It's only been a little more than six months since Chris Ash was hired as the head coach of Rutgers football. In that short time, he has dramatically changed the perception of Rutgers and its future on the recruiting trail. As we discussed earlier this week, the current class of 2017 has moved up the national recruiting rankings and is ranked much higher than in recent years. Currently, Rutgers has the top quarterback, running back, offensive lineman and wide receiver from New Jersey committed. Granted, it's a long way to national signing day, but the early results from Ash and his coaching staff have been impressive. It has been a very quick turnaround recruiting wise for a program that failed to land a top 10 player in the state in recent years.
To help change the perception of Rutgers football, the coaching staff has done a tremendous job of re-branding the program, both with their presence on the recruiting trail and their presence on social media. They set the tone in establishing their desire to make New Jersey players a priority by creating the slogan "fence the garden". Ryan Dunleavy wrote this article from January, explaining the origin of this term, which really caught on after this tweet by Rutgers running backs coach Zak Kuhr:
If you search #fencethegarden on twitter, you will find hundreds of references from the coaching staff, fans, and recruits. The slogan has made a major impact with the class of 2017 and those that have committed to Rutgers have already bought in to the vision it represents. It has galvanized the New Jersey high school football community and put Rutgers front and center. Here is a recent example of how the coaching staff is using the term to sell their vision of the future. Fred Hansard is one of the top New Jersey recruits that is uncommitted and Rutgers has made him a top priority.
This would be crazy !! pic.twitter.com/jEx04cCrXF— Fred Hansard (@Fred_Hansard56) May 22, 2016
Now these words would ring hollow if Ash and the staff weren't able to sell this vision successfully and weren't able to make people believe they can build Rutgers into a powerhouse program. It is still early in the Ash Era, but he has established something very important, hope and belief. That is true of most coaching changes, but the amount of detail, energy and purpose that Ash and the staff have enacted in such a short time has been the key driver so far. Positive results on the field will need to happen to back it all up, but Ash and the staff have instilled confidence that it will happen at some point in the future.
It's no secret that New Jersey has been a recruiting hotbed for several college football blue bloods over the years, including Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. These schools have traditionally walked into the garden state and taken pretty much any top player they so desire. Michigan single-handedly destroyed the "Dream Team 16" goal that former Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood created, signing five players ranked in the top ten from New Jersey during the last recruiting cycle.
There has been a lot of off the field jockeying this offseason between the two schools, with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh speaking at Paramus Catholic's commencement this coming June. Of course, there are also plans for a satellite camp there as well in June. Chris Ash responded by scheduling his own satellite camp on the same day to compete with Michigan's camp. New Jersey high school coaches also responded by being vocal in support of Ash. That alone was a step, having local coaches go on the record to pledge their support for Rutgers.
Harbaugh hired former Paramus Catholic head coach Chris Partridge as his director of recruiting last year and he was a big reason why they landed many of the top players from the state, including his former player and the #1 recruit in the country, Rashan Gary. Partridge has since been promoted to special teams coordinator and linebackers coach, but he continues to be a major recruiting presence for Michigan in New Jersey. In fact, yesterday he posted some marketing specifically countering Rutgers football and their "fence the garden" mantra.
The second tweet was from our new friend Aaron Bills, who was upset when Ash used a similar format that he had created previously to wish a recruit happy birthday. Seriously.
I find it stunning that Partridge and Michigan feel the need to promote their program in New Jersey by reacting to the way Rutgers is marketing itself within the state. By tweaking the mantra to "harvest the garden", Michigan is legitimizing the Rutgers approach. I mean you are Michigan for crying out loud, the winningest college football program ever! The fact that they are so concerned with how Rutgers is recruiting New Jersey proves they consider them a credible threat. That alone is major progress and something that can help Ash and the staff use to help unite the top New Jersey recruits moving forward. "Look, the winningest college football team of all-time is worried that if you all come to Rutgers, we will be a threat to them on the field and in the Big Ten." Or something like that.
The early results are proving that Rutgers is having more success recruiting the top players in New Jersey than ever before, or at least since the peak of the Schiano era. No one at Michigan understands the potential negative ramifications this would have for their own program better than Partridge. In this article with NJ Advance Media's recruiting expert Todderick Hunt from January 2015, Partridge was asked about the importance of recruits staying home and playing for Rutgers. During this time, Partridge was offered a recruiting coordinator role by former Rutgers coach Kyle Flood. Reportedly interested in a coaching role instead, Partridge ultimately turned Flood down and went to work in a similar recruiting role for new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. However, Partridge accidentally laid out the perfect recruiting pitch to use against himself and Michigan in the future.
Todderick Hunt: Being a New Jersey guy, what are your feelings on players staying home and representing their state?
Chris Partridge: That's a great question. I take a lot of pride in New Jersey and New Jersey football. I love all these kids from all these programs. I think it's a hard-nosed type of kid that you have. So I honestly believe the sky is the limit if New Jersey kids stay home. That's a true belief for me.
I think it's important. It just seems like Ohio kids want to go to Ohio State. Alabama kids want to go to Alabama. Every state should have that pride and that's what's awesome about college football, how its sectioned out. You've got your national teams that will recruit nationally. But with the core base, you are going to war with your brothers from where you are born. I think that says a lot.
Ash can now say it's not only he and his staff that believe Rutgers can be great if top NJ recruits commit to Rutgers, but that Michigan believes it as well. Now that they are reacting the way they are, it reinforces what Partridge said all along. Otherwise, why plan a defense for it?
So thanks Chris and thanks Michigan. You had your fun with New Jersey with the class of 2016, but you have made a tactical error. By acknowledging that Rutgers is a credible opponent on the recruiting trail, you have given the program credibility. Recruits will now realize the vision that Ash and his staff are selling about the future scares a Big Ten heavyweight. If Michigan were smart, they would completely ignore Rutgers and treat them like a non-factor. Instead they got personal. Whether it is Partridge's ego or hurt feelings from the Flood fallout, or Harbaugh being crazier than I even suspected, they just made a previous non-threat in recruiting circles a legitimate contender now. Of course, Ash put Rutgers in this position and by having early success, he in turn put pressure on Michigan.
By reacting to Ash's recruiting vision and directly marketing against it, Michigan elevated the Rutgers brand. It doesn't mean Michigan won't still beat Rutgers out for a recruit at times. However, if Ash continues to build on the unprecedented momentum he has created so early on in his tenure, Michigan will be unable to replicate the success it had recruiting New Jersey in 2015. Michigan's loss will be Rutgers' gain and ultimately make them a real threat on the field for years to come.