The dog days of summer are in full bloom after two straight weeks of 90+ degree weather in New Jersey. As the calendar turns to August next week, Rutgers football is now just ten days away from the start of training camp. Talk of the season ramped up this week with the annual Big Ten Media Days and the good news is our head coach continued to represent Rutgers well, this time in front of a national audience. His credibility in working for Big Ten powers Ohio State and Wisconsin added intrigue for the media assembled, whom mostly seemed uninterested in Rutgers in previous years. Still, the national expectations for Rutgers football remains low.
With the Chris Ash era set to begin in earnest in a few days, all loyal Rutgers football fans are starting to boil over with excitement and anticipation. It’s been a long, hot, dry summer and with the first game just five Saturdays away, many are getting anxious for the start. Ash helped establish his own culture within the program rather quickly, and has used slogans to do it, as well as to promote the program to the public. Mantras such as “fence the garden”, “The Hunt”, and “10 Strong”, have helped to unite the players and it’s fans. Everyone is amped up and rightly so!
However, I have a mantra that the entire fanbase should embrace for the 2016 season. It’s called patience. It is imperative that everyone takes the long view on Rutgers football, because no matter how impressive Ash and his staff have been so far, their biggest challenges are still ahead of them. And however talented, prepared, and football savvy they may be, the biggest tool they need to make significant progress with the program is time.
To start, the schedule is daunting, especially the first half slate, which includes the opener at Washington and three consecutive games against Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan. Add in New Mexico, who went to a bowl last season, and the closest thing to a sure win in the first six games is the home opener against Howard. It’s possible that Rutgers makes significant progress on the field in the first half of the season and still only have a 2-4 record. However, if Rutgers can be more competitive in their games against the big boys, it would be a very encouraging sign. But progress will not necessarily translate into wins this season.
With that being said, Rutgers has a significant chance to turn that progress into positive results on the field in the second half of the season. Other than a road game at Michigan State, the schedule is much more manageable. Home games against Illinois and Indiana, sandwiched between a road game at Minnesota and the bye week, will hopefully lead to Rutgers showing improvement and winning a couple of games during that stretch. After the return home from playing Sparty in East Lansing, they finish the season at home against Penn State and on the road at Maryland. Those two games will truly serve as a final exam for the program and Ash in his first season. You could argue no matter what happens in the first ten games of the season, if Rutgers can beat their two closest geographical conference rivals, 2016 should be viewed a success.
Simply put, this season is about Ash and his staff laying a solid foundation for success in the years to come. After last season’s debacle, Ash can make major strides this season, but even still, may just equal 2015’s 4-8 record. Honestly, if Rutgers can accomplish a 6-6 record with a bowl appearance, Ash’s name should be mentioned as a viable candidate to replace Chris Christie as Governor.
Patience will be needed regarding the personnel of this team. Ash’s biggest decision of his tenure will be choosing the starting quarterback. While he commented that there are four legitimate candidates fighting for the job, I agree with our own Griffin Whitmer, who wrote it’s probably going to end being a battle between incumbent starter Chris Laviano and TCU graduate transfer Zach Allen. Whoever wins the starting job will have no doubt earned it, but they will also need time to acclimate themselves within the spread offense that coordinator Drew Mehringer has implemented. A learning curve should be expected.
It will be exciting to watch the defense this season with the hope they will perform significantly better than they have the past three years. Aside from Ash’s expertise, in which Darius Hamilton called him a genius this week, I feel the most underrated coach on the staff is defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. His defenses consistently overachieved at Northern Illinois the previous six seasons, so he should have a major impact on this unit and improvement should be expected. However, it is still a young and inexperienced defense, aside from the deep and veteran defensive line. Replacing all three starting linebacker positions, as well as repairing a fractured secondary, reiterate the importance of having patience this season.
Don’t panic when Rutgers has a recruit from the class of 2017 decommit from the program during the season. It’s inevitable, because you are dealing with 17 year old’s that have the right to change their mind. If Rutgers starts 1-5 or 2-4, how many will have doubts or have historically more successful programs in their ear about jumping ship? Let me be clear, regardless of the record this season, I strongly believe Ash and his staff have been strategic in promoting the future and the culture they are building. I do not expect a rash of decommitment’s that we saw under former coach Kyle Flood. But it’s likely a couple may fall off as the season goes on, and that’s okay, because it is a reality within college football recruiting.
Rutgers will also fall in the recruiting rankings, based on elite recruits boosting programs lagging behind volume wise at the moment. That’s okay too, because the staff have the program in position to still finish with it’s highest recruiting rankings in years.
There will be setbacks this season. There will be losses, probably a blowout or two, and heartbreaking ones too. Whoever starts at quarterback will struggle at times. Allen is the popular pick by fans, as he is a true dual threat signal caller who was highly recruited out of high school. However, he hasn’t played any meaningful college football under center, so if he does win the job, he will have an adjustment period. And if Laviano wins the job, give the kid a chance and let’s see how he performs under the new staff. Patience.
I can’t wait for the 2016 season to start and if you are reading this, then I know you feel the same way. The Ash era has been headlined by a culture change, more emphasis on the full development of the student athletes, and searching for a team identity. His structured and well thought out plan, plus his ability to be brutally honest in his assessment of the program, has instilled confidence from the fanbase in Ash and the future.
Hope is alive and well on the banks of the old Raritan. He deserves the benefit of the doubt heading into his first season, in all the decisions he makes, even the one’s some disagree with. For the most part, Ash has taken a page out of Gary Gaines playbook and has been as close to perfect as is fair to expect in a first time head coach. It’s important to remember that, as Ash is still undefeated as August begins. This season will not only not be perfect, but it will be far from it. Ash will make mistakes, the staff will make a bad play call, and players will blow an assignment or two. Those things happen in every program, even Alabama and Ohio State.
What should be expected is progress, and the ceiling of how much can be made is still to be determined. The most important part is that Ash has given fans hope that better days are ahead for Rutgers football and that he is rebuilding the program the right way. He has learned from some of the best college coaches in history, and he has prepared for this opportunity for years. It’s time for the fans to do their part, in supporting the team no matter what and not panic when setbacks occur. They will, and when they do, remember the mantra for this season, patience. Judge Ash’s first season not on how it starts, but how it finishes. Training camp opens in ten days!