Six months ago, Rutgers football was in shambles. A four-win season kept the Scarlet Knights out of a bowl for the first time in five years. A miserable on-field product coupled with multiple off-field controversies pushed the administration to cut ties with the head coach. Following his dismissal, several of his recruits decommitted from the program, leaving the Rutgers football landscape looking not unlike the charred ruins of Los Angeles in 1996's Escape from L.A.
And yet, here we are. Rutgers currently sits at No. 15 in 247Sports' 2017 national class rankings. In the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights sit comfortably at No. 3, just behind perennial powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan. With 19 commits already in tow, the coaching staff still has six scholarships left to build this class.
All of this, and Chris Ash still hasn't even coached a game at Rutgers.
It's worth noting those 19 verbal commitments are just that - verbal. Until pen hits paper on February 1, 2017, these promises hold just as much weight as my promise to finally go see my friend Rodney's ska band play that basement show this weekend. But at least for now, the good times keep on rolling on the banks. Let's take a look at how we got here, and where this thing could go in the next seven months.
The Early Bird Special
Understandably, the 2017 class wasn't Ash's first priority when he was hired in December, as he had less than three months to put together a coaching staff and salvage the 2016 class torn apart by decommits. That didn't stop Ash from getting the ball rolling with a couple commits in his first few months on the job.
While technically not an Ash recruit, the new staff was still able to hold on to Timber Creek cornerback Naijee Jones, who committed to the program under the previous coaching staff last November. Still, Ash and company did a solid job keeping the program's first 2017 commit on board.
After the dust settled on NSD 2016, the new regime brought in its first commit the following month in Toms River athlete Bryce Watts. While hanging onto Jones was a strong sign of recruits' faith in the new staff, landing Watts can be viewed as the impetus that got the ball rolling. And perhaps it was smart to bring these two in so early - while both Jones and Watts were two-star commits when they made their announcements, both have received a third star on 247Sports.
Bo Knows (And So Does Micah)
There was never much reason to doubt Ash could recruit. After all, he had spent the last six years recruiting in big conferences - one in the Big 12 with Iowa State, one in the SEC with Arkansas, and four in the Big Ten itself with Wisconsin and Ohio State. But many wondered if he could recruit the great state of New Jersey, especially after the program sustained a huge black eye in the 2015 season, and given Ash had yet to prove himself as a head coach.
Those worries were wiped away on April 15, when Cedar Creek wide receiver Bo Melton shockingly announced his commitment to the Scarlet Knights. Melton, a four-star recruit on 247Sports, made his decision early to pick Rutgers over power offers like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Oregon. After losing the supremely talented Leonte Carroo to the NFL, the blow was softened when fans took a look at Melton's "wow" tape.
Did Rutgers fans finally have the big name recruiting ambassador they were seeking for so long? The months since haven't given us a clear answer, as we patiently wait for the next domino to fall.
Just kidding. The answer is an emphatic "YES", as just days after Melton's commitment, the excitement on the banks grew three sizes, like the Grinch's heart on Christmas or those magic grow capsules that you put in water to watch transform into a useless animal-shaped sponge.
Seemingly out of nowhere, four-star St. John Vianney offensive tackle Micah Clark, viewed by many as the top Garden State recruit, announced his commitment to Rutgers. Clark picked Rutgers over, to name a few, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Miami, and national championship contenders Alabama and Clemson. Just like that, two of New Jersey's best were Rutgers commits. Not to mention Clark was joined by teammate and fellow offensive lineman Jamaal Beaty.
But that wasn't all, because before you could say "Holy crap, Rutgers can actually recruit", highly regarded Burlington wide receiver Everett Wormley joined the movement. Not far behind him was a big piece to the Drew Mehringer offensive puzzle - St. Peter's dual-threat quarterback Johnathan Lewis. Lewis, who was invited to the prestigious Elite 11 Finals, could push for the starting job on the banks in a couple years.
Who knows? Lewis could eventually find himself handing the ball off to the next commit, Salem running back Jonathan Taylor, the state's top running back. The #FenceTheGarden movement was in full effect. But what about those pesky out-of-staters?
Might be a little wordy, but it gets the point across.
Rutgers continued its sizzling streak on Cinco de Mayo, when Tottenville athlete Tim Barrow committed to the Scarlet Knights. In doing so, the Staten Island native became the first out-of-state commit of the 2017 class. Then, Rutgers took an unsightly 11 days off from bringing in 2017 talent. But then, they went to the next level in bringing in outside talent, securing a commitment from Swedish-born Connecticut tackle Sam Vretman.
Okay. We've established Ash can recruit the Garden State well, and has even dabbled in the art of out-of-state persuasion. The point has been made. But the guy is still a first-year head coach, so surely it can't get much better, right?
Christmas in June
To say the month of June has been kind to Rutgers would be the greatest of understatements.
The month got started with a bang when Woodrow Wilson safety Edwin Lopez announced his commitment on June 1. He was followed by exciting Cedar Creek two-way lineman (and Melton's teammate) Owen Bowles, who committed a couple weeks later. Not far behind him was West Orange linebacker, C.J. Onyechi.
And then, well, last weekend happened.
Beginning one of the most rapid fire commitment periods in Rutgers history, the Scarlet Knights gained a commitment from 6-4 Wayne Hills safety Tyler Hayek on Saturday. Hayek's commitment was a big move in and of itself, but the good news was far from over. The very next day, four-star Maryland linebacker Tyshon Fogg made his big announcement to join the Scarlet Knights.
That's right, not only did Ash prove he can recruit top in-state talent, but also showed an ability to pry away big talent from enemy territory. Surely, Testudo and D.J. Durkin are fuming right now. Moving forward, the recruiting arms race between Rutgers and its Big Ten rivals should be one to keep an eye -
OH WE'RE NOT DONE YET? FAR FROM IT?
Just a day after Fogg sent shockwaves through the Rutgers fanbase, an exciting Garden State recruit announced his intention to make Rutgers his home for the next four years, as Cherokee running back Johnathan Lovett committed.
Less than 24 hours later, Rutgers pulled off the recruiting hat trick by securing three commitments on Tuesday. First, it was a pair of Empire State commitments when Bronx wide receiver Shameen Jones committed followed by Brooklyn linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi just hours later. Rutgers closed the day by staking a claim in Pennsylvania, adding a commitment from Bethlehem defensive end Jaohne Duggan to bring the total count up to 19.
So, here we are. As we enter the dog days of summer, the landscape of Rutgers football is looking less like the campy, flaming disaster in Escape from L.A. and more like the shiny Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. And in the same way those two films represent vastly different levels of cinematic quality, this new regime has, at least so far, turned Rutgers' script into an Academy Award worthy one. But one question remains.
Where do we go from here?
Who knows? I realize that answer is probably the least creative one out there, but answering it is as difficult as predicting major life decisions for 17- and 18-year-olds.
Has Rutgers peaked for the 2017 class? Maybe, but some thought that was the case after landing Clark and Melton. And then Fogg happened.
Truthfully, I would expect exciting things over the next few months. Paramus Catholic defensive tackle Corey Bolds has expressed his intrigue with Rutgers after all these commitments, so he could very well be the next domino to fall. Rutgers is also heavily pursuing top in-state talents like Princeton defensive tackle Fred Hansard, Paterson offensive tackle Carter Warren, and Bridgeton athlete Markquese Bell. If, by some chance, all of those guys end up on the banks, the future of Rutgers football is looking very bright.
Hell, it already is. Having the 15th-ranked recruiting class in the nation is a huge deal. Will that ranking be that high on NSD? Maybe, maybe not. But if there's one thing we can be sure about, it's that things are finally moving in the right direction here at Rutgers.