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Rutgers Offensive Player to Watch: Wide receiver Aron Cruickshank

Cruickshank can do a little bit of everything, but is stuck in an offense which often does a whole lot of nothing. The Big Ten vet will be looking to make a big play happen against the Buckeyes.

Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Ohio State set to take on Rutgers this weekend, I feel compelled to be honest with you all — to ask for your empathy and understanding. This is not a proud moment, but in the interest of transparency, I must admit that I absolutely attempted to duck my LGHL duties this week. I did not want to provide these player previews, which thousands of people look forward to and enjoy immensely. Hand up, that’s on me for acting selfishly. Here are the details:

I had built up years of mental scar tissue from the Chris Ash era at Rutgers. I had become physically ill – multiple times – from watching Ash’s offense(s) attempt to move ball and/or score points. Now, maybe I should have been more mentally tough. Maybe I should have sought out help, or helped myself by watching film of the polar opposite: Nebraska’s mid-90’s option attack, the Leinart/Bush USC juggernaut, or even the Joe Burrow-led LSU offense.

But I didn’t think I had it in me, so I asked my editors if I could preview a couch cushion instead of an offensive player from the Scarlet Knights. They weren’t going for it. They were adamant that I put my nose to the grindstone and study the tape. So I did this for you, folks. Until my eyes were sore from scouring game footage, I performed a labor of love... I intentionally (and intently) watched the Rutgers offense.

Rutgers’ current offense...
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Maybe it is my historical bias speaking, but the Scarlet Knights’ offense is simply not good. It hasn’t been for a number of years. They are off to a better start in 2022 – and scoring more points – but they hung 66 on something called Wagner, for crying out loud. And my brain cannot erase years of ineptitude. My intent is not to besmirch the players, so maybe it is something in the water. Or ghosts in the offensive coordinator’s office, I have no idea. But it is nothing new.

Since 2010 (because I did not want to go back any further), Rutgers has had one (!) top-70 scoring offense. One. And it’s not like finishing inside the top-70 is some badge of honor. It means you are average in college football, at best. Their offensive performance only got worse under Ash, to the point where it completely cratered and became one of the worst in FBS. From 2016-2021, the Scarlet Knights averaged 15.7, 18.0, 13.5, 13.2, 26.7, and 19.7 points per game, respectively. Out of approximately 130 teams, they finished outside the top-120 in all but one of those years (No. 120 on the nose in 2021)! It takes time to shake off that stench, and the team is making minimal gains thus far in 2022.

Rutgers is averaging 28.5 PPG through four weeks, propelled by a reasonably strong rushing attack. But again, let’s remember that Wagner and Temple were on the schedule. Running back Kyle Monangai leads the team in both carries and yards, but has been the least efficient (3.7 yards per carry). He is complemented by Samuel Brown V and Al-Shadee Salaam, two backs who have combined for 288 yards and four touchdowns. Quarterback Gavin Wimsatt and do-it-all tight end Johnny Langan (Rutgers’ version of Taysom Hill) also chip in on the ground game, as does the player I have chosen to feature this week. His name is Aron Cruickshank – a wide receiver by trade – and he is this week’s unconventional Offensive Player to Watch.

Cruickshank’s name might sound familiar to Ohio State fans, due to his long career and consistent presence in the Big Ten. He has been in the conference since 2018, when he began his journey with the Wisconsin Badgers. The Brooklyn, N.Y. native and graduate of famed Erasmus Hall (Clive Davis, Barbra Streisand, OSU’s Curtis Samuel) has since transferred back closer to home, and become a dangerous playmaker — if and when Rutgers is able to get the ball in his hands.

At Wisconsin, Cruickshank totaled a meager seven touches from scrimmage as a true freshman, yet still made a tangible and immediate impact. Despite being listed as a WR, he came down with just a single reception in 2018, but was given six carries — one of which resulted in a rushing touchdown. But it was at kick returner where Cruickshank began to flourish. He averaged 20.5 yards per kickoff return, resulting in 533 total return yards. Those are fairly pedestrian numbers, but he was still trusted with nearly all of the Badgers’ kickoff return duties, showing a level of faith and confidence college coaches had in his ability to make plays, which Cruickshank did in a major way in 2019.

As a sophomore, while still being used as a bit of a gadget player from scrimmage, the then-Badger upped his kickoff return average to 29.3 yards per, and housed the first pair of his five career return TD. His 95-yard score in the 2020 Rose Bowl kicked off the scoring for Wisconsin, although they ultimately fell to the Oregon Ducks by a score of 28-27. Cruickshank also had an 89-yard return against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, ultimately earning him Second Team All-Big Ten as a return specialist. He was (still) rarely used as a WR, but did average 10.6 YPC on 13 rushing attempts, and added another TD run. For the entire season, Cruickshank touched the ball 41 times for an average of 21 yards per, and resulting in three total TD. But they were his last touches for UW, as he transferred to Rutgers after the 2019 season.

Closer to home and finally featured as a WR, Cruickshank expanded his game for Rutgers in 2020. Then a junior, he hauled in 37 catches, increasing his career reception total nine-fold (in nine games). The catches only resulted in 6.5 yards per, but at least he was finally afforded an opportunity as a traditional WR. And while contributing as a wideout, Cruickshank continued to maintain a high level of excellence as a kick returner. He racked up 671 kickoff return yards and added two more return TD on his way to earning First Team All-Big Ten and Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year recognition.

Cruickshank was better on a per-game basis in 2021, but only appeared in seven of them. In those games, he totaled a career-high 244 receiving yards on 20 receptions, nearly doubling his YPC average to 12.2. He averaged a modest (for him) 21.1 yards per kickoff return, but also took on additional responsibility as a part-time punt returner. He was given just eight opportunities as a PR, but made the most of them by averaging a stellar 19.1 yards per return and taking one 62 yards to paydirt against Delaware.

2022 has seen more of the same, although Cruickshank is on pace for a career high in all the big statistical categories. He has reeled in 18 receptions for 156 yards, while adding three total TD (two receiving, one rushing). Those numbers might not jump off the page – especially when Marvin Harrison Jr. or eventually JSN is capable of doing that in a single game – but the Rutgers special teams maven is clearly limited in his opportunities.

The main issue for Cruickshank is that he is stuck in a below-average (being polite) and unimaginative offense with poor QB play. You could actually argue that Rutgers has the worst collective QB situation in the Big Ten, and that’s a pretty low bar. So could Cruickshank the Scarlet Knights’ version of Ted Ginn with better QB play and deep shots drawn up for him? Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think the answer is “no”, but I do believe that he could produce 600-700 total yards in a better system.

Cruickshank possesses a special blend of speed, elusiveness, and run-after-catch ability, but it just hasn’t clicked for him and/or the Scarlet Knights. And at this point, I’m not sure it ever will. But in the meantime, he will continue to keep special teams coaches up at night, while contributing what he can as a receiver and runner. I’ll have my eyes on Cruickshank come Saturday, while begrudgingly watching the rest of the Rutgers offense.