It wasn’t a fluke.

The 11-2 record, the bowl win, the #12 ranking – Rutgers isn’t going anywhere. The initial top 25 polls, when released, will likely bear this out (indeed, RU is 16th in the initial coaches poll). They probably won’t be ranked as highly as they ended last year, but they should find themselves in the top 20 – and they certainly find themselves with enough good players to back that ranking up, and maybe more. Now that the team has reported for training camp and practices are getting underway, it’s a good time to take an early look at the team going into 2007, and to try and figure out just what kind of a season might be in store. There will be a couple parts to this series, with this installment being devoted to the offensive side of the ball.

A position-by-position look at returning players

Quarterback: The starter, Mike Teel, returns. For much of the 2006 season, this probably wouldn’t have been looked on as such a good thing. Indeed, his final numbers on the year – 2135 yards, 55.4 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions – are underwhelming. However, the only reason they’re even that good is because in the last three games, he was actually lights out. Over those three games, he completed 45 of 69 passes for 692 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. That’s better than underwhelming; in fact, it’s even better than good – those numbers are downright fantastic. Therefore, the hope among fans is that he keeps that form rolling into ’07 – and a very strong performance over spring practice, along with a talent-laden offense, has hopes high that he will do just that. While I don’t expect him to put up numbers quite as good as those final three games all year, if he even approaches them, Rutgers will likely be a very tough team to beat. The clear #2 QB at this point appears to be Jabu Lovelace, a player head coach Greg Schiano says has made great strides since last year. Still, it is imperative that Teel stays healthy, because he is the unquestioned #1.

Running back: This is one of the strongest areas of the team due to one man – junior Heisman candidate Ray Rice. Last year, Rice ran for 1,794 yards and 20 touchdowns, good enough for seventh in the Heisman race. In addition, he was named MVP of the Texas Bowl after a 170-yard performance. What might be most remarkable about him is that even though he’s generously listed at 5-9 and (probably more realistically) 205 pounds, he is a power runner. He’s not even all that fast and doesn’t have as much potential to break off huge runs as Steve Slaton of West Virginia or Darren McFadden of Arkansas, but as a pure running back, he is one of the very best in the nation. Backing up Rice is sophomore-to-be Kordell Young, the type of home run threat Rice is not. However, Young is a less consistent runner and more liable to be tackled for a loss or no gain, which hardly ever happens to Rice.

Of course, one of the guys who helped Rice have such a good season – his lead blocker, outstanding all-around player, and Paul Bunyan-esque RU folk hero Brian Leonard – is gone, now with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. Leonard could block, catch, run, and was looked up to by many teammates. Someone with that varied a skill set will be missed, but the good news is there’s a guy waiting in the wings – sophomore Jack Corcoran – who appears to have the makings of a similar player. He got some playing time last year and looked good. Obviously, how he handles the starting job is another matter, but the prospects are promising. Then again, there’s going to be another guy in camp who just might give Corcoran a run for his money (read about him in the “potential impact incoming freshmen” section that will come at a later date). Overall, this team seems pretty well-equipped to handle the loss of Leonard, a monumental leap forward from even a few years ago, when the loss of a player of his magnitude would have been just about insurmountable.

Wide Receiver: This is another potential area of strength. It was ravaged by injuries last year (such as Marcus Daniels and Keith Taylor missing the entire season, Shawn Tucker going out for the season less than halfway through the year, and Tiquan Underwood breaking his leg late), but this allowed some younger players to develop. Chief among them were a pair of freshmen: Kenny Britt and Tim Brown. Britt didn’t play for the first half of the season, but he came on very strong over the final six games, finishing with 29 receptions for 440 yards and two touchdowns. Big (6-4), strong, and fast, Britt is a prototypical receiver who has a shot at one day being a first-round NFL draft pick. Brown, on the other hand, is entirely different. His listed height of 5-8 appears Warren Buffett-level charitable, and due to his extreme lack of size he may never be an every-down player, but he is the best long ball threat on the team when he’s in the game. He only caught 8 passes all last season, but three were for touchdowns, including scores of 72 and 49 yards that happened on the same general play – Brown runs way too fast for the defensive back to keep up with him and Teel drops the ball into his waiting arms for an easy score. Underwood caught 23 passes for 290 yards and four TDs; these three players form as good a trio of receivers as can be found in the conference and are the basis of the hope that the passing game will be much improved in 2007.

Tight end: This is the unknown. Both tight ends to see significant playing time last year (Clark Harris and Sam Johnson) are gone. Harris was the primary pass catcher at the position, while Johnson was lauded for his hands and blocking. This year, the position is wide open. It was not solved during spring practice, when Schiano didn’t sound overly impressed with the performance of the players at the position. The front-runner to start is still considered to be redshirt junior Kevin Brock, who didn’t catch a pass last year but is still the most experienced player the team has at the position. Other candidates to play among returnees is reshirt freshman Shamar Graves, a converted wide receiver, and redshirt junior Craig McGovern, a Michigan State transfer. This will really be a position to watch during training camp, because it could be anybody’s spot to win: the same reason it will be a concern when the season starts.

Offensive Line: This, however, is an area of less concern. Honestly, I held off on calling running back the outright strongest area of the team because of this group. Last year, Rutgers’ offensive line was one of the very best in the nation. They allowed just eight sacks all year and paved the way for Rice’s monster season. Three starters from that line return, tackles Jeremy Zuttah and Pedro Sosa (both among the best in the conference and possibly the nation) and guard Mike Fladell (who is an enormous beast). Gone are center Darnell Stapleton and right guard Cameron Stephenson, both of whom are now with the Pittsburgh Steelers (although Stapleton is out with a knee injury requiring surgery) and will be missed after high-level performances last year. The inexperienced redshirt sophomore Ryan Blaszczyk is widely expected to replace Stapleton. Redshirt junior Mike Gilmartin and redshirt sophomore Kevin Haslam are listed as the top two on the depth chart to replace Stephenson, but this is another position where an incoming freshman may be a factor (more on that in a future installment). Whoever replaces Stephenson, I’m confident they’ll do a good job because RU’s offensive line coach, Kyle Flood, is one of the best in the business. The difference in the line’s play since he arrived for the 2005 season is just monumental, and gives onlookers every reason to believe it will be a strong point of the team again in 2007.

Preliminary breakdowns of the defense, special teams, incoming freshmen, and various coaching issues will be forthcoming shortly. Information from scarletnation.com and scarletknights.com was used in this post.

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