Questions surround Rutgers starters entering Ohio State week
Despite the surge of momentum snatched from last Saturday’s 55-52 comeback victory at Indiana, the Rutgers football team is far from being in a great state heading into what expects to be the tallest task of the season by far.
With the No. 1 team in all of college football entering Piscataway as the Scarlet Knights (3-3, 1-2) prepare for Ohio State (7-0, 3-0) on Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium, Rutgers hobbles back home.
As far as the latest injury report released by head coach Kyle Flood is concerned, 15 Knights are either listed as questionable or probable to begin the week of practice. All six players listed as probable or questionable are starters.
Senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo (questionable, lower body), junior wide out Janarion Grant (questionable, lower body), junior weak side linebacker Steve Longa (probable, lower body injury), senior middle linebacker Kaiwan Lewis (questionable, upper body) headline the laundry list of players in question with the defending National Champions looming later in the week.
It doesn’t help with a team in Ohio State coming in full throttle with a 20 consecutive wins, the longest active streak in the nation.
“They have got a lot of very talented football players, very well-coached, physical football team that runs really well, and a team I believe that's won 27 straight Big Ten regular-season games,” Flood said of the No. 1 Buckeyes. “So we've got a tremendous challenge.”
While Carroo assured he would “definitely” play when OSU come to town, Flood’s report raises the question of how much — if at all — the Big Ten’s leading receiver will be available when the lights turn on and a nationally-televised audience tunes in for the primetime 8 p.m. matchup on ABC Network.
In his last time out, Carroo continued his unprecedented tear with his third game of three receiving touchdowns when he hauled in seven passes for 157 yards against the Hoosiers last Saturday in Bloomington.
But with the Don Bosco Prep (New Jersey) product’s status in question, that once again means more first team reps from junior wide receiver Carlton Agudosi.
When Carroo left late in the third quarter following his third touchdown catch of the game, Agudosi filled in admirably at the “X” receiver spot down the stretch of the comeback victory with 72 yards on three receptions and a long of 40.
As he has stated dating all the way back to the beginning of training camp in August, Flood feels confident in the depth of his unit.
Evidently, that is especially true with Agudosi.
“Calrton (Agudosi) did a good job. He did exactly what we tell every player to do: You have to be ready when your number is called ... you’ve gotta be ready to go in and perform like a starter — and Carlton did that on Saturday,” Flood said. “That’s maybe one of the best examples that I’ve been around of a guy being ready and then going in and performing at a high level, making an explosive play, giving us an opportunity to kick that field goal on the last drive.”
For Chris Laviano, who connected with Carroo on all three of his touchdown passes, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound target in Agudosi provides the sophomore quarterback a comfortable option in the next-man-up receiver core.
“Leonte (Carroo) played a great game for as a long as he was in, but Carlton (Agudosi) makes plays,” Laviano said on Saturday. “It’s no surprise. Me and Carlton have been hooking up since I first put on cleats at Rutgers. Carlton’s been one of my closest friends and so has Leonte, so we expected Carlton to make plays and that’s exactly what he did. He had some key first downs for us in the fourth quarter and then obviously that big catch down the field to set up sophomore running back Rob Martin’s) touchdown.”
After watching his teammates fall short in Rutgers’ near-upset of then-No. 4 Michigan State, Agudosi told reporters last Monday that he felt as if he deserved to play.
During Carroo’s month-long absence, Agudosi served as the team’s leading receiver with nine receptions for 108 yards and his first career touchdown.
Many have been waiting for the fourth-year wide out to finally breakthrough after his long frame and raw physical features brought comparisons to former Knight Brandon Coleman — and he showed glimpses of that long-awaited progression in both starts.
While it doesn’t come with the circumstances he had hoped for, Agudosi maintains the mentality that he can keep the passing game afloat if and when he does line up wide of Laviano.
“My mindset doesn’t change. I have to have a great week of practice,” Agudosi said. “I’ve gotta prepare every week, every day in practice to go out there just in case he goes down, he can’t go and my number’s called. So I’m just gonna go out there and attack every day in practice and go out there and try to perform well in practice so it carries over to Saturday.”
Just when the Rutgers secondary looked as if it couldn’t get any thinner, two more defensive backs fell to the injury report.
Both strong safeties on the Knights’ two-deep depth chart, junior Davon Jacobs and redshirt-freshman Kiy Hester, entered last Saturday’s game at Indiana listed as probable and questionable, respectively.
After making the start, Jacobs (questionable, upper body) left the game early on and did not return. Then, Hester — one week removed from his first career interception in a play that landed him on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays — was slow to get up after a play in the second half.
While Rutgers somehow managed to intercept Nate Sudfeld twice and turn the tables for the eventual 25-point comeback over the Hoosiers, it would be hard to imagine the secondary faring anywhere near as well without either ball hawk when Ohio State and its spread offense takes the field Saturday night.
Although Hester didn’t appear on the updated injury report for Monday, Flood said true freshman Najee Clayton could be on the cusp of playing time behind Jacobs, Hester and sophomore Andre Hunt on the depth chart but that the evaluation will ultimately have to come later on in the week.
“I think Najee (Clayton) is getting close,” he said. “Najee is a guy that I think at some point this season, we're going to see him on the field and see him play.”
That doesn’t even cover the status of Blessuan Austin. After starting all six games of the first season at cornerback as a true freshman, Austin (questionable, upper body) left the game and did not return when he appeared to have taken a knee to the head from Longa in a dog pile at the end of a play in the second half.
If the Queens, New York, native is a no-go for the weekend, fellow true freshman Jarius Adams would be next in line. Flood also mentioned the possibility of junior walk-on Brian Verbitski or true freshman Najee Clayton seeing game action.
Despite receiving spurts of playing time at corner and filling in Austin at Indiana, the combination of question marks between two key position in the secondary is alarming with the likes of JT Barrett, Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliot headlining Urban Meyer’s prolific spread offense filled with playmakers.
But for now, all Rutgers can do is wait and see. ESPN’s Joe Schad reported on Monday that Buckeyes personnel were strongly considering starting Barrett for Saturday night.
While Barrett and Jones have largely split time in Meyer’s experiment of a two-quarterback system, Flood said the Knights will be getting ready for whoever.
“I think it’s become very evident you better prepare for both of them,” Flood said. “JT(Barrett) runs around a little bit more … he’s playing a little bit more as the season’s gone on, but (Barrett and Jones are) certainly excellent players with a little bit different skillsets. But when they come in the game, you better be ready to defend the both of them.”
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