Wisconsin is in a unique position in the 2014 football season, as it is the only West division team that gets to welcome both newcomers to the league. MTB has already given you a look at Maryland, but now it’s time to look at UW’s first trip to New Jersey in quite some time.
In fact, this will be Wisconsin’s first-ever meeting with college football’s oldest program. So, despite the fact that Rutgers has been around since the very first game in the history of the sport, we’ve got some catching up to do to understand who Rutgers is.
Luckily, we’ve been going behind enemy lines all spring long and keeping an eye on the Scarlet Knights for you. So, let’s get right to imparting you with what we know about Rutgers after spring ball.
Hiring noted quarterback guru Ralph Friedgen may appear to be a bargain at $500,000 a year when it’s all said and done. At least after one spring working with returning starter Gary Nova, it appears to have been just that.
“It seems to be the right guy and the right pairing at the right time,” Flood said, via Dan Duggan of NJ.com. “The quarterbacks that Ralph has trained in the past have had a tremendous amount of success over time. I think he’s had a great influence on Gary and those other quarterbacks as well. Certainly Gary with the most experience, I think he’s had a big influence on him.”
That’s because Nova went from struggling last season () to a potentially competent quarterback in just 15 sessions with Friedgen in the fold. Instead of being one of numerous Big Ten teams with a quarterback battle lingering in to camp, Nova appears to have separated himself and is the clear No. 1 man in Piscataway, N.J.
He showed a lot more accuracy, estimating he completed 68 percent of his passes this spring according to reports. His head coach also noted it, with Flood focusing on the lack of interceptions by Nova.
“I like the fact that Gary is making good decisions,” Flood said in Dan Duggan’s article. “I think he threw one interception in 14 practices and the first half of the spring game. I think that’s a pretty good job. It’s hard to do that without making good decisions. He’s protecting the football and I think his location has been good.”
Nova’s experience and his improvement were the biggest things going for the Scarlet Knights after this spring. It’s just about applying that improvement to the regular season now.
Rutgers offensive line returns all five starters, and normally that would be a damn good thing. However, when you rank 102nd and 100th in sacks allowed and rushing — it’s not a good sign.
Part of the problem for the Scarlet Knights is that there is little to no experienced depth along the line, with just six games played between everyone not on the first team. Spring didn’t help matters much, as the backup situation remains muddled at best.
Following the spring game, Flood noted that he needs to be comfortable with eight offensive linemen for him to consider this team deep at the position. That wasn’t the case after spring ball, and someone like former Badger target J.J. Denman could be on the verge of making it seven guys Flood trusts.
He saw limited first team reps with a number of spring injuries piling up on the line.
Bottom line is this — any team hoping to win in the Big Ten needs to make it happen in the trenches first, especially one with the schedule Rutgers has.
Biggest question mark:
Rutgers needs to find some combination that works in the secondary or they are dead meat in the Big Ten East division. Between Connor Cook, Braxton Miller and Christian Hackenberg the Scarlet Knights secondary is facing a murder’s row of quarterbacks.
This spring didn’t provide much in the way of answers either, and heading in to the fall it has to be the biggest area of concern for the team.
Sure, two year starter Lorenzo Waters returns, but that’s about the only entrenched starter this team has in its secondary. Ian Thomas and Nadir Barnwell appear to have inside tracks on the starting corner spots, but neither have gone out and won the job outright either.
The most intriguing and perhaps most athletic option in the defensive backfield is free safety Delon Stephenson. He didn’t see a lot of time at the position in the spring, but that’s because he was needed to cover for a cornerback group that was low on numbers. Look for that experience to be something that helps him grow in the fall.
Rutgers needs to find players that step up and take positions, rather than rely on the best default option available or it runs the risk of being 120th nationally against the pass once again.
What it all means:
Rutgers is a program that was on the rise under Greg Schiano, but is now on the downslide under his former assistant Kyle Flood. This is year No. 3 for Flood, and it is put up or shut up time for him, evidenced by the hire of Friedgen. The Scarlet Knights have plenty of question marks entering their first season in the Big Ten, and if they can’t be consistent in the pass game this team is in serious trouble. However, there appears to be talent to work with, it just may take more than 15 practices for it to really sink in. Spring didn’t give us a fair look at the Rutgers, with some key pieces of its puzzle missing or limited all camp long. Until we get a look at this team at full-strength we just don’t know how good/bad this team really is. All we do know is that there isn’t a lot of depth and a healthy season will be needed for Flood to get the Scarlet Knights back to a bowl game.