Rutgers surprised more than a few folks by winning nine games last season after Greg Schiano left to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Offensive line coach Kyle Flood was promoted to replace him and things went well until a three-game losing streak to close the season. The Scarlet Knights head to the Big Ten next season, and they should challenge for the American Athletic Conference title this fall. Wide receiver Brandon Coleman, who could be a first-round selection in May, is the team's best player. If the Scarlet Knights can fix their defensive back seven, this team should win nine games again.
Rutgers had a school-record seven selections in the 2013 NFL Draft, but four of those were seventh-rounders. There won't be seven Scarlet Knights selected in the 2014 draft, but there are a handful of guys who will interest pro scouts. Thing is, there needs to be more than a handful of potential NFLers going forward. The jump from the Big East/AAC to the Big Ten is a big one, and Rutgers currently doesn't have enough high-caliber talent to compete in the Big Ten, which means a lot of work has to be done on the recruiting trail by Flood and his staff.
Top senior prospects
OG Antwan Lowery: Lowery (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) was a highly recruited defensive tackle out of Miami, but he moved to the offensive line after redshirting in 2009. He was a full-time starter for the first time last season and was an All-Big East choice. However, coach Kyle Flood was unhappy with his performance in spring practice and moved him to the second team. Going into fall camp, he is not listed as a starter. Lowery is physical, has good strength and technique, and is surprisingly nimble when asked to pull.
FS Jeremy Deering: Deering (6-2, 200) was moved to free safety from wide receiver in the spring and finally might have found a home. He has played wide receiver, running back and even quarterback for the Scarlet Knights. He also has been a kick returner. Deering is a solid all-around athlete with good speed. He obviously is raw as a defensive back (he did play safety in high school in Tampa), but his athleticism and versatility mean he has upside. How high an upside is the question.
DE Jamil Merrell: He was second on the team with 5.5 sacks last season, his first as a starter. While he started at end, he played some outside linebacker when Rutgers used a 3-4 base defensive set. He runs well and has some pass-rush ability. Merrell (6-4, 255) remains a bit raw and has some work to do against the run.
OLB Jamal Merrell: He is Jamil's twin, but he weighs 35 fewer pounds. Unlike his brother, Jamal stands out against the run (he has only 1.5 sacks in two years as a starter). His coverage skills also need work. But Jamal runs well and has good size (6-4, 220).
CB Lewis Toler: Toler (5-11, 190) was a three-year starter at Western Michigan before transferring to Rutgers for his final season of eligibility. The transfer became official in late June. He was a freshman All-MAC pick in 2010, which might have been his best all-around season. He had three picks and seven pass breakups last season, and has eight interceptions and 20 pass breakups in his career. Flood has said that Toler was accepted as a transfer because he could start for a defense looking to replace its top three corners from last season. Toler isn't a speed merchant, but he is instinctive, has good ball skills and is willing in run support.
WR Brandon Coleman: Coleman (6-6, 220), a junior, has the combination of size, speed and production necessary to become a high-profile prospect. He's currently listed at No. 18 on Daniel Jeremiah's Talented Top 50 list. He missed spring drills after what was described as "minor" knee surgery, but if he is back to 100 percent by the opener, he should be one of the nation's top receivers. He had 43 receptions for 718 yards (16.7 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns last season -- just think what he could do in a more sophisticated passing attack with an accurate quarterback. While he has battled bouts of inconsistency, he also has flashed star potential. He is both physical and quick, and his size is a huge problem for opposing corners and safeties.
OG Kaleb Johnson: Johnson (6-4, 305), a junior, became a starter three games into his true freshman season in 2011, first at right tackle and then the past two seasons at left tackle. He was moved to guard in the final week of spring drills and seems likely to start fall camp there, but his position this season could depend on what happens with Lowery. Johnson played in a prolific Wing-T offense in high school in Jacksonville and is a mauler in the running game. While he still has some work to do in pass protection, he has good quickness.
SS Lorenzo Waters: Waters (6-0, 205), a junior, is heading into his second season as a starter and is the only defensive back on the roster who has started a game for Rutgers in the secondary. He did a nice job in run support last season, finishing with 68 tackles, including 16 against Army's triple-option attack. His coverage skills need work, but his one interception last season came against star Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater.
Three must-see games of 2013
Sept. 21 vs. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are expected to struggle somewhat this season, but they do return all four starters in the secondary, which means Coleman could have a tough day. Arkansas' defensive line should be an area of strength, so this will be a good test for Johnson, Lowery and the rest of the offensive line. This also is a chance for an AAC team to beat an SEC squad, which would help the AAC's image.
Oct. 10 at Louisville: These are the two best teams in the AAC, and this likely will determine the conference champ. Coleman will be working against one of the best safety duos in the nation in Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith. Toler, Deering and Waters will be going against the best passing attack in the league, headed by QB Teddy Bridgewater.
Nov. 16 vs. Cincinnati: Cincy's tough offensive line could mean a long day for the Merrells. Cincinnati left tackle Eric Lefeld and guard Austen Bujnoch are two of the best linemen in the league. Bearcats cornerback Deven Drane is a good one, too, and he'll battle Coleman.