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Rutgers Football: Chris Ash Makes Statement With Hires Before Fiesta Bowl

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Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Ash is in his final day as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, as the Buckeyes take on Notre Dame at 1pm on ESPN. However, he made quite a statement this week in hiring assistants for his staff at Rutgers on four consecutive days.  It's unlikely all four hires came together this week and were probably in the works for days.  This seems like it was a strategic plan to counter any rumblings or doubters that Ash isn't focused on Rutgers football while he completes his responsibilities with Ohio State. Point made!

Ash's biggest hire this week was on Wednesday, announcing that Northern Illinois defensive coordinator Jay Niemann was coming to Rutgers to work in the same role.  He ran the defense at the MAC power for the past five seasons, where they had 54-16 record and won three conference championships. It is also worth noting that Northern Illinois went 3-3 against Big Ten teams during Niemann's tenure, holding them to an average of 25.5 points per game. Two of the losses were by one possession, including an 18-17 loss to Iowa in 2012 and a 20-13 loss on the road to Ash's defending national champion Buckeyes this season.  Niemann led the defense that beat Iowa 30-27 and Purdue 55-24 in 2013, as well as beating Northwestern 23-15 last season.

I was wrong in thinking Ash would dip into the NFL ranks to find a coach to lead his defense at Rutgers.  However, instead of connections with Ohio State or the Patriots, Ash dug even deeper in previous relationships, as Niemann was his position coach when he played at Drake University in the early nineties. Their relationship stems twenty plus years and Niemann is a trusted confidant for Ash.  While many of Ash's assistants have been influenced and have learned from Urban Meyer, Niemann is one of the first coaches to make an impact on Ash's football mind. He will consult with Niemann about aspects of the program and the team in a way that Ash won't be able to with anyone else on the staff.  I would think Niemann will essentially by Ash's consigliere, in addition to his defensive responsibilities. Ash can also put his fingerprints on the defense with a coach who will understand and not be threatened.

After hiring Aaron Henry as assistant defensive backs coach on Monday, then adding veteran Bill Busch as defensive backs coach on Tuesday, followed by Niemann the next day, Ash announced Shane Burnham as the new defensive line coach on Thursday.  He played inside linebacker at South Carolina in the late nineties and was a three-time Academic all-SEC selection. Burnham worked for another mentor of Ash, Paul Rhoads, at Iowa State from 2009 until this past season.  Burnham had various roles at Iowa State, coaching the defensive tackles and inside linebackers, while also serving as special teams coordinator.  He worked underneath his accomplished father, Wally Burnham, who won a national championship in 1993, serving as linebackers coach at Florida State. The hiring of Burnham helps answer the question Andy Egan posed Sunday regarding Florida, as he has a reputation as a strong recruiter in the sunshine state.

With just one open spot that Ash has to fill on the staff, he has put together a strong group so far. Ash has assembled a balance of youth and experience, heavily seasoned with championship pedigrees.  Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, special teams coordinator Vince Okruch, and defensive backs coach Bill Busch have all won conference championships as coaches. Okruch and Busch have done it in the Big Ten. Offensive line coach A.J. Blazek was a graduate assistant at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz when the Hawkeyes were twice co-champions of the Big Ten. Blazek, as well as assistant defensive backs coach Aaron Henry, won all-conference honors as players in the Big Ten, at Iowa and Wisconsin respectively.

Offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer, wide receivers coach Zak Kuhr and Henry bring energy and youthful enthusiasm, with all having learned under championship coaches. Mehringer is the protege of Houston head coach Tom Herman, after working for him as a graduate assistant at Ohio State and Urban Meyer. Kuhr coached under former Meyer assistant Everett Withers, who also coached at Ohio State under Urban Meyer. Withers met Kuhr when he interned at Ohio State. Henry played and coached under Bret Bielema, as they won three consecutive Big Ten titles together at Wisconsin.

There is a lot to be excited about this coaching staff.  While it is unfortunate to see assistants Anthony Campanile and Jim Paganos leave, the last two holdovers from former coach Kyle Flood's staff, it makes sense for Ash to wipe the slate clean and start over. There are now no coaches on staff with any connections to New Jersey, a potential concern on the recruiting trail. However, the level experience and championships won that this current staff brings to the table is impressive, and on par with other successful Big Ten coaching staffs.

As Ash closes out his tenure at Ohio State today, he already had quite an impressive week as the head coach at Rutgers.  It is exciting to think of the possibilities in the future for this program under Ash's leadership and with the staff that he has built. The recruiting strategy appears to be championship pedigrees over connections, as Ash and his staff look to make significant progress in keeping the top New Jersey recruits home. And while it will take time to produce results, it's hard to argue with that strategy.