There is no question that the Rutgers offense looks improved compared to last season. While it’s still only a two game sample size, the Scarlet Knights are averaging 30 points and 368.5 yards of total offense per contest. RU is converting third downs at a 48.5% rate. Last season, the Scarlet Knights averaged 17.4 points, 282.1 yards and converted just 28.7% on third downs.
While we won’t truly know how much better the offense will be until they’re in the heart of the Big Ten schedule, it’s clear that new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has made a positive impact. Quarterback Gavin Wimsatt has improved and running back Kyle Monangai is doing his best Mohamed Ibrahim impersonation. However, there is one area that Rutgers is emphasizing significantly more than last season.
In 2022, Rutgers running backs combined for 20 catches and 89 receiving yards in 12 games. They scored 1 touchdown out of the backfield through the air.
In just two games so far in 2023, Rutgers running backs have combined for 3 catches, 80 yards and 2 touchdowns. All resulted in big plays.
Instead of treating the running backs as a third or fourth option on pass plays, Ciarrocca is calling plays designed to get plus yardage by getting them out in open space.
Monangai had a 20 yard reception against Northwestern in which he broke a tackle and scampered for the first down. Against Temple, Ja’shon Benjamin scored the first touchdown of his career on a 33 yard reception down the left sideline. Late in the game, Sam Brown caught a 27 yard pass in a similar spot that set up his first rushing touchdown of the season.
Using the running backs as a threat in the passing game is a much needed wrinkle that Rutgers is now implementing under Ciarrocca. The exciting prospect is that the running back most effective as a receiver in his career is Aaron Young. He has 51 catches for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns in 38 career games. With Young close to returning, he could make an even bigger impact catching passes out of the backfield.
For a young quarterback and offensive line still gelling, having the running backs as a weapon in the pass game creates a productive safety valve. All three receptions by the running backs have led to big gains and resulted in all three drives finishing with a touchdown.
While the offense has a long way to go in regard to proving it’s legitimately better this season, the early signs are encouraging. While Wimsatt found JaQuae Jackson for a 61 yard bomb on Saturday and produced a highlight reel touchdown catch with Ian Strong in the season opener, getting production out of the running backs through the air has been a very positive development for the Rutgers offense.
The running back group is arguably the deepest on the roster. The fact that all five backs are capable of catching the ball and making plays after the catch is a valuable option to have.
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