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Rutgers Football Recruiting: An Early Look at 2017 Targets

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Who are Rutgers' top targets early in the 2017 recruiting process?

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

The ink is still drying on the 2016 commits' LOIs. Almost 51 weeks separates us from National Signing Day 2017. Heck, Chris Ash hasn't even coached a football game at Rutgers yet. Will that stop us from speculating on Rutgers' 2017 recruiting class?

Not a chance.

Ash and his staff had to scramble to build the 2016 class. The new head coach was tasked with bringing in a coaching staff, keeping recruits from the Flood regime, and adding recruits of his own in less than two months on the job. He will have a full year to recruit the 2017 class, which should give us a more demonstrative look at his recruiting chops. Here are a few of the names to familiarize yourself with as Rutgers recruits them over the coming weeks and months.

DT Fred Hansard (Princeton, NJ)

Hansard is the big fish early in the recruiting process. The four-star recruit is one of the top defensive linemen in the nation, and the third-ranked New Jersey prospect, according to 247Sports. Rutgers was one of the first programs to show interest in Hansard, and was the first to offer him when they did so in November 2014. He even named Rutgers his favorite last April after taking an unofficial visit to the banks.

Even after new offers kept piling up, Hansard continued to have a steady presence with Rutgers, taking in last year's spring game, attending a camp in June, taking an unofficial visit in August, and visiting for the Scarlet Knights' game against Ohio State in October. Even after Kyle Flood was let go in November, Rutgers has maintained a strong interest in Hansard, and the Garden State product will be on campus on Saturday for this year's first Junior Day.

The Scarlet Knights will have their work cut out for them if they want to keep Hansard in New Jersey, as several big name programs have expressed interest in him - just this month, he has received offers from Cal, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss.

Hansard has received 26 offers in total, including offers from Big Ten rivals Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan. The Wolverines are believed to be going hard after Hansard, so keeping him away from Jim Harbaugh would be a huge coups for Rutgers, and could be the start of a domino effect that keeps New Jersey's top talent in the state.

CB Naijee Jones (Sicklerville, NJ)

Jones isn't the biggest name among 2017 recruits, but he could prove to be one of the most important.

The two-star cornerback (per 247Sports) became the first member of Rutgers' 2017 class when he committed last November. The fact that he committed so early knowing the negative press Rutgers was receiving off the field and the disappointing season taking place on it says a lot about his interest in the program. His commitment did not waver even after Flood was fired. In fact, it seems he is even more locked in to the Scarlet Knights now after his friend and Timber Creek teammate, LB Tyreek Williams, joined Rutgers as part of this year's class.

Rutgers already has a pair of Timber Creek alumni on the team in DEs Quanzell Lambert and Myles Nash, though Lambert will have graduated by the time Jones arrives.

After committing so early, it's easy to envision Jones becoming the vocal leader and recruiter of this class, much like LB Jon Pollock did for the 2016 class. Recruiting coordinators and coaches are great, but it can be even better to have a fellow commit reaching out to and recruiting his peers to join the team. Jones will have a chance to do just that this weekend, since, like Hansard, he will be in attendance for Saturday's Junior Day.

RB Bo Melton (Egg Harbor City, NJ)

Melton's recruitment has been pretty quiet so far, but he has the makings of a guy who could start to see a sudden influx of interest over the coming months. The Cedar Creek HS running back is a three-star recruit according to 247Sports, and is ranked No. 11 among New Jersey prospects. He is also considered one of the top 30 running backs nationally.

In addition to the appeal of representing his home state, the Scarlet Knights are also hoping their early pursuit of Melton will help bring him to the banks. Rutgers was the first Power Five team to bring him in for a visit when they did so back in October. While Boston College was the first P5 team to offer him on November 10, Rutgers was not far behind, offering him the very next day.

Since then, Melton has fielded offers from Big Ten opponents Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Maryland, as well as offers from Kentucky, Temple, and Villanova.

Melton's recruitment is far from over, and Michigan should be considered a real threat after bringing in his high school teammate Ahmir Mitchell in the 2016 class, but right now it seems Rutgers is in the lead for Melton's services. Ash and company will have a great chance to impress Melton at Saturday's Junior Day.

G Ben Petrula (Jersey City, NJ)

Petrula is one of the top offensive line recruits in the country, and someone Rutgers fans could get excited about. 247Sports ranks him as the No. 8 guard in the nation, and the seventh overall prospect in the state of New Jersey.

It would hardly be surprising to see the 6-6, 305-pounder turn into a hot recruit over the next few months, and it certainly helps that Rutgers was among the first programs to express interest in him. He first visited Rutgers for last year's spring game, and received an offer from the Scarlet Knights several months later in October before returning to campus for the Ohio State game.

Speaking of the Buckeyes, they expressed interest in the four-star recruit while Ash was still on the staff, so it's possible he has some familiarity with Petrula. Either way, the coaching staff is probably eager to get the big man back on campus and try and sell him on the idea of playing for Rutgers. Landing Petrula would be huge, especially since the Scarlet Knights will lose offensive linemen Chris Muller, Derrick Nelson, and J.J. Denman after next season.

For what it's worth, 247's Crystal Ball has Petrula as a 100% to end up at Rutgers, though both predictions were made several months ago. It also helps that Petrula's teammate from St. Peter's Prep, K.J. Gray, just signed with the Scarlet Knights. Either way, it looks like Rutgers is currently the leader for Petrula, though they will have to fend off offers from Wisconsin, South Carolina, and sure to be many more in order to bring him to the banks.

Petrula will be in attendance for Saturday's Junior Day, so hopefully the new coaching staff can make a good impression on him.

DT Corey Bolds (Paramus, NJ)

Bolds is a 6-3, 260-pound defensive tackle out of Paramus Catholic who has received some interest from some big name programs early in the process.

Rutgers will hope their early interest in him and his jersey roots will help keep the four-star prospect playing in the Garden State for the next few years. Bolds, the fourth-ranked NJ prospect, has already visited campus a few times, including once in April for last year's spring game and once again in October for the blackout game against Michigan State. His April visit was just his second visit overall behind Ohio State.

Flood and his staff originally recruited Bolds, and he hasn't taken any known visits to campus since they were let go. However, Ash was on the Buckeyes' staff when tOSU hosted Bolds for a visit and when they offered him last May. It's very possible Ash and Bolds have already met and built a connection, one that Ash may be able to continue to develop when Rutgers hosts Bolds for Saturday's Junior Day.

As is the case with a lot of these recruits, Michigan seems to have a strong interest in Bolds. The Wolverines were the first program to offer him, and have sent coaches to go visit him on several occasions. Most recently, Michigan assistant Chris Partridge visited Bolds on January 14. Partridge was Bolds' former coach at Paramus Catholic.

In addition to Rutgers and Michigan, Bolds holds offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Michigan State, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Penn State, and several others.

What do you think? Is there reason for optimism for the 2017 recruiting class? Can Rutgers land any of the big names? Will we come out of Saturday's Junior Day with any good news? Sound off in the comments below!