Change has been rampant within the Rutgers football program since head coach Chris Ash was hired in early December. Some have been cosmetic, like designing new uniforms and overhauling the interior design within the Hale Center. Some have been functional, like the upgrades happening with the weight room and a greater emphasis on nutrition. There have been differences in team motto, moving from the tired "1-0 this week" to "The Hunt" & "10 Strong". The coaching staff has implemented a spread offense, dropping the pro-style that has been a Rutgers staple for many years. However, there has been no bigger change than the newly established culture of the program. Every single activity the players experience on a daily basis has been made into a competition. They have been scrutinized in everything they do like never before. They are being trained to be comfortable performing in challenging and uncomfortable situations.
Last week, TCU graduate transfer Zach Allen committed to Rutgers football, immediately changing the dynamic of the quarterback competition for next season. With the team already underway with summer workouts and preparing for fall training camp in August, it probably came as a surprise to most, if not all, the players. Adding a quarterback so late highlights the fact that Ash and offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer were not satisfied entering next season with just their current options. That doesn't mean Allen will automatically put on the pads and become the starter. When Ash was asked about a key factor in determining who will ultimately be the starting quarterback, he had this to say to Dan Duggan of NJ Advance Media after the spring game in April:
"Ask them," Ash said. "When we need somebody to look up to on the field, who's going to lead them? And who usually leads is the guys that have earned the trust of others. If you haven't earned the trust of others and they're not willing to follow your lead, you've got a problem, especially at that position. How do you know if they trust him? Well, you kind of watch their interactions in the locker room, in the weight room, on the practice field. But the best way is to ask them. So we ask, 'Who do you trust?' That's where we're at. We're still in that period."
This is by no means a revolutionary thought, but it does highlight the priority that Ash and his staff put on trust with their players. Trust in the process, in each other, in the coaching staff, in their preparation, and their focus. Ash is certainly not going to alienate that trust by anointing an outsider as the starter before that person earns it. Sure, Allen is better equipped to run the spread offense, a system he played in at both the high school and college levels. However, there should be no doubt that Allen will scrutinized, pushed and tested as soon as he steps on campus. In addition to impressing the coaches, he will have to work hard to prove himself and earn the trust of his teammates.
Competition is the main ingredient of the program's culture now. That has become the overall focus of the program and the addition of a graduate transfer quarterback signals a stark contrast from last season. Former head coach Kyle Flood was steadfast in his belief that whichever quarterback came out ahead after training camp would stay the starter throughout the season. He was a man of his word, never wavering with Chris Laviano as the starter, even as he struggled badly through the meat of the Big Ten schedule. Flood's philosophy on the quarterback competition was very different than Ash's, and this quote from last July's article from Duggan highlights the difference:
"What I think is important is that ultimately, whoever you decide is your starting quarterback, you have to give them an opportunity to grow in that position. I don't think it's healthy for a person at any position, but more so at quarterback than any other — because of the scrutiny that's involved with that position — to be looking over your shoulder all the time. So whoever ultimately becomes the starting quarterback, I don't want them to feel like if they make a mistake then we're going to put someone else in. That's not going to be the situation. We're going to give them an opportunity. What that opportunity ultimately is, that can change from year-to-year. But they're certainly going to get a significant opportunity.''
Chris Ash wants his players looking over their shoulders and never being completely comfortable with their standing on the depth chart. He believes in pushing them to the limit in everything they do, and the more challenges they deal with, the better equipped they will be during game competition. That is the single greatest change that Ash has brought to the program and it is apparent with the addition of Allen.
There should be zero concern about whether the players will accept Allen, despite last season's starter Chris Laviano entering his fourth season with the program. No one player is greater than the long term goals of the team. "The Hunt" is a mantra of the program, a way to motivate the players in approaching next season and moving up the food chain of the Big Ten.
Competition is now ingrained in every aspect of the program, and for players to push back against Allen for the sake of loyalty to Laviano would be going against the culture Ash has implemented. It's on Allen to win the starting quarterback job and to win the trust of his coaches and teammates. He won't be handed anything and whoever starts at quarterback on September 3rd on the road against Washington is only guaranteed to start that game. But there will be no doubt whoever that is, whether it's Laviano, Allen, or even Hayden Rettig, they will have certainly earned it.
Having to prove themselves every time they step on the field is all that true competitors ever want. It gives players peace of mind that there are no politics at play, no favorites. All they have to worry about is what they can control, their preparation and performance. It creates a singular focus and belief in themselves and each other. That breeds team unity and allows the team to play at the highest level that they are capable of. The best players will play, but that competition never ends. Chris Ash has made that clear in adding Zach Allen to the team just two months before training camp begins. As Ash told the team in their very first meeting, it's "fight or flight" for everyone on the roster. And that's the way it should be!