The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off on Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time in the Big Ten East to a program trying to build under a first-year coach.
RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS
- Can Chris Laviano keep the quarterback position away from LSU transfer Hayden Rettig?
Rutgers is one of only three Big Ten East teams to return a starting quarterback this season, joining Ohio State and Maryland, but the jury is out on whether that’ll be a good thing or not.
Redshirt junior Chris Laviano had a productive season in many ways last year, hitting 61 percent of his passes for 2,247 yards and 16 touchdowns during last year’s 4-8 campaign, but his 12 interceptions came largely on forced throws. He pressed as Rutgers fell behind in games and receivers not named Leonte Carroo struggled to get open, but he has to find a way to get those mistakes out of his system this year.
If he can’t, redshirt junior and former LSU transfer Hayden Rettig could challenge for the starting spot. The former 4-star pro-style quarterback clearly has the talent, although he doesn’t offer the experience running through the rigors that Laviano does. For a first-year coach in Chris Ash who knows this is an extended rebuild, starting experience likely plays much less of a factor.
That could tempt Ash to give a look to the future, and give freshman Tyler Odin from Columbia, Tenn., a shot. The three-star pro-style prospect chose Rutgers over an offer from Tennessee and after decommitting from Louisville, but he could use plenty of developing as a true freshman who measures just 180 pounds at 6-foot-5.
2. Can Drew Mehringer develop an offense that spreads the ball around?
With Carroo’s departure to the NFL, Rutgers finds itself lean on playmakers for Laviano – or whoever plays quarterback– to throw to. It was a problem for the Scarlet Knights even with Carroo’s deep speed last year, as they finished with the No. 84th offense in the country.
The good news is they return a few players with proven contributions to the offense. Running backs Robert Martin and Josh Hicks combined for 1,437 yards and 10 scores on the ground a year ago. Receivers Andre Patton and Janarion Grant both caught at least 34 passes last year. And three starters right in the middle of the offensive line are back.
First-year offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer promises to build his offense around the skill he has to work with, which at this juncture likely means spreading it around since no individual player really stands out. He’s going to have to scheme Rutgers to points in some ways, with no proven deep threat to expand the field, but if he can give Laviano a host of players to work through to establish more unpredictability than was here a year ago, it could go a long way to restoring the signal-caller’s confidence.
3. Can the defensive line hide the weaknesses in the back seven?
Defense is Ash’s calling card, and he’s inheriting quite the rebuild on that side of the ball. The Scarlet Knights finished 111th in total defense last season – out of 128 teams nationally – after allowing five different teams to score at least 46 points on them.
As expected, the talent he has to work with this year isn’t great, but he does seem to have a little something on the defensive line. That’s where three of Rutgers’ five returning starters play, and all four projected starters are juniors or seniors. The returning players — Quanzell Lambert, Sebastian Joseph and Julian Pinnix-Odrick — have displayed some versatility and playmaking, and it’s going to be crucial they expand upon it, in a few different ways.
They’ll be relied upon to make more plays in the running game with not a single starting linebacker back from last year’s squad. And they’ll also key the development of a young secondary that finished 118th in the nation a year ago against the pass.
Ash climbed the ranks by developing defensive backs in press-man coverage, and it’s a dangerous tactic to try to employ with young players. However, if he can find a way to make pass rush a strength this year, he’ll find it to be quite a bit more manageable.
And after spending the past two seasons with Joey Bosa at the front of his defense, Ash knows perfectly well how much a game-wrecking front can pay off on the back end.