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Behind Enemy Lines Preview: The Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Aaron Breitman of On The Banks is here to preview Rutgers.

Michigan v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

As we get closer to the 2021 football season, we decided to poll the other sites in the SB Nation family to get a sense of where their programs are at. Today’s edition welcomes Aaron Breitman of On The Banks to preview the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who Michigan will see on Sept. 25 in Ann Arbor

Here is the full rundown from Breitman on what the Scarlet Knights bring back and how the fanbase feels about their outlook moving forward.

Your team’s key departures

Michael Dwumfour, defensive tackle, Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection; Brendon White, safety, Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection;

Your team’s key returnees

Noah Vedral, starting quarterback; Isaih Pacheco, running back, top rusher; Bo Melton, top receiver, Honorable Mention All-Big Ten; Aron Cruickshank, receiver and returner, Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year & First Team All-Big Ten; Olakunle Fatukasi, linebacker, led Big Ten in tackles & First Team selection; Tyshon Fogg, linebacker, three-year starter, and captain, Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection; Christian Izien, safety, lead the team with 4 interceptions, Honorable Mention All-Big Ten; Avery Young, cornerback, three-year starter led Big Ten with three forced fumbles, Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection; Mike Tverdov, defensive end, Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection; Mohamed Toure, linebacker, led the team with 4.5 sacks

True freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact

Patrice Rene, defensive back, transferred from North Carolina; Ifeanyi Maijeh, defensive lineman, transferred from Temple; David Nwaogwugwu, offensive lineman, transferred from Temple; Josh Youngblood, receiver and returner, transferred from Kansas State and was Big XII Special Teams Player of the Year in 2019; Alijah Clark, true freshman defensive back, former top 250 and 4-star recruit

A brief overview of the 2021 team

When a team finishes the season at 3-6, it’s usually not celebrated. However, 2020 marked significant progress at Rutgers after the program ended a 21 game Big Ten losing streak entering the season. It also made people believe that Rutgers is on the road to becoming a winning program once again under Greg Schiano. His return for a second run as head coach inspired hope within the fan base, but no one expected the results he produced in year one.

Schiano elevated the culture and talent level in the program immediately. He hired arguably the best coaching staff in school history and has made several key moves in the transfer portal. The biggest surprise last season was the offense under new offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson. The Scarlet Knights averaged 26.7 points per game in nine Big Ten contests last season, posting 20-plus points eight times after only doing so twelve times total the previous six seasons combined since joining the conference.

While there are raised expectations for year two under Schiano, there should be caution with a more difficult Big Ten schedule and depth is still a concern across the roster with most position groups. How healthy this team remains throughout the season is a major key towards having more success. That’s obvious for every team but is even more so for a team that lacks experience on the depth chart at quarterback, running back, the secondary, and a couple of spots on both lines. As I explain further below, progress could be made without it reflecting much in the final record. Expecting a bowl game in year two of Schiano after how bad this program was before his arrival isn’t realistic. However, if he accomplishes that, expect the statue blueprints to be drafted by Christmas.

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

Continuity and focus. Rutgers returns 92% of its production from last season which is tops in the Big Ten. The coaching staff has remained intact since Schiano assembled it in 2020. The program finally was able to have a spring camp and is entering its first true training camp with this coaching staff. The fact that Rutgers made as much progress last season without either with a new staff bodes well for another step forward this fall. The players know what to expect now and have embraced the “Chop” mentality that Schiano has instilled. This is a hungry yet experienced group looking to make a big leap forward in the season ahead.

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

Talent and depth along the offensive and defensive lines. While talent and depth of the roster have greatly improved since Schiano’s arrival, both lines don’t appear to be at a level where Rutgers needs them to be to make a solid jump into the middle of the Big Ten. The offensive line performed better than expected in year one under Gleeson and offensive line coach Andrew Aurich, but they have a long way to go before being an above-average unit. The defensive line was improved and should be even more so this season. The question is whether there is enough depth to continue to make progress and hold up in a 12 game season.

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

While there is always a honeymoon period for new staff, Schiano returned with savior-type expectations and only made believers out of the skeptics in his first season back. While fans rightfully felt wins against Michigan and Illinois slipped away last season, winning three games and being far more competitive marked major progress. The positive momentum has led to a top 15 recruiting class for 2022 as of now, which is boosting fan morale even more so.

In addition, the job Gleeson did with the offense was heroic. Secondary coach Fran Brown is delivering on high expectations as a recruiter and the staff as a whole has been extremely competent. It’s hard to imagine that Schiano and his coaching staff could have gotten off to a better start than they have so far.

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

This is a tough one as Rutgers really is a team that relies on so many players to contribute for them to have success. I will say if Rutgers is going to take another step forward this season, then it’s likely quarterback Noah Vedral will be a big reason why. He showed flashes last season but was inconsistent and limited by injuries. However, another year in Gleeson’s spread offense and with the entire unit returning, he could make the biggest jump of any offensive player this season. If he can become more efficient and limit mistakes as a passer, while maintaining his effectiveness as a runner, Vedral could emerge as a top-half QB in the Big Ten and ultimately become the MVP for Rutgers this season.

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

While a bowl game would be a huge statement for this program, I think it’s unfair to expect that to happen. While all three non-conference games are extremely winnable, the Big Ten slate is more difficult with West crossover opponents Northwestern and Wisconsin replacing Purdue and Nebraska. The other factor to consider is that COVID-19 made last season extremely unpredictable due to players missing the time they normally wouldn’t have. Even Schiano admitted at Big Ten media day that he wasn’t sure to make of last season’s progress due to the unprecedented issues every team dealt with. Rutgers benefitted from some luck last season, including Maryland’s starting QB being replaced by a walk-on in a game they won in OT.

All of that being said, I think Rutgers finishes 5-7 and just misses out on the postseason. Wins over Temple, Syracuse, and Delaware (FCS playoff team) will boost expectations, but the reality of the Big Ten will settle in soon after. After a Homecoming win over Michigan State, RU will lose five in a row until beating Maryland in the season finale.

What else should we know about your team this year?

Rutgers should be improved this season but it probably won’t be equally measured in its final record. While they return most of its production and key players from last season, there are two important points to note. One is most Big Ten teams return the majority of their production and experience from last season. The other is Rutgers was a losing team last season, despite the progress, so that production returning has less value than teams that performed well last season. With a difficult Big Ten schedule, I think it’s very possible they could have a worse conference record but be more competitive and ultimately, a better team this season. If that happens, hope should remain high for Rutgers in Schiano’s second tenure.