The Rutgers University football team returns 10 starters from a team that shared the program's first conference championship in 2012, and the Scarlet Knights are looking for their first outright title before moving on to the Big 10 in 2014.
Quarterback Gary Nova (6’2”, 220 pounds), who threw for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns last season returns, and he’s learning a new offense under new offensive coordinator Ron Prince.
Nova's goal heading into training camp was to “know the offense cold” by the time it was done.
"I'm still learning, but I'm getting there," Nova said when camp finished on Aug. 20.
If it was difficult to learn the offense, an injury to junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman (6'6", 220) didn’t help.
Coleman, who tied a Rutgers school record with 10 touchdown catches last year and is currently fifth on the school's career touchdown catches list with 16, underwent surgery in March and didn’t return to the team until the last week of camp.
"It was good to see him out there," Nova said of Coleman. "He's a leader. He’s one of our captains. He's very important to the team."
Coleman's absence has opened the door for some other receivers, including senior Quron Pratt (6'0", 190), who caught five passes for 83 yards in the team's two scrimmages, according to snyrutgers.com. Sophomore Leonte Carroo (6'1", 200) and freshman Andre Patton (6'4", 195) caught head coach Kyle Flood's eye with their performances in the scrimmages as well.
"Leonte Carroo is going to be an excellent football player here and I think he’s already proven that," head coach Kyle Flood said following the team’s first scrimmage. He also called that scrimmage a "big step" for Patton.
There have been changes along the offensive line. The line has four returners who helped pave the way for Jawan Jamison, who rushed for 1,398 yards last season.
However, seniors Antwan Lowery (6'4", 310) and Andre Civil (6'3", 285) are battling for their positions along the line, according to nj.com.
According to reports, redshirt freshman Chris Muller (6'6", 300) has found his way into the starting lineup at right guard, where Civil played last year. Junior Kaleb Johnson (6'4", 305), who started at left tackle last year, moves into Lowery’s spot at left guard. Sophomore Keith Lumpkin (6'8", 315) was inserted into the left tackle position previously occupied by Johnson.
Junior center Betim Bunjari (6'4", 295) returns at center.
Junior Savon Huggins (6'0", 200) took a majority of the carries at running back in the two scrimmages, rushing a total of 19 times for 47 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Paul James (6'0", 210) led the team in rushing yards in each scrimmage, with 42 on three carries in the first scrimmage and 36 on six carries and a touchdown in the second.
Junior Michael Burton (6'0", 235) caught two passes, including a touchdown, from the fullback position during the two scrimmages. Senior tight end Paul Carrezola (6'2", 240) caught four passes, including a touchdown.
Twin brothers and seniors Jamal Merrell (6'4", 220) and Jamil Merrell (6'4", 255) lead the defense. Jamal plays defensive end and Jamal plays linebacker.
Jamal Merrell had 83 tackles and an interception last year, and Jamil Merrell had 40 tackles, in 2012.
Senior Marcus Thompson (6'2", 260) returns at defensive end. He recorded 23 tackles last season.
Junior safety Lorenzo Waters (6'0", 205) is the lone returning starter for a secondary that lost three players, and has been a focus of concern for the team in the offseason.
Waters had 68 tackles and an interception last season.
Jamal Merrell has embraced the leadership role, and talked about his team’s focus on winning a championship. Rutgers was 9-4 last year, including a 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Scarlet Knights didn’t lose until Oct. 27 last year, but finished the regular season with two straight losses.
"That season's over and you can think about the good and the bad, but that’s in the past," Jamal Merrell said. "That's the great thing about football. There’s always another season coming."
In 2012, Kyle Federico connected on 6-of-11 field goal attempts as a freshman. Walk-on Nick Borgese was 5-of-8. They’ve competed for the job through the offseason.
Flood indicated Federico was the current choice for starter at the end of camp.
THIS SEASON IS ONE OF A KIND: Rutgers is in the conference formerly known as the Big East for one more season, meaning it’s technically the only year the Scarlet Knights will play in the American Athletic Conference. On July 1, 2014, Rutgers joins the Big 10.
Players and coaches on this year’s squad insist they are focused on this season, which can end in a BCS bowl appearance. The American Athletic Conference champion clinches an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game in that group’s final year of existence.
"You always have new coaches coming in and new schemes to prepare for," coach Kyle Flood said. "We're always ready for that. But this year offers us another chance to get to a BCS bowl game. The champion of our conference goes to a BCS bowl game."
In addition to the BCS Championship Game, the four bowls that comprise the BCS are the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta bowls, and the estimated payout for the schools involved in those games far exceeds what the other bowl games pay.
"We’re taking it one game at a time," junior safety Lorenzo Waters said before training camp began. “We’re focusing on this season in front of us."
"Some other teams (in the conference) might be thinking about us going to the Big 10. They might be using that for extra motivation," junior fullback Michael Burton said when posed the question. "We're not thinking about next year. We're focused on this year and winning a championship."
The ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC are the other conferences involved in the BCS. Next year, the BCS will be replaced by a playoff structure. Those five conferences will have automatic bids to some of the bowl games involved in the playoff rotation, but the American Athletic Conference will have to earn a spot with its play on the field.
"It's an honor to move up, but we’re in the AAC now and we’re excited about that," junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman said.
HISTORIC CAPTAINS: Junior quarterback Gary Nova, junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman and twin brothers Jamil and Jamal Merrell, both seniors, were named captains for the season.
"It's an honor," Jamal Merrell said following the final practice of training camp. "You never see two brothers be captains together, but we were voted by the team. That's how much they look up to us."
It's not unprecedented, but it's something that rarely happens. The Merrells were the first set of brothers named co-captains since Gabe and George Ludlow in 1893.
KEY GAMES (Full schedule available at scarletknights.com): Aug. 29 at Fresno State (season opener); Sept. 7 vs. Norfolk State (home opener); Sept. 14 vs. Eastern Michigan (Eric LeGrand's number will be retired at halftime); Sept. 21 vs. Arkansas (won last year at heavily favored Arkansas); Oct. 10 at Louisville (preseason top 10); Oct. 26 vs. Houston (Homecoming); Nov. 16 vs. Cincinnati; Dec. 7 vs. South Florida (season and home finale).
WATCHLISTS: The eyes of quite a few awards watch list groups will be on the Scarlet Knights this fall.
Linebacker Jamal Merrell is on the watch list for the Bednarik Award, given annually to the nation’s top defensive player.
Junior Kaleb Johnson and senior Antwan Lowery were named to the Outland Trophy watch list. The Outland Trophy is awarded to the nation's top interior lineman.
Junior center Betim Bujari was named to the Rimington Awardwatch list. The Rimington Award goes to the nation’s top center.
BOWL STREAK: Rutgers will be seeking its third straight bowl appearance, and seventh in the last eight years. Prior to 2005, the Scarlet Knights appeared in just one bowl game, back on Dec. 16, 1978. Rutgers lost to Arizona State, 34-18, in the Garden State Bowl.
Last year, the Scarlet Knights loss to Virginia Tech, 13-10, in overtime of the Russell Athletic Bowl. Rutgers is 5-3 in bowl games.