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Interviewing the Enemy: Q&A with ScarletNation’s Chris Tsakonas

Get more acquainted with the Scarlet Knights from one of the team’s insiders.

Rutgers Spring Football Game Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Just two days separate Northwestern from the onset of its 2023 season. In the very near future, the Wildcats will go wheels up to Piscataway, New Jersey to get set for their Week One matchup with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. RU hasn’t had a winning season since 2014, so don’t fret if you’re unfamiliar with the program, its NFL talent produced or roster for the upcoming season. To break down more of the Scarlet Knights, Inside NU was lucky enough to be joined by Chris Tsakonas of, 247Sports’ Rutgers affiliate site.

Inside NU: Were you surprised by the decision to name Gavin Wimsatt the starter? What do you think he brings as a quarterback, good and bad, and do you expect him to perform better this year?

Chris Tsakonas: I think I’m not surprised that he ultimately won out the starting job. I think in the long run, this was a really highly touted, four-star recruit out of high school. He kind of started really early in his career. Enrolled early in the 2021 season, joined the team midseason, got a couple of snaps. Last year, started to play more and more, and now has earned the starting job. I think he’s got a higher ceiling than Evan Simon, who he was competing with a bit in the spring. I would say no, not that surprised that he won out the job; I think he’s got the job as locked down as one could expect. I think that this is going to be a year where, in terms of Gavin Wimsatt, it’s gonna come down to: how accurate is he, and can get that accuracy up? Can he make better decisions? Can he look more comfortable in the pocket compared to last year, and can he just sort of adapt more to the speed of Big Ten football? I think if he can do that, I’m not saying he’s going to be a finished product this year, but I do think he has the potential to be a lot better than what he showed in his freshman year last year.

INU: It was a Rutgers team last year in which the leading scrimmage yard performer was Aron Cruikshank at only 500 yards. With a lot of playmakers gone this season, who do you expect to step up, and do you think the production should be better overall?

CT: I don’t think we’re really going to know the answer to “Are we going to see better production?” until we obviously see the team a bit, because I think there are a lot of question marks. I think one name to keep an eye on is JaQuae Jackson, someone who transferred up to DI, had quite a few offers in the transfer portal this spring. Ultimately decided on Rutgers. I think he’s someone who could step in and have an immediate impact in his only season of eligibility. There are some younger receivers who are coming to the room as well.

Chris Long is another guy that could step up. I’d say with the wide receivers, it’s a little bit of question mark as to who specifically is going get the most snaps outside of like one or two guys just because there are a lot of new guys, a lot of pieces leaving from last year. It’s a bit of a question mark.

In terms of tight ends, Johnny Langan is a veteran, Big Ten guy. He’s now transitioning full-time to the tight end role; started as a quarterback, and sort of had been used on a lot of short-yardage plays last couple of years. Looks a lot bigger, looks a lot stronger. I’m pretty sure he listed about 240 pounds, which is the heaviest he’s been listed. And then Shawn Bowman is just a really big body; comes in at around 260. He transferred in from Maine; he could be a little bit of a receiving threat. I think he’s also going to be helpful in the run game as an extra blocker that can just sort of create lanes.

I really do think the strength of this offense is going to be in the running game. I think they’ve got a couple guys who can really run the rock. Sam Brown V, before he went down with an injury last year, was on pace to have a pretty good rookie season. He had a good freshman campaign before he unfortunately got hurt. He’s someone who has a lot of potential. Kyle Monangai and Aaron Young as well are going to be two guys that I think can be productive. I think the running back room out, of this skill offensive positions, is the deepest part.

INU: Kirk Ciarrocca takes over as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator. It feels like running the ball has been the priority in his system — are you expecting that to be the identity for the Scarlet Knights this year?

CT: I think it’s possible. I think it really depends on how the offensive looks the first couple of games. I think that if Rutgers feels that they’ve got something good going in the passing game, it’s certainly possible that they try to lean on that more than they did last year. But, at the same time, the running back room is the strength of the offense on paper at least. So, if the run game is effective, I think it’s a strong possibility they’re gonna go with whatever works best. I do think, ultimately, the running back room looks a bit more talent-heavy than some of the other pass-catching groups on paper at least. So right now, that’s what I would say.

INU: Switching gears to the defensive side of the ball, EDGE Aaron Lewis was really good last year. Do you expect him to pop off the page more in terms of sack production, and do you think he’ll be that monster that Rutgers needs on D?

CT: I think Aaron Lewis is a really, really, really good defensive lineman. I think he’s already had a tremendous career at Rutgers. I think he’s got the potential to take it to the next level this year, and he’s someone who I think could really make an impact on that defensive line. I think he’s one of the better defensive linemen in the conference. If I were an opposing team and I was looking at battle in the trenches, and I was saying, “Who’s the guy we’ve got to key in on more than anyone else?” There are a lot of talented players on that defensive line. I’m not saying he’s the only guy by any means, but he would probably be on the top of my chart; “this is an impact player that we’ve got to find a way to contain.” I think if he’s running loose and dominating line of scrimmage, that’s gonna be a good day for Rutgers’ defense.”

INU: In the back-end, it feels like a bit of a transition without Christian Braswell, Avery Young and Christian Izien. Who do you think is going to need to step up and lead the secondary?

CT: They do bring a lot of continuity back. Two guys in particular that stand out, top of my mind, are Max Melton and Robert Longerbeam. These are both guys that are veterans of the program. They’ve been really impact guys on the corners. I think having that continuity and that talent back is going to be huge. There are some other players that have come in from the transfer portal: Eric Rogers, Flip Dixon as well. You’ve got other returnees coming back in Shaquan Loyal and Kessawn Abraham. So, there are a few guys that can really make an impact. I do think, just talking about the defense as a whole, I don’t think that there’s necessarily a weak spot that I can think of. I think this is a defense that at, all three levels, is a strong unit, certainly on paper, and I do think that’s gonna translate on the field. They’ve also got continuity in the coaching side of things with defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak coming back for another year. I do think that is going to be a benefit, and I think that this Rutgers defense has the potential to really make some noise in the Big Ten.

INU: What do you think Rutgers will emphasize against Northwestern, and how well do you think Greg Schiano’s team will execute that plan?

CT: On the offensive side, it’s going to be: don’t turn the ball over. I think it’ll be number one, just because that was something that at times really killed Rutgers I go back, for instance — it’s obviously a very different matchup — but against Michigan, there was a sequence in the second half with three interceptions on the first three drives. Rutgers, at the time, was really in the game with Michigan. Michigan sort of ran away with it after that. The defense was constantly on the field from those three picks to defend short fields. That’s the kind of thing that Rutgers struggled with at times. If Rutgers can avoid turnovers and just play smart football offensively, I think that’s gonna be a big help. Then, just don’t keep the defense on the field most of the game. If the defense has the usual amount of rest as a defense, that is going to be pretty tough for Northwestern, and a lot of other Big Ten teams to deal with. I think that that was really the big thing for Rutgers in that respect.

On the defensive side, I think one other thing is, no matter who’s starting for Northwestern at quarterback, I think first and second downs are gonna be huge. I think if Rutgers can contain the run game and force Northwestern to pass on a lot of those third-and-long situations, I think that’s going put Rutgers in a very advantageous position. I do think that could play into what Rutgers does well defensively. Those would be my keys; I think if Rutgers plays good fundamental football, they’re gonna be in a good spot.