Rutgers Football 2019 Editors Predictions - Week One
Week one. A week with a unique aura in any football season. Every team has the same record, every player has the same stat line and every score is yet to go final. The predictions of beat writers and analysts across America are just that in week one, with a full season of opportunities ahead to be disproven. Can this year's Rutgers football team defy an entire off-season's worth of predictions? It starts in week one.
McLane Carter or Artur Sitkowski will start, but neither will be sacked a single time.
The decision to withhold the starting quarterback's identity from the public was a first for head coach Chris Ash and has left an uncommon dose of speculation in the hands of the media.
The mystery of the 2019 opening day starter is one for the fans, media and a UMass pass rush unit that recorded only 10 sacks in 2018. The Minutemen's Jake Byczko, who led UMass with 3.5 sacks last season, is the only returning pass rusher for the team in 2019.
Byczko will take his supporting cast of freshmen on the road against the Knights' offensive line, which ranked second in the Big Ten and 19th nationally last year. First-year offensive line coach Peter Rossumando has the privilege of working with 3 of the 5 starters from last year's unit and two replacements that saw game action for Rutgers last year in redshirt freshman tackle Raiqwon O'Neal and junior guard Nick Krimin.
Rossumando claims to have been close friends with the entire Minutemen staff from a year ago, before that regime was cleaned out and replaced with the one that the Knights will oppose Friday night. Perhaps some of his old friends can give him the scoop on the best way to slow down Byczko.
Sophomore defensive back Avery Young snags his first career interception
Last year when thrusted into the starting lineup as a true freshman, Young established himself as a playmaker in the Rutgers secondary. He broke up 10 passes and led the unit in total tackles with 66. One stat still sitting on Young's bucket list is that elusive first interception.
Young and the defense will be going up against a quarterback with just three pass completions to his name in UMass' Randall West. A New Jersey native and former point guard, West will be thrown into the fire making his first career start in a hostile Big 10 environment.
Young, who has been labeled as a ball hawk by safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Noah Joseph, will have the benefit of an energized home crowd behind him on opening night. It may be as good of an opportunity as he will have this season to come down with career-pick number one.
"(He's) got a knack for getting the ball and making big plays," Joseph said. "Whether it's knocking the ball down on a tough fourth down play, coming up and making a big stop on the run or getting picks out there."
Attendance will surpass last year's home opener
Last year, the Knights opened on a Saturday afternoon to a crowd of 40,124. Now, Rutgers welcomes the largest incoming freshman class in the history of the University. A record-breaking 7,100 first year students will be starting their college experiences, and Welcome Week will bring them to Friday night's game. It serves as a callback to the endearing high school football tradition of "Friday night lights" that many of them will only be a year removed from.
First-year students aside, opening night will be the first Knights sporting event ever in which alcohol will be sold at the concessions. While the starting price of $11 may keep most of the alcohol consumption at the local tailgates, the simple novelty of finally being able to purchase a beer at the newly-named SHI Stadium is sure to spark interest among of-age fans.
These two factors are simply the topping on the fact that this game will mark college football's historic 150th anniversary. Early season ticket sales figures show a decline, according to NJ Advance Media, but opening night and the historical prominence around are likely to be some exceptions to this lack of pre-season interest.
The decline in season ticket sales may ultimately end up being an avenue for new fans to get an opportunity to attend, as lower ticket sales often lead to better pricing options and more overall ticket availability. Fans of the game, New Jersey locals and hordes of Rutgers students will have the chance to make the trip to Piscataway and generate an atmosphere fitting for a historic event.
Junior wideout Bo Melton hauls in first touchdown of his career
In two seasons played on the Banks, Melton has earned a start in 10 out of 24 games. He'll likely sit atop the wide receivers depth chart come Friday night. But, the junior may be eyeing this week one matchup against the Minutemen with a certain edge. Perhaps it's because he has yet to score a touchdown in his career, as he begins his junior campaign in just a few days.
Last season, Melton ended his sophomore campaign leading the wide receivers in yards with 245. An elder statesmen in the wideout group, he possesses a unique skill set of clean-cut route running and active hands. Couple this with a comfortability with both Carter and Sitkowski during first team reps this spring, and Melton is poised for a breakout 2019 season.
Melton will be lining up against a UMass defensive back group that allowed 13.6 yards per completion last season. The veteran in the group, Isaiah Rodgers, is the only real threat who will likely cover Melton depending on the defensive package. Two years removed from a season where he had three interceptions, the 5-foot-10-inch Rodgers matches Melton’s height, but that should not stop the Mays Landing, New Jersey, native from using his quick feet to shake his defender.
Junior running back Raheem Blackshear will eclipse 100 rushing yards
Last season, the ground game — like it has historically for the Knights — shined. Blackshear and sophomore running back Isaih Pacheco, who was in his first year on the Banks in 2018, combined for 1,137 all purpose yards. Both were consistently used as receivers alongside their primary rushing role. Blackshear even led the team in receiving yards while hauling in 3 touchdowns.
It would not be a surprise that Blackshear can surpass 100 yards on the ground. He already did this twice last season against Kansas and Penn State. Friday night, Blackshear will face a Minutemen defense that ranked near the bottom of the FBS in rushing defense last season, averaging more than 270 yards per game.
Blackshear, who also appears set to return as one of Rutgers’ primary punt and kick returners along with Pacheco, could rack up yards on that end. His versatility should prove to be a challenge for the UMass defense.
Linebackers will wreak havoc on the Minutemen's Randall West and their passing offense
This offseason, the Knights lost one of Ash’s top secondaries in his four-year tenure. Alumni defensive backs Isaiah Wharton, Blessuan Austin and Saquan Hampton all moved up to the professional level, all of whom were starters and impact players on defense.
A position that didn’t lose as many players to the NFL was the linebacking group, a position once headed by alumni Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts. Even without Morris, Rutgers returns a depth at the position including junior linebackers Tyreek Maddox-Williams, Rashawn Battle and Tyshon Fogg. With the addition of Michigan transfer sophomore linebacker Drew Singleton, who saw time on special teams in Jim Harbaugh’s system, new defensive coordinator Andy Buh has a plethora of linebackers to integrate into his 4-3 defense.
Similar to the Knights, UMass had its own quarterback battle up in New England, a competition between West, Andrew Brito and Michael Curtis. West, a redshirt senior, has only appeared in four collegiate games throughout his career.
Under former defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, Rutgers' pass rush in 2018 excelled at holding opposing quarterbacks to 186.7 yards per game, placing it within the top 20 for that category. With players like Maddox-Williams, a strong-side “Sam” linebacker who had 48 total tackles last season, the Knights will have a field day disrupting their opponent’s passing offense.
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