1. Rutgers lost a big part of its offense in running back Paul James. Will that have any affect on Rutgers' game plan and who is expected to step up and take his place?
For part one, no I don't see it having a major impact on the game plan for Rutgers. Rutgers will continue to run to establish the pass and that won't change with James out for a significant period of action. Rutgers has been most successful through the air this season with quarterback Gary Nova improving tremendously from last season. If things are going well for Rutgers, expect a heavy dose of the run. For part two, Savon Huggins is the man to replace James. Huggins is a five-star recruit from the 2011 class but has yet to completely live up to that potential. Huggins has had some injuries slow him down, but lost a tailback battle last year with Jawan Jamison (now on the Washington Redskins) and again to James this September. Huggins is a downhill runner that is best between the tackles. Behind Huggins, Rutgers will sprinkle in redshirt freshman Desmon Peoples and true freshman Justin Goodwin. Both are change-of-pace backs with better breakaway speed and quickness than Huggins. Neither Goodwin nor Peoples have legitimate in-game experience.
2. Gary Nova is having a nice season so far. Can you talk a little bit about him and what he brings to the table?
Nova is going to be the best statistical quarterback in Rutgers history by the time he graduates. Here is the basic scouting report. Nova is a pocket passer that needs time to go through his reads to be at his best. Turnovers are and will always be what holds him back from being a top-level college quarterback. His mistakes are way down from his sophomore season, but we continue to see two or three big ones per game. Against Arkansas, Nova committed three turnovers that were his fault. He also lost track of where he was and threw an illegal forward pass late in the game. Nova is not mobile, but has enough pocket presence to escape pressure. He can be a swashbuckler when the pocket collapses and buy himself enough time to make a play. He can make every throw in the playbook and is building a strong on-field connection with sophomore Leonte Carroo, who was his high-school teammate during back-to-back national championships at Don Bosco Prep.
3. The Rutgers' offensive line has struggled so far this season. Did they make any adjustments during the bye week and why have they had so much trouble keeping Nova upright?
No adjustments were made, but senior Andre Civil (elbow) is probable after missing the last three games. Rutgers got blown up off the line of scrimmage early in the Arkansas victory, but we saw play-calling adjustments to protect Nova. Nova took more three-step drops and made quicker reads to limit pressure in the second half. If SMU is able to get to Nova early, expect offensive coordinator Ron Prince to adjust. As an offensive line, Rutgers has only one player -center Betim Bujari- returning as a starter at the same position. Coach Kyle Flood made plenty of offseason changes and it will take time for the group to mesh. Rutgers lost a battle in terms of physicality against SEC foe Arkansas, but matches up better against the SMU front seven from an athleticism standpoint.
4. Defensively, Rutgers has looked much better since giving up 52 to Fresno State in the opener. What are the strengths of this unit? What are the weaknesses?
Frankly, the biggest reason for improvement is that Rutgers has not seen an offense as good as Fresno State. SMU will be the second best offense Rutgers has seen this season. In the opener, Rutgers aimed to get to the quarterback early, but solid play-calling by Fresno State and a heavy dose of bubble screens countered that consistently. Rutgers cornerbacks did not tackle and they paid the price with a career day for Derek Carr. Rutgers is strongest with its front seven. Even without outside linebacker Jamal Merrell (kidney), the Scarlet Knights held Arkansas below 100 rushing yards. Rutgers tackles well, plays physically and disguises its blitzes very well. The impact players to watch will be 3-technique Darius Hamilton (a five-star recruit in 2012) and middle linebacker Steve Longa. Longa took over for NFL draft pick Steve Beauharnais and is off to an impressive start. The weaknesses and concerns come out of the defensive secondary. Rutgers is young and beat up. Junior Gareef Glashen will not play for personal reasons after starting the first two games of the season. True freshman Nadir Barnwell is emerging as a strong tackler at cornerback. He made his first career start against Arkansas. When it comes to the secondary, inexperience was a key player in the loss to Fresno State. Rutgers lost five defensive backs (Logan Ryan, Brandon Jones, Marcus Cooper, Mason Robinson and Duron Harmon) to the NFL this year and defensive coordinator Robb Smith left to work for Greg Schiano and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New defensive coordinator Dave Cohen took over after a year as linebackers coach.
5. What are your keys for Rutgers to win and prediction?
For Rutgers to win, its cornerbacks have to show improvement in press coverage and an ability to stop the spread. Garrett Gilbert runs the spread well but is not Derek Carr, who could end up a Heisman candidate. Rutgers can afford to bend against the SMU offense, but cannot surrender big plays. Offensively, Nova needs to limit turnovers. At this point, I'd predict the Scarlet Knights to win with the momentum from Arkansas, but it is important for them to remain 100 percent focused on SMU. Louisville five days later is the game of the year for Rutgers and cannot be a distraction in Dallas because SMU is way too dangerous to look past.
5 Important Questions: Rutgers
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