It’s officially the football offseason. Some teams are celebrating great seasons, while others are stuck licking their wounds and mending their broken pride. Regardless of how the 2021 season ended, all 14 Big Ten teams must put it in their rear-view mirror and look forward to the 2022 season. There have been coaching changes, outgoing and incoming transfers, players leaving for the draft, new schemes, and new expectations. The offseason allows fans to dream of a successful 2022 campaign, and it’s up to each individual program to make that a reality.
While that process has started for the teams, as fans we are beginning to ask the questions that programs need to answer to be successful. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do at Land-Grant Holy Land; Five Questions for each B1G team to answer this offseason.
In Greg Schiano’s second season, Rutgers finished the regular season at 5-7 after a disappointing loss to Maryland in the finale that prevented them from being bowl eligible. However, as the best 5-7 team in the country based on APR score, the Scarlet Knights were awarded a replacement bid to the Gator Bowl after Texas A&M was not able to compete due to Covid-concerns. That game did not go well as they fell 38-10 to Wake Forest.
However, Schiano and the Scarlet Knights will look to get into a bowl game this season the old fashioned way, rather than backing up with a sub-.500 record. Here are five questions they must answer to reach their goal and not be on the outside looking in after the 2022 season.
What did we learn from the loss to Maryland?
Sitting at 5-6 through 11 games, all that Rutgers needed to do to be bowl eligible was beat Maryland. It was a story almost too good to be true; two programs who have been joined at the hip since entering the Big Ten playing in a winner-take-all game for bowl eligibility. This wasn’t a game out of reach, they weren’t hoping to slay a giant like Ohio State or Wisconsin, all they had to do was win one game against their equal.
Instead they got blown out 40-16 as Taulia Tagovailoa went 21-for-30 for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns. In a game amongst “equals,” Rutgers looked like they didn’t belong on the field.
Rutgers will look to climb out of the basement of the Big Ten East, but to do that they must first pass Maryland, another program looking to rebrand by focusing on local talent and reaching bowl games consistently. The loss to Maryland stings and Schiano and his staff must learn from that game, are they really that far from Maryland or was it just a poor showing?
What steps do they need to take to make sure that they don’t have to rely on a win-and-in situation at the end of 2022? They must identify what went wrong or risk being left behind by their closest B1G East competitor.
What does the passing game look like with Taj Harris from Syracuse?
Rutgers will have to look to upgrade a dismal passing attack for the 2022 season. Last year’s starting quarterback Noah Vedral threw for 1,824 yards on 59% completion percentage with 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. That is simply not gonna be good enough for Schiano’s team to take the next step.
Vedral is returning and expected to be the starting quarterback in 2022, so he must get better this offseason. Rutgers hopes that they have added an answer to their passing woes as they brought in transfer wide receiver Taj Harris.
Harris will be tasked with replacing Bo Melton who was Rutgers’ leading receiver the past two season; he had a combined 1,256 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2021. Melton is off to the NFL Draft and Harris will be relied upon heavily to lead a more dynamic passing attack.
What will the Scarlet Knights’ passing game look like with Taj Harris as WR1? That’s a question that Schiano must answer this offseason.
How do they replace Olakunle Fatukasi?
In 2022, Rutgers will be tasked with replacing one of the most productive linebackers in the Big Ten as Olakunle Fatukasi is heading to the NFL. Fatukasi lead the Knights in tackles for the last three seasons. He wraps up his career with 282 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 7 passes defensed, 3 fumbles recovered and 4 forced fumbles.
I don’t need to tell you that that is an insane amount of production from one player. Rutgers will have a lot of players to replace on their defense, but Fatukasi is by far the most important one. He was the player that opposing offensive coordinators circled on the depth chart; he required a game-plan of his own.
Despite his success, Rutgers could never build a full unit around him. With Fatukasi off to the league, Schiano will be tasked with replacing his production and his leadership while finding a way to improve defensively. That is a tall task, one that must start as soon as possible.
Are the offensive lines woes fixed?
If you watched Rutgers in 2021, you have would have seen a significant amount of offensive line struggles. Their line was not representative of a Big Ten program, nor did they live up to the standard that Schiano normally demands from his team.
Schiano knows that he can’t consistently compete in the Big Ten without a reliable offensive line, so with that in mind, he attacked recruiting and the transfer portal like a mad man. The Scarlet Knights added 11 offensive line this off season.
Their 2022 recruiting class included seven offensive linemen, in addition to four transfers in J.D. DiRenzo, Willie Tyler, Mike Clafooni, and Curtis Dunlap. If their line isn’t good in 2022, it won’t be for lack of trying.
Now it will be up to the coaches to determine which combination of returners, transfers, and freshmen make up the best line combo. They cannot go into 2022 without answering the questions about their offensive line; they brought in the talent now they have to put it together.
Did Schiano hire the right coaches?
Like many programs across the conference and country, Rutgers has had some staff turnover this offseason. Schiano promoted Damiere Shaw to wide receivers’ coach and added Joe Harasymiak and Marquise Watson as defensive coordinator and defensive line coach respectively. Harasymiak and Watson are both New Jersey natives who will be expected to help keep local talent home, while also improving their defense.
It’s always a bit of a waiting game when trying to judge coaching hires, but Schiano has to get this right. Rutgers is on the border of reaching at least some of their rebuilding goals. They’ve improved both years since Schiano returned to the helm, but one bad coaching hire could torpedo that momentum.
This offseason will be a big one as these coaches will be tasked with bringing new ideas while building and maintaining relationships with current players and recruits. With the transfer portal exploding, it is even more important to continually recruit and develop your current players.
Rutgers’ success — or lack thereof — in the 2022 season, will be on the shoulders of the coaching staff. The new hires must hit the ground running and produce positive results in Year 1.