Opponent Preview: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

An in-depth preview of Maryland's next opponent, Rutgers.

Maryland is on an eight-game losing skid after a 47-28 home loss against Indiana, and now the Terps (2-9) will attempt to end their 2015 season on a winning note. UMD will travel to Piscataway, N.J., Nov. 28 for a bout against a team whose season has almost mirrored Maryland’s (at least, in terms of on-field results). Rutgers has one Big Ten win at Bloomington, Ind., but other than that, the Scarlet Knights have been overmatched against most of their conference foes. RU did come away with a 31-21 victory at Army Nov. 21, improving its record to 4-7, but that probably did little to quell the grumblings in Piscataway.

Under head coach Kyle Flood, who has been at Rutgers 11 years, the last four as head coach, the Scarlet Knights have a 27-27 overall record. Flood has led RU to a bowl game in each of the last three seasons, but the Scarlet Knights will miss the postseason this year.

The Maryland game could very well be Flood’s last in Piscataway; the headman’s job status has been in serious jeopardy since before the 2015 campaign even began. Flood was accused of university misconduct, while numerous players were arrested and subsequently suspended, leading some to believe the coach would simply resign. Flood’s remained at the helm throughout the various controversies, but he could be shown the door soon after the season’s conclusion.

Offense

Rutgers’ offensive coordinator, Ben McDaniels, is the younger brother of New England play-caller Josh McDaniels, so it’s no surprise the Scarlet Knights’ attack features elements of the Patriots’. Ben McDaniels doesn’t have the experience or personnel of his older sibling, but the philosophies and system are similar.

Basically, Rutgers sets up in a pro-style with plenty of tight-end involvement and moving parts (think New England’s offense with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski … but not nearly as effective). The Scarlet Knights have a fairly balanced run-pass ratio, with short passing and power running in vogue.

McDaniels likes to rotate through four running backs and three tight ends, which keeps the players fresh and the defense guessing. Granted, RU rarely breaks out gimmick looks -- once in a blue moon Rutgers might call for a direct snap or a double-reverse -- although play-action is a staple. Plus, McDaniels likes to shift his tight ends into the backfield, into the slot, or in tight to block.

Through 11 games, Rutgers is scoring 25.8 points per game (90th in the FBS) and racking up 363 yards per bout (98th in the FBS). The running backs average 168.5 rushing yards per game (68th in the FBS), including 4.4 yards per carry; while the quarterbacks have thrown for 194.6 per (99th in the FBS), including 7.0 yards per pass.

The Scarlet Knights control the clock to the tune of 30:27 (53rd in the FBS), but convert only 37 percent of third downs (84th in the FBS) and have turned just 20 of 34 redzone attempts into touchdowns. Rutgers is also being penalized 48.4 yards per game (43rd in the FBS), while the offensive line has surrendered 25 sacks (73rd in the FBS). On top of that, Rutgers has coughed the ball up 17 times (73rd in the FBS) and has a 17-to-15 (minus-2) turnover ratio (78th in the FBS).

Quarterbacks

After a brief suspension at the season’s outset, Chris Laviano (So., 6-3, 210) has been entrenched ever since. But the third-year signal caller, who mainly operates under center but sometimes drops into shotgun, hasn’t exactly inspired overwhelming confidence. He doesn’t possess a particularly strong or accurate arm, and his decision-making and field awareness have been questioned as well. Laviano can connect on short- and intermediate-level throws, but he doesn’t force opposing defensive coordinators to respect the deep ball.

Of course, Laviano hasn’t been throwing from a clean pocket, forcing him to deliver under duress. The feeling is he’s savvy enough to at least be a competent game manager, but his progress has been somewhat stunted due to a shaky offensive line.

For the season, Laviano has completed 166-of-274 passes (60.6 percent) for 1,902 yards and 12 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. He finished 13-for-21 for 105 yards against Army.

With Laviano’s play erratic, some have suggested backup Hayden Rettig (So., 6-3, 210) get an extended look. But the RU staff has stood firmly behind Laviano, with the No. 2 only seeing action in garbage time. Rettig  has taken the field during the latter part of four games.

Running Backs

With the Scarlet Knights using four different backs, one would assume each brings a different trait to the table. But apparently the quartet have fairly similar styles. There are obviously some nuances, but in general they’re between-the-tackles runners who hit the holes hard and can break a tackle or two. Despite running behind a porous front, RU’s backs have gutted out 168.5 yards per game and average 4.4 yards per carry.

Fifth-year senior Paul James (Sr., 6-0, 215) is listed as the No. 1, although he can’t be considered a “bell-cow.” He gets the starting nod each game, but each of the four runners receive around the same amount of touches, subbing in series to series. James, for his part, reads his blocks well; can push the pile; and occasionally pop into the second level. He’s not a burner or someone who’s going to turn the corner and motor downfield.

James has 82 carries for 473 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and a touchdown this season. He had 18 totes for 116 yards and three touchdowns against Army.

Rutgers’ leading rusher, Robert Martin (So., 6-0, 205), is known for his vision and hard, downhill running. He’s able to bust through arm tackles, shake off linebackers and fall forward after contact. Martin has more speed than James, but isn’t a major threat to outrun the secondary. That said, he has some quickness to him and can reel off chunks of yards if presented a lane.

Martin’s racked up 740 yards on 125 carries (5.9 yards per carry) and six touchdowns this year. He had 17 attempts for 99 yards and a score last week.

Josh Hicks (So., 5-10, 215), meanwhile, has put up similar numbers to Martin. Through 11 games, he has 120 carries for 613 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. Hicks did not get a touch against Army.

Hicks has an almost-identical build and style to the two aforementioned backs -- a stout base with some pop and power. An inside runner, Hicks has the ability to get skinny in the holes and accelerate into the secondary. Once in awhile he’ll reel off a longer run, but most of the time he’s grinding for yards.

The most proficient blocker of the group is Justin Goodwin (Jr., 6-0, 200), who often enters on third down. Goodwin only has 10 carries all season (for 14 yards), but he’s done well enough picking up blitzing linebackers and giving Laviano an extra second or two to get the ball off.

Goodwin also possesses the best hands of the four backs, sometimes flaring out on pass patterns. He has 13 catches for 93 yards this season.

Rutgers does use its fullback from time to time, usually in short-yardage situations. Unfortunately for Sam Bergen (Sr., 6-0, 250), he has had the unenviable task of stepping in for drafted fullback Michael Burton (Detroit Lions). Given that, it’s probably not a shock Bergen’s been somewhat of a downgrade. He does not see much field time, as, more often than not the Scarlet Knights will motion a tight end into the backfield, serving as an H-back/fullback hybrid.

Receivers

For the Scarlet Knights, it’s Leonte Carroo (Sr., 6-1, 215) . . . and then everyone else. The senior wideout has been hampered by an ankle injury (not to mention a suspension), limiting him to seven games, but he’s back and healthy now. Carroo won’t light up stopwatches with a 4.3 40, but he’s sneaky fast and can take the top off the defense. In fact, Carroo has been known to readily beat double coverage, stretch the field and come down with a highlight-reel reception. The veteran stalwart has sure hands, an above-average vertical and is aggressive in the air too.

Carroo has 32 catches for 626 yards and nine touchdowns in his final college season. He’s coming off of a four-reception, 37-yard effort.

No. 2 wideout Andre Patton (Jr., 6-4, 200) actually led the team in receptions for 10 weeks, but he’s played in four more games than Carroo. Although he has 30 catches for 383 yards and a touchdown, Patton has had difficulties finding openings and hanging onto the football. There are some days where the possession receiver resembles a true go-to guy, but others where he disappears and is drop prone.

Patton did not record a catch against Army.

The third receiver, Janarion Grant (Jr., 5-11, 170), has had his moments, but they’ve mainly been on special teams. He’s not the smoothest route runner and does not possess the most reliable hands out there. Grant has the speed to hit the home run, however, so he’s someone to account for when he enters.

Through 11 games, Grant has 31 receptions for 296 yards. He pulled down three passes for 31 yards last week.

Another wideout of note is Carlton Agudosi (Jr., 6-6, 220), who saw significant time with Carroo sidelined. During that time, he contributed a few plays, showing he could get deep and find space in-between zones. But since Carroo returned Agudosi’s field time’s been limited.

He’s recorded 17 receptions for 313 yards and a touchdown this season.

Tight Ends

In an ideal world, Rutgers would like to have two equally proficient tight ends, who can both block and make plays in the passing game. The Scarlet Knights do have a pair of fairly potent blockers in Nick Ardcidiacono (Jr., 6-5, 240) and Matt Flanagan (So., 6-6, 240), but neither are heralded receivers.

Regardless, RU has made the most of both, with Ardcidiacono and Flanagan each seeing plenty of time. The Scarlet Knights shift one of the two into the backfield, serving as an H-back, while the other either stays in tight or moves into the slot.

The duo have mostly done their jobs chipping in pass pro and leading the way for the running backs, but they’re not the fleetest of foot nor the surest of hand. That said, Flanagan has presented a sizable redzone target, evidenced by his three touchdown receptions. But, combined, Ardcidiacono and Flanagan have only 20 receptions for 162 yards.

The most prolific receiving tight end Rutgers has is Charles Scarff (So., 6-5, 240), who can get down the seam and pull down passes in traffic. But Scarff isn’t a reliable blocker, which limits his snaps.

He has 13 catches for 99 yards in 2015.

Offensive Line

The old cliché suggests games are won and lost in the trenches, and Rutgers’ play up front has been one of the main reasons the offense has short-circuited. The Scarlet Knights’ offensive line has surrendered 25 sacks and numerous pressures, while the group isn’t ranked among the conference’s stoutest run blocking units either (backs average 4.4 yards per carry). The offensive line has held up well enough against inferior competition, but the Big Ten’s best have exposed RU’s depth and strength.

Even so, left tackle Keith Lumpkin (Sr., 6-8, 325) projects as an NFL prospect what with his size and athleticism. For a 6-8, 325-pounder, Lumpkin has above-average footwork and quickness, allowing him to slide with fast-fibered defensive ends. His long arms and powerful punch keep rushers at bay, Lumpkin staying engaged throughout the play. But Lumpkin hasn’t always been on-point this year, failing to consistently open holes or generate a push.

In reality, the left guard, Dorian Miller (So., 6-3, 285), has been Rutgers’ steadiest performer. The first-year starter isn’t at an all-conference level yet, but he can gain leverage when run blocking and is deft enough to engage speed rushers in pass pro. Miller can occasionally push to the second level and pull out in space too.

A couple weeks back, Rutgers’ line took a serious hit when center Derrick Nelson (Jr., 6-3, 295) had to be carted off the field. In all likelihood, his 2015 season is finished and he won’t be suiting up against Maryland. Which means former right guard Chris Muller (Jr., 6-6, 310) will probably move over a spot.

Muller has been hit or miss all season, the guard working to become more effective in blitz pickup. Now, he has the added responsibility of delivering a clean snap, reading defenses and making the line calls. The jury is out on how well he’ll hold up at center.

With Muller shifting positions, freshman Marcus Applefield (Fr., 6-6, 300) has stepped into a starting role for the first time. The right guard Applefield has seen fleeting action in a few outings, but hasn’t done enough to warrant any kind of scouting report. He looks the part getting off the bus; he’ll have to prove he can play a little too.

Finally, at right tackle, J.J. Denman (Jr., 6-6, 305) has been OK at times, although he’s struggled against better defensive lines. He’s long enough and powerful enough to stalemate opposing ends, but needs to be faster off the ball and consistently maintain leverage. Denman is considered a better run-blocker than pass protector.

Defense

For the first time during Flood’s four years at the helm he’s had the same defensive coordinator. Former special teams coordinator Joe Rossi held onto his DC title during the offseason, giving the Scarlet Knights a semblance of continuity. But thanks to a depleted depth chart -- injuries and suspensions took their toll, especially in the secondary -- Rossi’s defense is hardly the most competent Big Ten unit.

The Scarlet Knights are giving up 34 points per game (102nd in the FBS) and 444.4 yards per game (103rd in the FBS), including 279 passing yards per (113th in the FBS) and 166.5 rushing yards per (66th in the FBS). Opponents convert 45 percent of third downs (109th in the FBS), 35 percent of fourth downs (18th in the FBS) and have turned 68 percent of redzone chances into touchdowns (42nd in the FBS).

The Scarlet Knights have recorded 14 turnovers, but have only 13 sacks (117th in the FBS).

Conceptually, it’s a straight, gap-control 4-3 system with a hybrid defensive end rotating in during pass-rush situations. Instead of playing a traditional 5-technique, Rutgers’ “R” defensive end can either drop back into coverage or become a stand-up blitzer off the edge.

Rossi also employs nickel and dime packages, although the Scarlet Knights lack the personnel to consistently do so -- even when the situation calls for it (see: depth-challenged secondary). To aid the defensive backs, the Scarlet Knights will send pressure from various spots, but the linebackers aren’t the most potent rushers around.

Defensive Line

The Scarlet Knights’ four-man front has had an up-and-down campaign, holding up well enough in run defense but failing to readily collapse the pocket.

At defensive end, converted middle linebacker Quanzell Lambert (Jr., 6-1, 260) has proven to be RU’s most potent down-lineman. Lambert has a plus get-off, actively sheds blockers and closes quickly. An athletic and agile defender, he can disrupt passing lanes, defend laterally and even drop back if asked.

So far, Lambert has 39 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, to go along with four breakups. Lambert had eight stops, a sack and a tackle for loss last week.

Lining up next to Lambert at defensive tackle is Sebastian Joseph (So., 6-4, 295), who moved from nose tackle prior to 2015. He’s battled injuries throughout his brief college career, but this season he’s been healthy and met expectations. Now, Joseph isn’t going to knife through the pocket or take down backs behind the line, but, for a first-year starter, he’s been OK. He’s a solid space-eater who has kept offensive linemen off the RU linebackers.

Through 11 games, Joseph has 21 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He had six stops and a tackle for loss against Army.

Rutgers’ starting 3-technique, Julian Pinnix-Odrick (Jr., 6-5, 275), shifted inside from defensive end out of necessity (he’s replacing injured starter Darius Hamilton). Considering he was thrust into a starting role, Pinnix-Odrick has performed reasonably well, proving to be one of Rutgers’ most effective pass rushers. But Pinnix-Odrick is undersized for a nose tackle and has been overwhelmed against elite offensive linemen. He can be a liability against the run, as he’s sometimes pushed off the ball or neutralized at the point of attack.

Pinnix-Odrick has 30 tackles, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles this year. He had four stops and a tackle for loss against Army.

The opposite end, Djwany Mera (Sr., 6-4, 265), isn’t a typical pass-rushing 5-technique. In fact, this point-of-attack defensive end is not really asked to get after the quarterback much at all. Mera’s main duty is to eat up blockers and stuff the run, both of which he’s proficient at. A physically mature and impressive specimen, Mera can gobble up the tackle and guard, freeing up lanes for the backers.

Mera has 20 stops, 1.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick this season. He recorded seven tackles and forced a fimble last week.

In addition to the four starters, sack specialist Kemoko Turay (So., 6-6, 240) is worth keeping an eye on. Rutgers’ pass-rush specialist (the “R” defensive end) is a physical specimen with long arms, a rapid-fire first step and elite velocity. Turay’s been injured this year, limiting his production, but, if healthy, he’s a true backfield buster. (Turay is also a standout special teams performer).

For the season, Turay has seven tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks. 

The Scarlet Knights will rotate through four freshmen defensive linemen, although they only see a couple series each game. But the young backups have had their moments, producing a couple sacks or tackles for loss throughout the season.

Kevin Wilkins (Fr., 6-3, 295) has four tackles for loss and an interception, Jon Bateky (Fr., 6-4, 265) has a tackle for loss, Jimmy Hogan (Fr., 6-4, 250) has 1.5 sacks and Eric Wiafe (Fr., 6-5, 280) has a handful of tackles. The early field time should aid them as they ascend the depth chart moving forward.

Linebackers

Much like the front four, Rutgers’ linebackers are solid run defenders, though they’ve had issues getting to the quarterback. But generating a pass rush isn’t even the main concern. The backers are liabilities in coverage, struggling with their drops and reads and allowing receivers/tight ends to find open terrain in-between the zone.

At weakside, Steve Longa (Jr., 6-1, 225) has been a tackling machine this season. He excels at coming downhill, closing the gap and wrapping up in space. Longa also has a nose for the ball, evidenced by his two forced fumbles. That said, many of Longa’s stops have come down the field, after the back has churned out a hunk of yards. He’s not the type of linebacker who will readily set the edge, defend sideline to sideline or bust up the backfield. Furthermore, Longa has problems picking up tight ends who cross his face.

Through 11 games, Longa has 111 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss and two sacks. He didn't enter the state book against Army.

It’s a similar story with the middle linebacker, Kaiwan Lewis (Sr., 6-0, 230), a South Carolina transfer. Lewis has done well enough filling lanes and limiting leaky yardage. He is also strong and can fend off blocks, but lacks standout agility or athleticism. Pass defense is not a strength, either.

For the season, he has 21 tackles, and no tackles for loss and no sacks. He recorded two stops last week.

While more was expected of Longa and Lewis, outside linebacker Quentin Gause (Sr., 6-1, 235) has arguably been the team’s MVP defensively. An improved overall defender in his second year starting, Gause has been able to press the backfield; defend the flats; and wrap up in the open field. He isn’t necessarily an all-Big-Ten type, but he hasn’t struggled in any one area either.

Gause has 87 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and a sack, to go along with four breakups. He tallied six stops against Army.

Defensive Backs

Rutgers’ secondary features three freshmen and an out-of-position safety, so it’s little wonder opposing quarterbacks have regularly tested the defensive backfield. And, really, the numbers speak for themselves: 277.8 passing yards allowed per game, one of the worst averages worst in the nation.

But not all is doom and gloom for the Scarlet Knights’ last line of defense. Both corners, Isaiah Wharton (Fr., 6-1, 210) and Blessuan Austin (Fr., 6-1, 185), are talented athletes who figure to have bright futures. They’re taking their lumps now, but the experience should aid them in the seasons ahead.

Wharton, for his part, was supposed to redshirt this year, but was forced into a starting role with all the injuries and suspensions. Predictably, he’s been burned and had his share of mental lapses. That said, he’s also come up with a few nifty pass breakups and a pick. Wharton’s long, quick and agile; with increased awareness and improved fundamentals he could develop into a shutdown guy.

Wharton has 50 tackles, two tackles for loss, one breakups and an interception this year. He racked up a stop last week.

As for Austin, he looks like a potential NFL corner down the road, but right now he’s mistake prone. Austin has to work on his transitions, footwork and all-around fundamentals to hang on an island against Big Ten competition. But there’s no mistaking his athleticism and football savvy, Austin flashing his upside throughout 2015.

For the season he has 32 tackles, two tackles for loss, nine breakups and a pick. Austin had four stops and a tackle for loss last week.

The third corner, Jarius Adams (Fr., 5-10, 180), enters in nickel situations, tasked with guarding the opposition’s slot receiver. He’s had an up-and-down season, mostly keeping receivers in front of him and only surrendering a couple big plays. Adams hasn’t shown enough to leapfrog the two starters, however, possessing neither their length nor inherent talent.

Adams has 12 tackles and a tackle for loss this year.

At free safety, the converted corner Anthony Cioffi (Jr., 6-0, 200) is the closest thing Rutgers has to a turnover machine. The secondary’s leader, Cioffi’s considered a ballhawk, complete with lateral agility; speed; and instincts. But Cioffi’s had his share of communication breakdowns, sometimes failing to offer over-the-top help. He’s also a shaky tackler, given to the alligator arm every now and again.

So far, Cioffi has 40 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 10 breakups, a fumble recovery and four interceptions. Cioffic was actually suspended for the Army game, but figures to return for Maryland. (With Cioffi suspended, RU inserted running back Josh Hicks at safety, and he ended up recorded six tackles and a pick. Perhaps, given his surprising performance, they'll keep Hicks on defense).

Strong safety Kiy Hester (Fr., 6-0, 215), meanwhile, has had a rough year. He’s a thumper who thrives coming downhill, but has had issues moving laterally and dropping back. Hester has had numerous assignment errors, leading to open receivers downfield. Granted, Hester’s been playing through nagging injuries, but he still must improve his field awareness in the future.

In 2015, Hester has tallied 36 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 11 breakups and an interception. He did not have a stop against Army.

The backup safety, Andre Hunt (So., 6-0, 200), enters during nickel and dime situations. A walk-on, Hunt has stepped up in run defense this year, showing some open-field tackling prowess. But he’s a below-average cover man and can’t be relied on to face-guard receivers and tight ends.

Hunt has 22 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and four breakups this season.

Special Teams

Rutgers has a veteran special teams with several multi-year starters, and, for the most part, the unit’s been adequate. The Scarlet Knights don’t have any true radar-movers in the kicking game, but they have a game-changing returner and decent cover teams.

Kicker Kyle Federico (Sr., 6-0, 190) has been a typical college kicker throughout his tenure. In other words, he’s fine from 35 yards and in, but shaky from 40-plus. Generally, Federico has satisfactory leg strength and accuracy; just don’t expect him to split the uprights from 50 yards out.

For the season, Federico is 10-for-14 with a long of 48 yards and misses from 39, 29, 41 and 49 yards.

Punter Joey Roth (Sr., 6-0, 180) is in the same boat. Another tenured veteran, Roth has a sufficient leg and acceptable precision, averaging 39.2 yards per boot and placing eight punts inside opposing 20-yard lines. He’s not a field-position flipper or someone who’s going to routinely nail the coffin-corner.

The special-teams standout, however, is return man Janarion Grant, who could be an All-American this year. Grant may not be the greatest receiver around, but he’s a home-run hitting return man with terrific vision; awareness; change-of-direction speed; and burst. He senses openings, can accelerate through small windows and gains momentum after splitting the seam.

The two-time Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week is averaging 25.1 yards per kick return and 15.1 yards per punt bringback. Grant has three kick-return scores (one for 100 yards) and one punt-return touchdown, which went for 67 yards. 


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