Spring practice is in the books, which means we can assess the progress — or lack thereof — from those 15 practice sessions. Some position battles have been solidified; others remain in flux until well after fall camp opens.
This week, we’ll take a look at each team and what we’ve learned. Up next is Rutgers:
1. The quarterbacks will battle into August — and perhaps beyond.
Forget about down time for Rutgers quarterbacks Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig. Spring practice is over, but the QB competition will rage through the summer as both juniors jockey for an edge after a spring that decided nothing.
Laviano, the 11-game starter last season with an advantage in experience, threw for 240 yards in the April 23 spring game on 16-of-29 passing. Rettig, the once-heralded prospect and LSU transfer who started once last year, hit 13 of 22 passes in the final spring workout for 186 yards.
The competitive environment while auditioning for new coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer appeared to push both quarterbacks through the spring. That can only help to keep Laviano and Rettig sharp in the months before fall practice opens.
Laviano and Rettig are comparable physically and have received nearly equal opportunities so far under the new coaching staff. Who knows what will decide this race — it’s close enough that one practice with the season in view could shift the balance. And the competition may continue after the Scarlet Knights’ Sept. 3 opener at Washington.
2. The future is now for Rutgers’ young linebackers.
More than halfway through the spring, the Scarlet Knights’ situation at linebacker sounded like a real mess. It’s understandable, because Steve Longa, Kaiwan Lewis and Quentin Gause are gone from last season. They ranked as Rutgers’ top three tacklers, accumulating 285 stops and 19 behind the line of scrimmage.
Yes, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jay Niemann faces a tall task in grooming a trustworthy trio in time for next season. Remember, this is a defense, even with three seniors at the second level last season, that ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in most categories. Rutgers allowed a whopping 6.86 yards per play. Only Texas Tech and Kansas fared worse among Power 5 schools.
The likely new starters are Deonte Roberts in the middle, Trevor Morris at the weakside spot and Najee Clayton at strongside linebacker. All three are true sophomores. Roberts started one game last year and led the bunch with 11 tackles.
Clayton performed most consistently throughout the spring. And by the final scrimmage, Roberts and Morris showed enough improvement to provide a sense of optimism at this position group.
Still, they’ve got long climb ahead.
3. Janarion Grant is worth the hype.
The senior wideout is for real. Grant returned three kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns in 2015, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and third team from the coaches. He is better than that. Rutgers fans know it — and Grant showed it in the spring.
Replacing Leonte Carroo as the Scarlet Knights’ No. 1 receiving target, Grant figures to form a nice pass-catching tandem with senior Carlton Agudosi. Grant caught 11 balls for 140 yards in the spring game. He turned a screen pass from Laviano into a 37-yard touchdown. He was active in the running game.
Basically, Grant did the things on offense that he showcased on special teams a year ago, when against Washington State he became the first Rutgers player in the modern era to return a kickoff and a punt for scores in the same game.
Grant’s 98-yard kickoff return at Michigan was the longest by a visitor to the Big House since 1934. He threw a touchdown against Nebraska. Get the picture? This guy is dynamic. Rutgers coaches intend to squeeze every ounce of possible production from Grant in 2016.