On Thursday, Sept. 1, the Rutgers University football program will begin its 142nd season against visiting North Carolina Central, and it will showcase an offensive aspect that not many Scarlet Knights fans have seen before. A top-notch group of wide receivers.
Since what seems like the beginning of time -- OK, maybe it's only the past 10 years or so -- RU has boasted a power-running game that helped produced winning seasons and bowl appearances. However, this year might be a bit different as juniors Mark Harrison and Mohamed Sanu lead a talented group of wideouts.
Harrison (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) enters the season as RU's No. 1 wide receiver after compiling 829 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season. Harrison, who put up those numbers with below-average play from quarterbacks Tom Savage and Chas Dodd, uses his size and speed to create match-up problems for defensive backs.
"D-backs don't really like to go against big receivers with speed," said Harrison last season, "so that's been an advantage. But it's more of me using my technique to get past smaller DBs and do what I can do to go and get the ball."
On the other side of the field will be RU's No. 2 option, Sanu (6-2, 213).
"Relatively speaking, Sanu may take a back seat to Harrison on the team (with as much as you can infer from last year's injury-riddled campaign), but he's certainly the best all-around offensive threat; probably RU's second best pure player after Scott Vallone," wrote SB Nation's Rutgers blog On The Banks. "He's a very good receiver, a dynamic special teams/trick play weapon, and the guy is built like a tank."
Last season, head coach Greg Schiano and former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca realized how talented Sanu was and were successful getting the sophomore as many touches as possible. By the end of the season, Sanu caught 44 balls for 418 yards and rushed for 331 yards on 51 carries, mainly out of the Wildcat formation -- Sanu also completed 6-of-9 passes for 160 yards. However, under new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, the emphasis is to get Sanu touches not in the backfield, but in open space.
"Being able to play just receiver I’ve been able to get my body back to the way I wanted it to be," says Sanu. "I just feel a lot faster, a lot more explosive. I’m just ready to come out and ready to play ball with my teammates."
Entering last year, junior Tim Wright (6-4, 221) was supposed to be RU's No. 1 receiver, but he missed the entire season with knee injury. This year, because of Harrison's and Sanu's breakout seasons, Wright will begin the season as the Scarlet Knight's No. 3 wide receiver.
"(Wright is) a physical receiver and precise route runner who can out-muscle defensive backs for the football," said The Star-Ledger's David Hutchinson in mid-August.
Wright caught four balls for 45 yards, including two TDs, in RU's first full-team scrimmage and looks to be back to his old self. Meanwhile, Dodd's fourth option, redshirt freshman Brandon Coleman (6-6, 220), could be his most talented.
Coleman, who was a four-star recruit from Forestville, Md., jumped onto the Scarlet Knights' scene when he caught five balls for 72 yards, including two TDs, during the program's annual Scarlet-White game in late April. However, there have been some growing pains during training camp.
"... Through 18 practices and two scrimmages this preseason camp, Coleman has come back to the pack," wrote Hutchinson. "While he still gets open and routinely blows by defenders on deep routes, he has repeatedly dropped passes, passes that kill drives and would have been sure touchdowns."
There's a lot of hope that the talent at receiver and running back will help the Scarlet Knights overcome the problems at OL and QB. However, these questions remain: Can sophomore quarterback Dodd get enough time from a bad, but (should be) improved, offensive line? And, if so, can Dodd be accurate with the football? If those two things can happen look for the RU offense to make a dramatic turn around under Cignetti. But, that's asking for a lot.
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