiwan Lewis, Quentin Gause and Steve Longa, who bolted early. Look for Deonte Roberts, Isaiah Johnson and TJ Taylor to be the front-runners to win starting jobs. How bad is it? DC Jay Niemann called the linebacker depth chart a “mess” this spring. This must be an active group that can take on physical rushing attacks while also playing in space. In 2015, RU was No. 12 in the Big Ten vs. the run (186.1 ypg) and yielded a league-high 33 rushing TDs. Najee Clayton looks good on the strong side. After that? The return of stud tackle Darius Hamilton from a knee injury that ruined his 2015 should help the LBs vs. the run. And the return from injury of DE Kemoko Turay will be a boost.
4. Work on kicking. Kyle Frederico hit 75 percent of his career field goals. Now, he is gone. RU thought is had his replacement in Alex Barbir, but he flipped his commitment to Penn State late in the process this winter. David Bonagura was the only kicker on the roster in the spring. He has been on campus three years but has yet to put toe to leather in a game. A walk-on will arrive this summer. This is not a good situation.
5. Buy-in. Anytime there is a coaching change, there likely will be some pushback from some players. After all, they were recruited by the former staff. But in order for progress to be made in Year 1, all parties need to be rowing in the same direction. Some players have left—and others may, too. But those who remain must buy-in to what Chris Ash and his staff is selling.
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