NEW BRUNSWICK, N. J. — It’s 2013, so this must be the American Athletic Conference. Right?
One can’t blame the Rutgers football team for being a bit disoriented. The offseason has been chaotic and, for now, for this year only it seems, the Scarlet Knights will be in the AAC — aka, the football teams from the conference formerly recognized as the Big East.
Also a bit disorienting is that Rutgers isn’t even expected to do all that well in this interim situation. Louisville is tabbed to win the conference in the preseason media poll, while Rutgers was predicted to finish third.
That’s the latest after the pending switch to the Big Ten, to the dissolution of the Big East, to the scandal that erupted over the men’s basketball team that cost its coach and the athletic director their jobs. There has been a lot of attention focused on the school and most of it has been negative.
“I think for us, as a football program, you can only control what you control,” coach Kyle Flood said. “Certainly, over the last six to eight months, there have been things going on around us that we weren’t happy about, but we can’t control those. And we tried to just keep our head down, and once we got done with the season, have a great winter program. There’s no doubt in my mind that once we start playing football games, that is openly what will put some of these other conversations behind us.”
The big concerns for Flood is not replacing those conversations with ones about football struggles. Rutgers was hit hard by graduation and early departures this offseason, which leads to a lot of newcomers on the two-deep and not much depth. Any injury to Savon Huggins leaves the backfield entirely untested, and the offensive line is in flux, with Flood continuing his 2012 strategy of shuffling guys around in an attempt to find a combination he likes.
And that’s nothing compared to the transition on defense. The Scarlet Knights again break in a new coordinator, with former linebackers coach Dave Cohen replacing the departed Robb Smith. Khaseem Greene is likely irreplaceable after graduating with back-to-back Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors, and the secondary is untested. Apart from safety Lorenzo Walters, nobody in the defensive backfield has started a game, and the top three cornerbacks all graduated.
Flood remains undeterred.
“We’re really excited about our 2013 season,” he said. “2012 was a great year for our program, gave us an opportunity to do something that we had never done in the history of our program, and win a share of a conference title. But there were some things left on the table that we’re anxious to compete for again.”
At quarterback, Gary Nova started all 13 games a year ago and is the unquestioned starter heading into the season, which certainly wasn’t the case a year ago when he entered the year competing with Chas Dodd.
Coach Flood has a lot of confidence in the junior, but Nova struggled down the stretch a year ago, right about when the Scarlet Knights saw their chances at a conference title and BCS bowl berth tumble away. For Rutgers to do well in the American Athletic, Nova’s going to have to improve his consistency against top opponents.
The offense will need help from Huggins, arguably the most heralded recruit in Rutgers history when he arrived as a freshman. But he has struggled with injuries, fumbles and ineffectiveness and lost any chance at the starting job when Jawan Jamison began putting up numbers. But Jamison left for the NFL, so it’s Huggins’ chance to show what all the fuss was about.
A newcomer who might help is freshman defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph, one of the stars of the early practices and scrimmages.
Said Flood: “(Joseph) stood out to me because he almost ran into me one time because he came through the line of scrimmage, and Sebastian is a big human and he moves fast and I’m not very athletic so I didn’t think I could get out of the way. But I think Sebastian did stand out and I think he’s had a good training camp so far.”
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Rutgers has been turning up the heat at practice, trying to prepare itself for the Aug. 29 opener at Fresno State. A pair of home games against Norfolk and Eastern Michigan lead to the marquee home game on the nonconference slate, a Sept. 21 date with an Arkansas team that’s still smarting from the Scarlet Knights’ victory on the road a year ago.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Consistency is critical. Rutgers looked to be in a great position to win sole possession of the Big East title and the BCS bid that went with it, but finished the season with three consecutive losses. The Scarlet Knights weren’t the same team after their 35-23 loss to Kent State on Oct. 27 and need to prove they can handle adversity a lot better.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The big weakness defensively for Rutgers is the secondary, which lost both of its cornerbacks. Logan Ryan in particular was one of the best corners in the country a year ago, and replacing him is going to be a challenge. While Nova occupies a lot of attention, the running game may be in worse shape, as Huggins needs to step up his game in a hurry to keep this from being a very pass-dependent offense.
–Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.