After a dreadful year, Rutgers' offense has a reason to be optimistic
Improvement is imminent.
That’s the good news for Rutgers’ offense. Of course, when things are as bad as they were a year ago in Piscataway, it’d be really difficult to not show any signs of at least some progress.
Putting a pleasant spin on it is nearly impossible, so it’s best to just be blunt. Rutgers was dreadful offensively last year. The Knights totaled just 19 offensive touchdowns, were shutout on four occasions and ranked last nationally in red zone efficiency, converting on just 68 percent of their 25 trips.
After losing games to Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State by a combined score of 224-0, it was clear a massive gap separated Rutgers from the rest of the B1G. It showed in nearly every statistical category, too. Not only did the Knights own one of the worst offenses in the B1G last season, it was one of the worst in the country:
|Rutgers 2016 Offense||Averages (per game)||B1G Rank||National Rank|
|Total offense||282.4||14th||128th (last)|
Not to state the obvious, but those numbers aren’t going to cut it in the B1G. Chris Ash understands that.
It’s why he went out and hired ex-Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill to run Rutgers’ offense for the 2017 season. Kill, who’s prided himself on turning losing programs into contenders, recently led the Gophers out of a deep hole and had them competing for the B1G West in four years. Landing a former head coach with that type of reputation is a benefit for the Knights.
But even with the addition of a veteran like Kill, can Rutgers really see drastic improvement a year removed from such an abysmal offensive season?
Kill isn’t the only factor in the equation, obviously. While his presence most definitely makes a difference in the outlook, it’s the quality of talent at the skill positions that gives Rutgers an opportunity to make a big leap forward.
The Knights have a solid starting point with a backfield that will be comprised of Robert Martin, Josh Hicks and Miami transfer Gus Edwards. Martin led Rutgers’ rushing attack last season with 625 yards and two touchdowns. While Hicks only played in seven games last season, he’s accumulated over 1,000 yards in his career. And with the Hurricanes, Edwards racked up 977 yards in three seasons.
Establishing a strong rushing attack was always key for Kill’s teams at Minnesota. While that one-dimensional approach won’t be the way to win at Rutgers, Kill does have the personnel at running back to develop a ground game that can compete in the B1G. Finding depth on the offensive line to block for those backs might be the more challenging task, but Dorian Miller, Tariq Cole and Kamaal Seymour are a good foundation.
What might actually be the biggest difference for Rutgers, though – and this seems weird for a Kill-run offense – is the talent at receiver.
The importance of Janarion Grant’s return can’t be overstated. After his injury last season, the Knights were deprived of their biggest playmaker, both on offense and special teams. In four games, Grant caught 20 passes for 210 yards and returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown. He’s a proven deep threat and a player that can turn a short gain into six points. Not to mention, Grant’s efforts as a specialist should help in the field position battle.
Grant’s just one piece of that receiving corps. Last year’s leading receiver Jawuan Harris and incoming four-star recruit Bo Melton will be excellent options in the passing game. With a designated big-play threat back in the mix, short-to-intermediate passes should become more effective.
So, Rutgers’ talent cupboard isn’t exactly bare. It may not be up to the level of Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State, but there’s some really nice pieces for Kill to work with.
Now, the big question: who runs the show under center?
The effectiveness of Rutgers’ offense might hinge on its quarterback, whoever is named the starter once the season starts. And, depending on who wins the job, it might require Kill to make some adjustments to his offensive mindset.
Gio Rescigno is the incumbent, finishing last year as the starter but with numbers that hardly solidify his spot as No. 1 on the depth chart. His two biggest competitors are Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin – who threw for 1,154 yards and seven touchdowns with the Cardinals in 2015 – and incoming dual-threat freshman Jonathan Lewis.
How could that battle affect Kill?
While at Minnesota, and even Northern Illinois, Kill has utilized a dual-threat quarterback. He values a quarterback’s ability to effectively pick up yardage on a designed run or the elusiveness to avoid defenders while dropping back. To say Kill likes mobility in his gunslingers is an understatement.
Rescigno and Bolin really don’t bring that type of ability to the position. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Rutgers needs to incorporate some play-calling that stretches defenses and takes advantage of opportunities downfield. It would probably be more beneficial for the Knights to have a more pure passer under center, at least for one year.
If Kill doesn’t want to abandon that dual-threat mentality, though, Lewis could work his way into the starting role.
Regardless of what happens at quarterback, Rutgers is in a better position talent-wise than it was a season ago. Considering how bad the Knights were offensively, that’s not a huge compliment. But it does put them in a better position to have some success.
With Kill’s prior experience in the B1G and resurrecting programs, the Knights have even more working in their favor.
It doesn’t mean Rutgers is going to evolve into a top-tier offensive unit. It doesn’t even mean the Knights are going to be in the middle-of-the-road offensively in the B1G next season. But it’s an incremental step in the right direction, and an important one.
Improvement is imminent for Rutgers.
To what degree is what still remains in question.