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Preseason countdown: No. 25 Rutgers

Jawan Jamison (Mandatory Credit: Chris Faytok/US PRESSWIRE)
Jawan Jamison rushed for 897 yards and nine scores last season.
FOX Sports PRESEASON COUNTDOWN
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The upcoming season will mark the end of an era in Piscataway. And the beginning of a new one.

RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS

On Jan. 26, 11-year coach Greg Schiano announced that he’d be leaving Rutgers to take the head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Less than a week later, longtime assistant Kyle Flood was named the next coach of the Scarlet Knights. All he’ll be asked to do is maintain the unprecedented level of success that once seemed unattainable before Schiano was hired.

Flood is off to a fast start, at least in terms of recruiting. He and his staff did a laudable job of keeping a terrific collection of commitments, such as five-star DE Darius Hamilton, from bolting once the news about Schiano broke. Flood inherits a defense that might be talented enough to make the new regime look brilliant. The offense, on the other hand, remains a work-in-progress, especially after the early departure of WR Mohamed Sanu to the NFL, and the general inefficiency of the attack as a whole.

That defense, though, is going to be special, even championship-caliber. The unit boasts one of the sneaky good back sevens in the entire country, a group that includes four likely future pros, CB Logan Ryan, FS Duron Harmon and linebackers Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais. If the line can generate heat off the edge, the defense is capable of evolving into the Big East’s version of Alabama or LSU.

Losing Schiano, the architect of the program’s turnaround, to the NFL certainly hurts, and was a shock to the system for the entire university. However, Rutgers believes it can keep the program from veering off the tracks with the help of one of the coach’s disciples, Flood. The new man in charge has inherited a team, particularly on defense, that’s good enough to contend for its first league crown, especially now that West Virginia has relocated to the Big 12.

In Year 1, Flood and his assistants have a unique and realistic opportunity to do what Schiano never could — lead the Knights to a BCS bowl game.

What to watch for on offense: The Jawan and Savon Show. Considering the erratic behavior of the passing game, and the loss of Sanu, Rutgers will be forced to put a little more weight on the ground troops in 2012. The complementary backs, sophomores Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins, have ample talent, but need a lot more help from the blockers than they received a year ago. The Scarlet Knights ranked 117th nationally in rishing at just 2.7 yards a carry, a feeble level of output that absolutely has to improve this fall.


What to watch for on defense: The end game. The Scarlet Knights defense promises to be oppressive this season. The lone concern: Who is going to create the pressure off the edge? Heck, who is going to start? At one spot, juniors Michael Larrow and Marcus Thompson are battling for playing time. At the other, seniors — and converted linebackers — Ka’Lial Glaud and Marvin Booker are locked in a very tight competition. Since the quartet has just five career sacks between them, it’s imperative that at least one becomes an antagonist, an agitator who keeps the defense from having to overuse the blitz.

The team will be far better if: It avoids slow starts. If it seemed as if the Scarlet Knights were constantly digging out of a hole throughout 2011, it’s because they were. Rutgers more than doubled its opponents' scoring output in the second and fourth quarters, and consistently won the third stanza and overtime. However, it produced its least amount of points — and allowed its most — in the opening 15 minutes, placing undue pressure on a sputtering offense to mount a comeback in the second half.

The schedule: The first two weeks have to be seen as a true warm-up with a trip to Tulane and a layup against Howard. The problem is that the home opener is just five days before the Big East opener against South Florida. And then comes the showdown against Arkansas that could define the season. Fortunately, home games against Kent State and Army wrap around a week off. If the Knights can pull off the shocker it'll be a kickstart to the program on a national level, but there's still the Big East slate to get through. Unfortunately, most of the tough dates are on the road, going to Cincinnati and Pitt in November, before finishing up against Louisville.

Best offensive player: Sophomore LT Kaleb Johnson. The fact that Johnson is expected to be the program’s most heralded offensive player in 2012 speaks to the Knights’ dearth of sure-things and the tackle’s enormous potential. He exceeded everyone’s expectations a year ago, grabbing a starting job in his rookie year, and performing like an upperclassman. So confident is the staff in Johnson’s pass protection skills that it’s moving him to the left side, keeping fifth-year senior R.J. Dill at right tackle. Just one year into his career, he already looks as if he has a Big East ceiling … at least.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Khaseem Greene. A year ago, Greene had about as seamless a transition to a new position as a defender could have, with such short notice. The career safety moved up a level to weakside linebacker, and actually elevated the level of his competency, collecting a team-high 141 tackles, 14 stops for loss and 3.5 sacks. While he’s always one of the best athletes on the field, his instincts and feel for the position set him apart from his peers. Greene suffered an awful leg injury in the Pinstripe Bowl, but expects to be at full strength for the opener.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Gary Nova or junior Chas Dodd. It’s no secret that the offense needs to become more potent and efficient for the Scarlet Knights to reach the next level. And a lot of the responsibility will fall to the winner of the competition between Nova and Dodd that’ll continue in the summer. Rutgers needs someone who can direct the attack with confidence and proficiency, employing the skills of receivers Brandon Coleman, Mark Harrison and Tim Wright, and preventing defenses from stacking the box to stop the run.

The season will be a success if: The Scarlet Knights win nine games in back-to-back years. Getting back to a bowl game figures to be a lay-up, with that nine-win threshold being well within reach for a school bolstered by a suffocating defense.

Key game: Nov. 29 vs. Louisville. Eight teams will be vying for a Big East championship and the automatic BCS bowl berth that comes with it. The Scarlet Knights and the Cardinals are two of the chief contenders. It’ll be a home game for Rutgers, which will pit its feisty defense versus upstart Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater. This was the setting for one of the Knights’ most memorable wins ever, a Thursday night upset of the Cards six years ago. It could be the stage for another seminal moment on the Rutgers timeline if it propels the team to a title.

Tagged: Florida State, Virginia, Rutgers, West Virginia, Boise State, Florida, Tennessee, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas Christian, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas State, Kansas, Texas, Louisville, Jonathan Bostic, Will Hill, Jelani Jenkins, Perry Jones, Khaseem Greene, Tim Wright, Sharrif Floyd, Ronald Powell, Michael Rocco, Cam White, Mike London, Kaleb Johnson, Jeff Driskel, Jacoby Brissett, Mohamed Sanu, Casey Pachall

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