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First Big East title highlights season

Team of The Year

<p>Former Knights cornerback Logan Ryan, center, was one of three Rutgers defensive backs taken in this year’s NFL Draft.</p>

Former Knights cornerback Logan Ryan, center, was one of three Rutgers defensive backs taken in this year’s NFL Draft.

Before the start of last season, the Rutgers football team was counted out.

The Scarlet Knights sat third in the preseason rankings, behind defending champion Louisville and a South Florida team that returned nearly all of its starters from the previous season.

Meanwhile, The Daily Targum’s Team of the Year had a first-year head coach in Kyle Flood and only one other assistant from the previous regime.

And in addition to most of its coaching staff, Rutgers lost one of the program’s most prolific wide receivers in Mohamed Sanu, who departed for the NFL a year early.

But Flood was grateful Sanu was one of very few major losses in terms of athletes.

He just needed to figure out who was going to help him lead them.

“For me, we had all the right pieces here,” he said. “We had a good football team. I knew if we could surround them with the right coaching staff, we’d have a chance to win a lot of games.”

Robb Smith — the other remaining coach — became the defensive coordinator and Flood proceeded to fill the rest of the jobs.

But he is the first to admit the biggest reason last season’s team earned the first share of the Big East Championship in program history was not because of the coaches he and the athletic department chose.

Flood gives the most credit to the ones who wore the jerseys.

“It’s always the players first,” he said. “In football, there are more players than any other sport that you’re dealing with, whether it’s the 22 starters on offense or defense, the 10 to 15 other players that play on special teams plus the players who are role players … it’s always about the players first.”

Seven of those players earned a pick in last month’s NFL draft — two of whom, junior cornerback Logan Ryan and senior safety Duron Harmon, were selected in the third round — while four others signed free agent contracts.

This amount of next-level talent was not lost on the players still remaining. It was clear to them who they had leading the way.

On the defensive side, they had Harmon, Ryan and senior linebacker Khaseem Greene, a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, among others.

“We had great leaders last year and they helped us get to where we got to and have one of the best defenses in the country,” said junior safety Lorenzo Waters. “Now, seeing as how most of them are gone, we’re going to have to rebuild on that.”

But it was not all smooth sailing for the history-making squad.

With two regular-season games remaining, all it had to do to win the conference title outright was defeat a struggling Pittsburgh squad or earn a home victory against Louisville.

The Knights dropped both games, falling into a tie for the title, before losing their bowl game to Virginia Tech.

And as is often the case, those three losses stick out as much as the share of the title.

“I think competitors always feel that way,” Flood said. “As a coach I certainly remember the wins and the championships, but I remember the details of the losses much more than I do the wins. I think that’s always the case.”

Flood said there is a tendency to look back and imagine what could have been, but there is no sense in that.

He said last season is over, and the team needs to keep moving forward.

But there are lessons taken from it.

“You always get through adversity, look at plays we didn’t make, look at plays the offense scored on,” said senior linebacker Jamal Merrell. “If you can get past the adversity, you can get though anything.”

Next season will surely not be short on adversity.

Flood lost nearly half of his starters to graduation or the NFL, as well as his offensive and defensive coordinators.

But perhaps more importantly, last season does not carry over.

“You don’t get any added bonus because you won nine games last year,” Flood said. “It doesn’t work like that. You have to go out every week and compete and do everything you can to be 1-0. If you put your focus there, when you look back you’ll be looking at some good stuff.”

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