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After a rough start to its first two years in the Big Ten, Rutgers is looking to finally show some improvement and become a relevant team. The Scarlet Knights brought in former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash to lead the way and there is definitely a different type of feel surrounding the team. Coming off a one-conference-win season, there's plenty of room to grow.
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Rutgers returns last year's top quarterbacks, led by Chris Laviano (60.9% completion, 16 TDs, 12 INTs), but the starter is still undetermined with Hayden Rettig competing as well. They'll run a new power scheme that includes no-huddle and will basically mirror what Ohio State does. Because of that, Laviano doesn't have the job locked down, despite winning the competition in 2015.
Running back will be one of the more experienced positions, which is good news in this scheme. Robert Martin (763 yards, 6 TDs) and Josh Hicks (674 yards, 4 TDs) should see plenty of touches out of the backfield. Receiver is a bigger question, but Janarion Grant should have a bigger role in the offense after doing most of his damage as a return man previously. The hope is that Grant or Carlton Agudosi can take Leonte Carroo's spot as top receiver. The offensive line has some new faces, but the experienced Chris Muller will still be there, while Tariq Cole is expected to slide into the vacated left tackle spot.
But the problem for Rutgers in recent years has been on the defensive side and that's the main reason why a defensive coordinator was brought in to lead the team. Against better offenses, it was a normal day when the Scarlet Knights gave up close to 50 points. With a lot of new faces, Ash has his work cut out for him.
The best and most experienced part of the defense will be on the line where captain and tackle Darius Hamilton returns to the group after missing most of last year. He can provide the difference needed for the defense up front. Elsewhere, there are bigger questions as all three starting linebackers are gone and the secondary has been one of the worst in the country. At the least, senior safety Anthony Cioffi will lead the back end of the defense and sophomore Isaiah Wharton will provide experience after starting every game last year.
After winning three non-conference games a season ago, having only three out-of-conference games won't be beneficial to Rutgers, especially with a trip to Washington. Also, a starting Big Ten slate that incudes Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan should put the Knights in an immediate hole. But there will be a few opportunities for wins in the middle of the schedule against teams like Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana. Reaching six wins may be too much this early in Ash's tenure, but they should at least hope for more than one conference win.
If Laviano or whoever is at QB can figure out the new offense quickly, that should give the team some pop. And then winning games will come down to how much the defense can improve under Ash.
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2016 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Football Schedule
Sept. 3 at Washington
Sept 10 vs. Howard
Sept. 17 vs. New Mexico
Sept. 24 vs. Iowa
Oct. 1 at Ohio State
Oct. 8 vs. Michigan
Oct. 15 vs. Illinois
Oct. 22 at Minnesota
Nov. 5 vs. Indiana
Nov. 12 at Michigan State
Nov. 19 vs. Penn State
Nov. 26 at Maryland
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