Better or Worse in the Big Ten East in 2016: Rutgers Offense
Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land of 10, we’re going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination if they should be better or worse in 2016. We’ll assess a team a day in each division. Today, we address the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers enters 2016 with a new head coach in Chris Ash and new offensive coordinator in 28-year-old Drew Mehringer, a protege of Houston head coach Tom Herman who has had success at Houston and James Madison after serving graduate assistant stints at Ohio State and Iowa State.
The Scarlet Knights produced a middle-of-the-pack offense in 2015, so the starting point for the new staff is better than it often is for teams going through coaching changes. However, the personnel was recruited for a pro-style offense favored by Kyle Flood while Mehringer runs a spread attack.
The spotlight in fall camp is shining on the quarterback battle, where incumbent Chris Laviano (16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2015) is trying to fend off a challenge from TCU graduate transfer Zach Allen, who might be a better fit for the offense.
“Well, I think it starts with just who Zach is,” Ash said at the team’s media day on Sunday. “Zach is a high character individual. He’s very intelligent. He’s easy to get along with. He’s fit in well with the rest of the team. He’s a likable individual, and he’s got a comfort level of playing in a spread offense. This isn’t a completely different offense for him. So his comfort level with the offense is a little bit different than the other players.
“Is our offense different than what he was a part of at TCU? Yeah, it is, but it’s still some of the concepts are the same. So his comfort level, his understanding of it is slightly different than what the other guys’ are. But I think it gets back to who he is as an individual, the type of person he is, and the players have drawn to him, and he’s been drawn to them.”
Whichever player wins the job will have to cope with the loss of Leonte Carroo, the dominant wide receiver who left for the NFL. Rutgers does return wide receiver Janarion Grant, a versatile playmaker who will be leaned on as the Scarlet Knights figure out what works and what doesn’t in the new system.
Here’s what else you need to know about Rutgers:
Rutgers by the numbers
Total yards per game: 377.0 (8th in Big Ten/No. 84 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 169.9 (7th in Big Ten/No. 65 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 207.1 (10th in Big Ten/No. 86 nationally)
Key players lost: RB Paul James
Key returning players: RB Robert Martin, RB Josh Hicks, RG Chris Muller
The skinny: The injury-prone James is out of eligibility, but the Knights do return their two leading rushers from 2015 in Martin and Hicks. Martin rushed for 763 yards and six touchdowns last fall while Hicks racked up 674 yards and four scores. The offensive line is anchored by the All-Big Ten candidate Muller at right guard and could be a strength for Rutgers this season. If that’s the case, the tandem of Martin and Hicks could be in line to do some damage.
Key players lost: WR Leonte Carroo
Key returning players: QB Chris Laviano, WR Janarion Grant
The skinny: How the passing game performs will likely depend on which quarterback wins out. Laviano has the experience at Rutgers, but Allen might be a better fit for an offense that will be starting over schematically. The biggest problem for whichever one ultimately wins the job is that Carroo will no longer be around to offer a dependable target to the quarterback.
One stat that must improve
That’s how many first-quarter points Rutgers scored all season long in 2015, a dreadful average of 4 points per first quarter and an output that made up less than 15 percent of its scoring. The Scarlet Knights will have a shot at a bowl game this season, but they absolutely cannot afford to consistently fall behind in games, especially against beatable opponents.
The quarterback battle would be at the top of the list. Can Allen adjust to his new teammates if he wins the job? Can Laviano fit in Mehringer’s offense? Either way, whichever one gets the nod will have to help carry the offense. There’s also the issue of whether Carroo is irreplaceable or if Grant can become the playmaking weapon that Rutgers needs at that position.
Better or worse in 2016?
BETTER. This is a somewhat optimistic view, but it helps that Rutgers wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire last year. Even though the current marriage of scheme and roster may not be a perfect fit, the Scarlet Knights have enough talent on the offensive line, enough experience in the backfield and enough options at quarterback to find a way to make it work. Mehringer knows what he’s doing, and even if the Year 1 improvement is minimal the stat sheet will still reflect growth from last fall.