We are seven games into the 2016 football season and head coach Chris Ash finally made the decision that many Rutgers fans were hoping, actually practically begging for. Chris Laviano is no longer the starting quarterback and barring something unforeseen, probably will never be again. While things haven’t gone well on the field this season, there are other things to evaluate during Ash’s first season as a head coach.
The upgrades in the strength and conditioning program, nutrition and increased focus on competition and accountability were all necessary steps that were implemented before the season began. However, it was unrealistic to think the previous deficiencies in those areas can be righted in one offseason. The important part is the foundation for the program has been reset in a positive way.
Obviously, results on the field have been disappointing and we discussed it as a staff in our round table here. Game decisions, mostly on offense, have been rightly questioned at times. Offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer, the youngest in his position in all of college football, is certainly experiencing some growing pains. In my opinion, there has been a little too much pushing the square peg into the round hole in his playmaking at times. But those calling for him to be replaced, and that opinion is out there, are missing the big picture. Do we really want a ninth offensive coordinator in nine seasons next year? It’s very easy to sit from afar and criticize, but it’s a lot more sensible to give Mehringer time to learn on the job and integrate personnel that fits more what he wants to do. Now that Gio Rescigno is starting at quarterback, let’s see if the offense is able to grow over the next five games.
Even if Gio isn't the answer, #Rutgers gets to now really show all of the offensive schemes it wants to run moving forward to recruits— Jay Poole (@JayPoole247) October 17, 2016
The most important part of this season from a big picture standpoint is how Ash is handling important decisions within the program. There is no bigger decision for every football team than the management of the quarterback position. It’s easy to say now that Ash and Mehringer stuck with Laviano too long. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. Giving Laviano through the first half of the Illinois game was completely fair in my opinion. He looked terrible against Ohio State and Michigan, but so do a lot of quarterbacks. The staff knew from the get go that Laviano wasn’t an ideal fit for the spread offense, but they felt he gave them the best chance to win this season. As Mehringer indicates in this article with NJ Advance Media, he didn’t think Gio was ready in the offseason.
The point is once Laviano floundered and produced 0 points against a 1-4 team that surrendered 34 points the week before to Purdue, Ash pulled him, ultimately once and for all. Ash indicated in the same article that Gio showed something different in practice last week running on the scout team. He rewarded that effort during the week by giving Gio a shot in the game and the results were promising. I don’t expect Gio to dramatically change the fortunes of the offense against a stout Minnesota defense (18th in S&P+), but he certainly gives Rutgers a better chance.
For me that is the biggest takeaway on Ash in year one so far. He is constantly evaluating and not afraid to make a big decision, even if it means he was wrong with a previous one. It’s certainly a bit frustrating that Gio wasn’t given more of a chance earlier in the season, with his only other play before the Illinois game being a 42 yard touchdown run against Howard. However, give Ash and Mehringer the benefit of the doubt that they were making decisions based on what they thought was right at the time. And they are secure enough to correct something that isn’t working and have the willingness to adapt.
Rutgers has not had the best history in managing the quarterbacks over the past decade. Greg Schiano is to blame for freshman All-American Tom Savage transferring due to how he mismanaged him during his sophomore season. He is now in his third NFL season. Kyle Flood stuck with Gary Nova too long in 2012, ruining a season in which Rutgers arguably had the best defense in program history. Flood’s unwillingness to consider any other option other than Laviano at quarterback last season was a major problem.
There has been a revolving door all season at quarterback, but at least a brighter room was finally found. The constant shuffling was done out of necessity, not preference. Once Ash realized Gio was the best option, he acted quickly. The competition for a new starting quarterback closed almost as soon as it opened. The timing makes sense too, as Rutgers can head into their bye week knowing Gio is the starter and have a full game under his belt before the final four game stretch to the season.
Rebuilds are tough to watch and difficult to take for us fans. It can seem hopeless at times when the results on the field are as ugly as they have been this season and last. Look at a program this year like Colorado in the Pac-12, who haven’t had a winning season since 2005. Now in head coach Mike MacIntyre’s fourth season, they sit at 5-2. We saw what Schiano did here over a decade ago. The staff is still learning on the job and game decisions need to improve. But Ash needs time and one thing to be encouraged by is his evaluation and decision making. That’s what is important to focus on with a new head coach, who obviously doesn't have his players in place yet. Adding those skills along with an upswing in recruiting, equals a winning formula in place for Rutgers football in the long term. As the great Tom Petty sings, “the waiting is the hardest part.”