The start of training camp for Rutgers football begins today, with players checking in before the start of practice tomorrow. Eight months to the day when Chris Ash was hired, he is preparing the program to step out onto the field with the 2016 season finally in sight. There have been a lot of changes to the program since his arrival. Competition, nutrition, strength and conditioning, and improved leadership are all areas Ash has focused on with the players. The weight room underwent a significant makeover. Recruiting for the class of 2017 is going better than expected. New uniforms bring a return to the scarlet color and readable numbers. The start to the Ash era has been a flying success so far.
Now the truly hard part begins, leading this 2016 team from Big Ten bottom feeder to a respected team within the conference. I’ve pointed out before that progress this season should be measured by more than just wins and losses, and that patience is needed for Year One of the Ash era. However, for legitimate progress to take place on the field, here are five areas that must improve this season.
Drew Mehringer is the seventh offensive coordinator for Rutgers in the past seven years. Rutgers continued running it’s pro-style offense, but it had lost it’s identity because of the annual changes. Last season’s offense was too predictable and lacked big play ability, aside from the great Leonte Carroo. But when Carroo was off the field, the Rutgers offense sputtered too often. Frustrating running back rotations led to the hot runner of the game on the bench. The mind blowing inflexibility to change formations and add a third receiver in situations it called for, happened too many times to count. The refusal to make a quarterback change when starter Chris Laviano played poorly or was getting beaten up badly, was maddening. The best athletes on the field when Carroo wasn’t on the field, Janarion Grant and Carlton Agudosi, were mistakenly never made a priority within the offense.
Enter Mehringer, who comes to Rutgers as the prized student to offensive mastermind and Houston head coach Tom Herman. There is reason to believe, despite this being Mehringer’s first season as an FBS coordinator, that the frustrations of last season will be a thing of the past. He brings with him an up tempo, spread offense.
Janarion Grant should be a focal point within this offense, and have the opportunity to flourish in this new system. Robert Martin, who appears to have a slight edge over Josh Hicks entering camp, should have a chance to get in rhythm and be more effective as the game progresses. Varying looks and formations, a no huddle offense, and unpredictable play calling will hopefully become the norm for a Mehringer led offense. And whoever becomes the starting quarterback, there will be a shorter leash and weekly evaluation. All of these changes would be welcomed ones for Rutgers fans.
Defensive Line Must Be Consistent
Last season, the Rutgers defense was a sitting duck against most offenses it faced, looking unprepared, with few strategic adjustments, huge pockets of open space for the opposition, and many blown assignments. The secondary took the brunt of the blame, but the lack of pressure the defensive line put on opposing quarterbacks was a major problem. It’s no secret winning the battle in the trenches is a key to football. With senior captain Darius Hamilton missing all but one game of the season, Kemoko Turay playing injured all season, and the rest of the line being undersized in Big Ten play, the defensive line had very little success in creating pressure and making an impact.
That has to change this season, and based on the returning personnel, there is reason to believe it will. Hamilton returns after a medical redshirt season and has gained upwards of 40 pounds to his frame, mostly muscle, and declared himself healthy. Turay missed most of spring practice recovering from surgery, but is ready to compete in training camp. Add in seniors Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Sebastian Joseph, and Quanzell Lambert, and the defensive line has talent and experience. Jimmy Hogan had his moments last season, and there is also room for younger players to emerge.
The defensive line is the deepest unit on that side of the ball for Rutgers, and is the most veteran position group by far. Whoever starts at linebacker, with Deonte Roberts, Trevor Morris, and Najee Clayton being the favorites entering camp, they will be first timers. The secondary is still young and developing, with the exception of Anthony Cioffi. There should be confidence that between Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann running things now, the defense should improve this season. The lack of adjustments and vanilla looks on defense should be gone. The defensive line will be a major factor in how much the unit improves, as they have the depth and talent to consistently disrupt the opposing offense and hopefully at times, even dominate.
Special Teams Play
With the exception of Janarion Grant returning three kickoffs and one punt back for touchdowns last season, the unit that was the strength of the team for years, was a detriment in 2015. Coverage on kickoffs and punts were consistently bad, leading to much better starting field position for the opposing team, putting the undermanned defense in bad spots all too often. Rutgers entered last season leading the country in blocked kicks, averaging 4+ in the previous 7 seasons. Last year’s unit blocked just two kicks. Placekicker Kyle Federico, who will be missed this season, had two extra points blocked and missed another in 2015. The mojo was gone and it made Rutgers significantly worse.
Special Teams coordinator Vince Okruch has a lot of new blood to work with. He needs to find a replacement for Federico, with David Bonagura the favorite to do so. Joey Roth needs to be replaced at punter as well. But the edge and aggressiveness that Rutgers used to bring on special teams needs to return. Kickoff and punt coverage must improve, and blocking kicks in big moments will hopefully follow. Okruch makes me believe he is the one to turn the unit around, after he referred to a missed field goal in the spring game as “depressing”. He wears his heart on his sleeve and hopefully this unit plays with more emotion and improves their execution on the field.
Last season, Rutgers saw their best players on offense and defense, Carroo and Hamilton respectively, miss considerable time due to injury. Complimentary players, like John Tsimis and Desmond Peoples, missed most of the season. The injury report was double digits at times, and depth was an issue all season.
Ash has put a renewed emphasis on strength and conditioning with the hiring of Kenny Parker. The way in which the players worked out in the offseason and in the weight room was dramatically different than in years past. Competition is now emphasized in every aspect of the players daily lives. NJ Advance Media put together a great summary of all the players that made the most gains in the offseason program. There have been reports of players having transformed their bodies. Nutrition and recovery have been made a major emphasis within the program. All of these changes should help with injury prevention and lead to a healthier team during the season.
The Ash era has seen new mantras used to motivate the team. In Ash’s first team meeting, he introduced “fight or flight” as a way to urge his new players they must welcome challenges and rise to occasion when facing adversity. Better organization within each unit on the field, better camaraderie among the players and coaches, and major gains physically should all yield improved confidence with this team. The preparation that Ash and his staff have put the players through should produce a team that believes it belongs in the Big Ten. The “10 Strong” mantra and the “The Hunt” are team building messages being integrated into the players mind’s everyday. With the team unanimously picked to finish last in the East division, they will certainly be motivated to prove the doubters wrong. When Rutgers runs onto the field this season, they should be a more prepared team, which in turn breeds confidence that they can win the game, regardless of the opponent. And that could be the biggest difference maker of all this season.