Around the Big Ten: QB Nova is gone, but Rutgers' biggest issue is defense

Rick Brown

Rutgers ended its first season in the Big Ten with a bowl victory and an 8-5 record. That's the good news.

The slap of reality is the fact that the Scarlet Knights lost to Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State by a combined score of 180-44.

Coach Kyle Flood must replace 12 of 22 starters — six on both sides of the ball. And the first order of business is replacing quarterback Gary Nova, who was third in passing efficiency (145.3) in the Big Ten last season and fourth in passing yardage per game (219.3).

Flood also has a new offensive coordinator in Ben McDaniels, the sixth in as many seasons. McDaniels will have the luxury of coaching wide receiver Leonte Carroo, who passed up on the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. Carroo and Nova — former high school teammates as well — hooked up for some big numbers last season.

Carroo caught 55 passes for 1,086 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 19.8 yards per catch was the second-most of any FBS player with at least 50 catches. Thirteen of those receptions came on third down, when he averaged 22.2 yards a catch.

Rutgers also has an emerging star in sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay. He had 7 1/2 sacks off the bench as a freshman.

Spring buzz

It's a two-man competition to replace Nova behind center. Chris Laviano has been in the program for two seasons and probably has a better understanding of the offense than LSU transfer Hayden Rettig, who has the superior arm. Flood said at the end of spring practice that Laviano had a slight edge. Neither emerged as a clear-cut starter, however.

"We'll probably have about 10 days in training camp where we can let that play out between Chris and Hayden," Flood during an April Big Ten coaches teleconference.

Still to be settled

Tackle Darius Hamilton — the team's defensive player of the year last season — and linebacker Steve Longa — he's started all 26 games the last two seasons — are solid veterans. But Rutgers needs to beef up its defense against the run. The Scarlet Knights were 13th among Big Ten schools in rushing defense last season, allowing 212.3 yards a game.

Rutgers allowed at least 280 yards rushing in five Big Ten games last season. And nearly half of opponents' rushing attempts gained at least five yards. And two players — linbebacker Kevin Snyder and nose tackle Kenneth Kirksey — are out of eligibility.

There's work to do in the offensive line, too, where there will be three new starters. Another question is running back Paul James (363 yards, five TDs), who tore his ACL in the fourth game and hopes to be a factor again. Three other backs — Desmon Peoples, Josh Hicks and Robert Martin — are back after gaining at least 400 yards last season.

The defensive secondary, coached by former Iowa assistant Darrell Wilson, also has holes to fill with the departure of Jonathan Aiken, Gareef Glashen and Lorenzo Waters.

Our take

This Rutgers team fed off Nova last season, when it was sixth in the Big Ten with 227.4 passing yards per game. The Scarlet Knights were also seventh in total offense (390 yards).

Nova leaves an experience void with his departure, but the bigger issues are on the defensive side of the ball. Flood's team was 10th in scoring defense (30.2 points), 12th in pass defense (230.5) and 13th in both rushing defense (212.3) and total defense (442.8).

The development of the defense, more than the emergence of a new quarterback, will write the real story of this Rutgers team.