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Rutgers football: What to watch for as Scarlet Knights' spring practices finally begin

Rutgers football: What to watch for as Scarlet Knights' spring practices finally begin

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It's finally time for Rutgers to take the practice field.

The Scarlet Knights didn't get the chance to start their spring practices last year because of the pandemic, and they were on the verge of beginning this year's sessions earlier this month until a rise in positive COVID-19 tests forced the program into a pause.

But the pause is over and Rutgers will be on the field this week to begin its slate of 15 practices, culminating with the annual Scarlet-White Game at SHI Stadium.

The Scarlet Knights will try to build off the improvements they made during their 3-6 season with many key contributors returning.

This is an important time of the year. It's a chance to improve areas of weaknesses or build off areas of strength. It's a crucial time for younger players, especially the mid-year enrollees, to develop and learn.

It also allows players to make a statement and make a push for starting jobs.

That competition is vital for any program.

Here are some key storylines to watch:

What will the quarterback situation look like?

Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson put any chance of a quarterback controversy to rest back in February when he said that Noah Vedral would remain the starting quarterback "right now," but added "that doesn't mean we're not evaluating every single day."

Still, it appeared likely that Vedral would hold onto that role and that Art Sitkowski would remain his back-up.

Now things are more unclear.

Sitkowski announced Friday that he was entering the NCAA transfer portal with three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Rutgers will need to identify a new backup to Vedral.

So who are the candidates?

Johnny Langan was mostly used in short-yardage and red-zone situations and finished with a team-leading four rushing touchdowns. He was 10-of-13 passing for 92 yards and two TDs.

Cole Snyder played in two games as a freshman in 2019 and one in 2020, so what he can do at this level is still pretty uncertain.

Evan Simon was a freshman last season and didn't see any playing time. He was the 12th-best prospect in Pennsylvania for the Class of 2020 and the No. 36 pro-style quarterback in the nation, but he does have the ability to make plays with his legs — he rushed for 930 yards and 15 touchdowns his senior season.

Spring practices are now going to be big opportunities for Langan, Snyder and Simon to compete for that back-up job.

Of course, there's still a chance that Schiano goes into the transfer portal at some point to bring in a new quarterback.

But at this point, all eyes are on the quarterbacks currently on the roster.

Which young defensive players will make an impression?

Rutgers returns a lot on defense, including its two leading tacklers in linebackers Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyshon Fogg. Defensive linemen Mike Tverdov and Julius Turner are also among players coming back, and so are defensive backs Christian Izien, Avery Young and Tre Avery.

For the most part, it's a group that's going to look pretty similar to 2020.

But the Scarlet Knights also welcomed in a number of early enrollees from the Class of 2021 who could compete for the chance to contribute right away.

A defensive end like 6-foot-4, 245-pound Keshon Griffin (St. Joseph Academy, Hammonton) or 6-foot-3, 205-pound linebacker Khayri Banton (Newark West Side) could make an impact.

Defensive back Alijah Clark, a four-star prospect out of Camden, could be another candidate to earn time right away in the secondary.

How will Joshua Youngblood be deployed?

Rutgers added one speedy receiver/kick returner last year in Wisconsin transfer Aron Cruickshank, and the Brooklyn native became a difference-maker on special teams. He ranked fourth in the nation and first in the Big Ten with 671 combined kick return yards.

Now the Scarlet Knights have another dynamic talent in Joshua Youngblood, who previously played at Kansas State and was named the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year in 2019 after returning three kickoffs for touchdowns.

"He’s another outstanding talent," special teams coordinator Adam Scheier said. "It’s a very competitive situation."

How Rutgers utilizes both Youngblood and Cruickshank in the return game remains to be seen, but having to figure out how to use two speedy threats of their caliber is a good problem to have.

"We’ve got a bunch of talented returners," Scheier said. "It’s our job as a staff to evaluate them, get the best players on the field and then find the ways to get the ball in their hands. Josh will factor in as a punt returner, he’ll factor in as a kick returner. It’s going to be exciting some of the things we’re going to do in the return game."

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