National signing day for the 2016 college football recruiting class is now behind us. It was a tumultuous couple months for Rutgers and it's fans, as a coaching change put the recruiting class in flux. Head Coach Chris Ash was up front about discussing the recruits that committed to the Kyle Flood regime and how he and his staff approached them.
"We made the decision to honor guys that committed here. But with a few stipulations. One, they had to have great character, they had to have good grades. Guys that maybe they didn't necessarily fit in what we're doing but our system on offense and defense and special teams will be flexible enough to put people in the right spots.But there are some guys that were committed that we've got and maybe some guys that we didn't feel were the right fit or they didn't feel they were the right fit that went elsewhere."
With only about four weeks to recruit for the class of 2016, it was a challenging recruiting cycle for Ash and his staff. 247 sports ranked the Rutgers recruiting class 74th best in the country, better only than Purdue in the Big Ten. The ranking is obviously disappointing and Rutgers only did slightly better across all the recruiting services.
B1G 2016 Recruiting Update #Rutgers Ranked 71 nationally by Scout, 74 by 247 & 75 by Rivals, 64 by ESPN with 18 commits.Ave Star Rating 2.57— Gerry DiNardo (@gerrydinardo) February 4, 2016
However, based on the reality of the situation, it shouldn't be that surprising. Ash and his staff really shouldn't be judged in regards to their recruiting until next year's class, when they are on equal footing by having a full year to work with. Here are some thoughts on how this recruiting cycle went and how it sets up Ash and Rutgers with recruiting for 2017 and beyond.
Lost opportunity with great NJ class
This has nothing to do with Ash and his staff, as it's simply unrealistic to thing it was possible for them to sign one of the many top recruits in New Jersey with so little time to establish relationships. It's just disappointing that the timing of a change in coaching regime occurred during a year that the state had such a loaded recruiting class. Flood's inability to land any of the top recruits wasn't the reason for his departure, but it is a factor in why the 2016 class missed out on the entire top 10 players in the state. Ash seems determined to make sure what happened this year never occurs again. While the 2017 class is not considered as deep, the top end of the class is considered very strong. Defensive tackle Fred Hansard, arguably the best player in the state for this class, is a national recruit and is being recruited hard by Rutgers. How Ash fares in 2017 will tell us much more about his long term recruiting success than this year.
Established New Jersey Pipeline
This is obviously a major key in the long term success for Ash and his staff. Although Rutgers failed to land any of the top prospects in the state this year, they were at a major disadvantage by starting so late in the process. What is positive is the new staff has been aggressive in establishing relationships and making in-state recruits a priority. Ash was able to land recruits from traditional Jersey powers St. Peter’s, Don Bosco Prep, Timber Creek, and nearby Piscataway. While Ash perhaps took a chance on a few players that were not highly rated, he has an opportunity to showcase the program’s ability to develop them into quality college players. Ash stated "But it was also about building relationships for the future and getting those players in our program that we can work with, that we can develop and coach; that can go back and say really positive things about what we're doing here and how we're doing our business and what the future looks like." There is no greater factor in the long term success in developing Rutgers into a Big Ten power than Ash's ability to recruit New Jersey.
Groundwork for Culture Change in Place
Ash has been laying the foundation for the culture of the program since the spring semester began, holding early morning workouts with the team. While some roster attrition is to be expected, Ash spoke positively about the current player’s adjustment to the new way of doing things. This recruiting class was Ash’s first chance to bring in his own players who he was able to sell on his culture and to get them to buy into it. That is another major step. Ash said about the class, "There was no target number. We said it from the start: It's not about numbers. It's not about filling all the scholarships. It's about finding the right individuals to come here. We are trying to change a culture. We are trying to change an attitude and a mind-set here and we wanted to make sure that the incoming recruits that we brought here fit that, and that was the most important thing". The process of changing the program's culture is an extensive one. Finding the right type of recruits to come in and help shape that culture is a very important part of that process and something that can't be measured by rankings. Ash seems like a coach that wouldn't have taken the players he did if he didn't truly believe they were a fit.
It's natural when a coaching change takes place that recruits who committed to the previous coach end up moving on. It certainly happened several times for Ash and his staff, as change in culture seemed to be a key factor for some. However, that doesn't mean it wasn't disappointing to have several recruits not end up signing with the program. Defensive back Patrice Rene, kicker Alex Barbir, and wide receiver Taysir Mack, all rated as high 3-star recruits, were three that stick out on my mind. Not only because they have potential to be great college football players, but because two of them committed to other Big Ten schools. Rene went to North Carolina, but Barbir to Penn State and Mack went to Indiana. Ash tried to flip several recruits committed to other Big Ten schools and was unsuccessful in doing so. As important as recruiting New Jersey is to Ash's long term success at Rutgers, winning recruiting battles against other Big Ten schools will weigh heavily as well.
QB of the future
Anthony Russo was the star of former coach Kyle Flood’s recruiting class, but once Ash announced the program was transitioning to the spread offense, it was clear he was no longer a fit. Ultimately, Ash got the guy he and offensive Drew Mehringer wanted in Tylin Oden. That fact alone should signify this class as a success. Ash commented,"With what we are going to do offensively, we wanted to find a quarterback that fit that system, and I think we hit a home run with that. Tylin Oden is exactly what we want in the system for the future, and Tylin is an outstanding quarterback, a talented kid that can beat you with his feet and his arm." How right Oden is for Rutgers will be determined over time. However, there is no denying that if the staff feel they have their quarterback of the future, then a major step forward was made.
Jim Harbaugh made his presence felt in a major way this recruiting cycle in the Garden State. He landed six players from New Jersey in the 2016, including the #1 recruit in the country, Rashan Gary. A big reason for that is Chris Partridge, Gary's former high school coach at Paramus Catholic. In fact, Scout just named his recruiter of the year for college football assistant coaches. Michigan also landed 4-star defensive end Ron Johnson and 4-star wide receiver Brad Hawkins from Camden, 4-star Ahmir Mitchell from Timber Creek, as well as 4-star running back Kareem Walker and 3-star defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour from DePaul Catholic. Again, you can't hold this against Ash this year, but it will be interesting to see how he does in 2017 against Harbaugh and Partridge in "fencing the garden."
Michigan ended up signing five of the top eight kids in the state of New Jersey ... clearly the Rutgers/Big Ten effect.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) February 3, 2016
Bergen Catholic Relationship
What the future holds in regards to Rutgers actively recruiting players from Bergen Catholic remains to be seen after the decommitment of Korab Idrizi. The fact that Idrizi pledged to Rutgers on the second to last weekend of the recruiting cycle, only to flip his commitment the following weekend to Boston College, would alone raise questions. The fact that the head coach of Bergen Catholic is Nunzio Campanile, brother of recently fired Rutgers assistant Anthony Campanile, allows for even more food for thought. Anthony was reportedly in talks with Ash about staying at Rutgers in a recruiting role, but left for Boston College to be a full-time assistant coach instead. Ash could have kept Campanile and former Director of Recruiting E.J. Barthel, now at Temple, on the staff permanently or through signing day in an effort to keep most of the class in tact. However, that isn't how Ash operates and you can't fault him for wanting to clean house and bring in all of his own people. How that decision affects the new staff's ability to recruit Bergen Catholic players long term remains to be seen. Regardless, it makes for an interesting story line to watch out for in the future.
It's easy to forget that Ash already has four commits from the class of 2016 acclimated into the program. Jonathan Pollock, Elorm Lumor, Trey Sneed, and Solomon Manning will all participate in spring practice and have a head start on the rest of their classmates. By all appearances, these four seem to be a perfect fit in Ash's culture and will be key players both on the field, and in the locker room moving forward. The fact that all of them with the exception of Sneed play linebacker, a position of need, is even better. Having this many early enrollees is a bit uncommon, but could be beneficial in helping the program's transition under Ash in his first season.
One underrated aspect of this recruiting haul were the two graduate transfers that Ash was able to land. They techinically do not count in the class rankings, but their potential impact on the program could be significant. Ross Douglas graduated Michigan in just three years and played for two coaching regimes. He brings a wealth of experience and will return to his natural position in the secondary. His leadership will be key in helping to develop the young defensive backfield on the roster. Malachi Moore is another Jersey guy who has returned home to play at Rutgers and can be a factor on the defensive line. Playing at Boston College in the ACC and the experience he will bring from that could be a big help as well. Ash commented, "Why did we take them? Again, positions of need. I think they can provide depth, they can provide competition at certain spots. They are guys that have gone through programs before and they know what it takes to be successful. They graduated, so they have demonstrated the ability to be successful in the classroom, and I think they are great character kids that can help the culture in the locker room."