Tuesday October 6th, 2015

Rutgers has garnered far more national attention early this season than would be anticipated of a team off to a 2–2 start with wins over FCS Norfolk State and a Kansas squad in the early stages of a colossal rebuild. A series of off-field incidents—including the suspension of coach Kyle Flood after he tried to circumvent university policy by emailing a faculty member to the dismissal of six players charged with crimes—have cast the Scarlet Knights in a negative light, led to calls for Flood to be fired and spawned even more skepticism about the Big Ten’s decision to add the program to its ranks.

Of course, Rutgers’s 2015 expectations were low to begin with. The Scarlet Knights returned 10 total starters from last season, good for 114th in the FBS, according to prognosticator Phil Steele, and a preseason media panel organized by Cleveland.com voted them to finish sixth in the Big Ten East. Rutgers’s performance so far—further hampered by the indefinite suspension of one of its best players and a season-ending injury suffered by another—does not suggest it can exceed that projection. And the turmoil enveloping the program could make the next two months even less enjoyable for fans and alumni.

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One of the few sources of optimism is a player who has yet to reach campus. At first blush, it may be difficult to muster much excitement for Anthony Russo. He’s a three-star quarterback in the class of 2016 who’s not ranked among Pennsylvania’s top 10 players, according to Rivals.com. Upon closer inspection, however, it appears the Scarlet Knights are on the verge of adding a special talent at the most important position on the field.

According to Russo, Rutgers began demonstrating interest in him during his junior year at Archbishop Wood, his first season as the starter. The Warminster, Pa., school has recently produced several Scarlet Knights players, including junior tight end Nick Arcidiacono, a three-star prospect from the class of 2013, and junior running back Desmon Peoples, a three-star prospect from the ’12 class. Some other programs entered the picture for Russo—he said he received his first scholarship offer from Bucknell, a Patriot League school in Lewisville, Penn.—but Rutgers was always “consistent with showing love to me.”

On Russo’s unofficial visit to Rutgers in March, he said, Flood invited him and his family into Flood’s office and said he wanted to extend Russo a scholarship offer. The timing of the offer spoke volumes to Russo. The Scarlet Knights were still pursuing two quarterbacks with impressive credentials: Jarret Guarantano and Dwayne Haskins Jr., both rank among Rivals.com’s top-10 quarterbacks in the country.

In May—about a month after Guarantano committed to Tennessee and less than a week following Haskins’s pledge to Maryland—Russo announced his intention to attend Rutgers. At the time, however, there was little to suggest he would soon be regarded in a competitive setting as one of the top signal-callers in his class.

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Russo first realized he could contend with other elite quarterbacks a month earlier when he played alongside Guarantano and South Carolina-bound Brandon McIlwain at a Nike Football Opening Regional event at the New York Jets’ training facility. He was one of 30 quarterbacks who earned an invitation to the Elite 11 semifinals in Los Angeles. After initially feeling he didn’t belong at that event, Russo excelled among a group of four- and five-star prospects and later learned he had been invited to the Elite 11 finals at Nike World Headquarters in July.

The competition, which features “advanced, one-on-one quarterback instruction in a highly competitive setting, ” boasts an illustrious list of alumni including Heisman Trophy candidates and NFL draft picks. Even though he performed well at the semifinals, Russo arrived in Beaverton, Ore., a decided underdog against the highly talented collection of quarterbacks. But he showed that the performance that earned him a spot in the finals was not a mirage and drew high marks from scouts for his pocket presence and decision-making.

“Anthony Russo is a flat baller with all the tools that you’re looking for in a quarterback,” says Steve Wiltfong, the Director of Recruiting for 247Sports who attended the finals. “He, first of all, has all the physical tools. He can throw the football, he’s a big, strong kid that can move a little bit, and then he’s got all the intangibles.” Wiltfong added, “He’s just a strong decision maker and he makes quick decisions as well. So that’s one thing you look for when you say, ‘Hey, can this young man carry it over to the next level?’”

Entering the fourth day of the competition, Russo ranked second among participating quarterbacks behind only Texas commit Shane Buechele. He ultimately slipped in the rankings but was still named an Elite 11 quarterback, a stunning accomplishment for a player with zero FBS scholarship offers a year prior. The chart below shows how Russo stacks up with this year’s other Elite 11 QBs.

Russo says that since the event he has heard from other programs, including Temple, Indiana and West Virginia. Yet he remains a “strong commit” to Rutgers, even in light of the negative headlines Flood and the Scarlet Knights have created in recent weeks. Russo says he has “coach Flood’s back 110%.”

He has worked to foster a strong bond among the Scarlet Knights’ 18 committed players. He says they communicate in a large group chat and remain focused on “staying close and all staying committed and being able to go to Rutgers because we know when we get there we’ll be able to do special things.”

Russo notes that he’s “still open to schools that want to talk to me” and says that “like any recruit in the country, I think you always have to have options, keep doors open.” He mentioned the possibility of taking visits to West Virginia and Pittsburgh, in addition to his official trip to Rutgers.

At this point, however, Russo is focused on honing his footwork and his ability to read defenses while leading an Archbishop Wood team that has won three state titles in the last four years.

Vikings coach Steve Devlin says his team’s offense is multiple but that it skews toward pro-style, with Russo often changing protections and calling out different plays at the line of scrimmage. “He has a lot of responsibility,” Devlin says.

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That bodes well for Russo’s transition to the next level, where he’ll be tasked with piloting the pro-style system of Rutgers offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels, the younger brother of New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

“The main thing was just talking about how I would fit into their offense well, with them being a pro-style offense,” Russo says. “[McDaniels] knew that I was a pro-style type of guy that moves well in the pocket, stuff like that, and he just kind of explained to me the different components of their offense and stuff that they do in their offense. It kind of caught my eye and realizing that that’s the place that I would fit in best—in their offense, with him being an offensive mastermind.”

Some Rutgers fans may have spent most of the past month or so hoping to press fast forward on this season. That’s understandable, given the seemingly unending string of negative publicity that has turned the Scarlet Knights into a punching bag for every college sports media member with a Twitter account.

Still, look beyond 2015 and the remaining games against Michigan State and Ohio State, and consider what lies in store. A top-flight quarterback can change a lot.

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