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Rutgers Football: It's Time to Start Johnathan Lewis At Quarterback

With the bye week and a winnable game to follow, the offense needs a permanent change behind center.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

There really isn’t one positive that can be taken from last night’s 56-0 loss to Ohio State. With the bye week now here, it’s obvious a change must be made on offense. There are a lot of issues with this unit, including the offensive line failing to control or dictate the action and not allowing ample pass protection, too many penalties occurring, a lack of separation from the receiving core versus coverage, and a lack of explosiveness out of the backfield. However, the failures of the offense usually fall on the quarterback and Kyle Bolin simply doesn’t give this team it’s best chance to win. It’s time to move on.

The purpose of this article is not to bash Kyle Bolin. By all accounts, he is a stand up person who has been a positive influence in the locker room since his arrival a few months ago. He was voted captain by his teammates, which shows how much he is thought of on the team. Unfortunately, he hasn’t produced at a much higher level than even the much maligned former starter at quarterback, Chris Laviano. Actually, Bolin has been worse, at least from a turnover perspective. Look at this statistical comparison between the two quarterbacks from the past two seasons:

Chris Laviano: 70-145 for 48%; 748 yards, 5 TD, 2 INT

Kyle Bolin: 72-131 for 55%; 698 yards, 3 TD, 6 INT

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Laviano also turned the ball over twice by fumbling last season, but that’s still two less turnovers than committed by Bolin. And while Bolin didn’t turn the ball over last night against Ohio State, he did not perform well throwing the football. The main reasons Bolin was touted the starter was his experience and passing ability. The problem is that it’s not leading to positive results and five games is a large enough sample size to make a determination it’s not going to change. Bolin is a fifth year player and he is what he is at this point in his career. I don’t fault the staff for waiting until now to make a change, but to not act at this point in the season would be a mistake.

Last season, Rutgers benched Laviano at halftime of the seventh game after the offense was held scoreless against Illinois. Head Coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator Jerry Kill can’t wait that long this season. With the bye week here, it’s time to make a change. You could argue it’s time to give the same quarterback who relieved Laviano last season a chance again this time against Illinois as well. Gio Rescigno certainly doesn’t seem like a worse option than Kyle Bolin at this point and last season had some moderate success against Illinois off the bench, completing 10 of 18 passes for 120 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT and rushing for 37 yards on 12 attempts. However, the long view is needed in this rebuild. It’s time for Johnathan Lewis to start full-time.

Lewis finally got some significant playing time last night against Ohio State and he didn’t look great by any means. He was just 3 of 10 for 21 yards, 2 interceptions and ran for 14 yards on 12 attempts. However, no one in a Rutgers uniform did well last night. A big picture view is needed with the true freshman signal caller.

What Lewis did do was flash his potential at times. In the first quarter, with Rutgers driving in Ohio State territory and on a 3rd and five play from the Buckeye 21 yard line, Lewis was able to avoid pressure and showed touch on a pass to tight end Jerome Washington for a big first down. It was the type of play making that has been lacking from the quarterback position. Two plays later, Lewis found receiver Jawuan Harris, but he failed to catch it and it deflected into the arms of Ohio State’s Dante Booker. It wasn’t a perfect throw, but it was a ball Harris should have caught and wasn’t a mistake by Lewis. In fact, his willingness to throw to Harris in the middle of the field in the red zone showed he has guts.

To start the second half, Lewis completed a pass to fullback Max Anthony for a first down on the first play of the first drive. After rushing for 3 yards on the next play, Lewis made a good throw to the sideline for receiver Damon Mitchell near the first down marker. Mitchell dropped the pass, making it 3rd and 7. Lewis then forced the action and made a bad throw on the next play, resulting in his second interception of the game.

Johnathan Lewis is not perfect, nor a savior. However, he has more upside than any other quarterback on the roster and simply put, is the best option at the position for the future. Even though it was only against Morgan State, Lewis showed his mobility and potential in the run game with a five touchdown performance. If the coaching staff believes Lewis is the frontrunner to win the starting job for next season, then there is no reason not to give him that chance now. Give him a opportunity to prepare as the starter each week and allow him to learn from his mistakes without fear of a quick leash. Giving him the chance to make his first career start against Illinois and then Purdue is as ideal as it gets for a young quarterback in the Big Ten. It’s time to truly invest in Lewis as the starting quarterback for this program and help him grow into the unquestioned leader of the offense.

If he isn’t able to execute the entire playbook, than simplify it. It’s time to tailor the offense around him and the bye week gives you more time to make adjustments. If Chris Ash really does want the offense to be multiple, Lewis gives you the best option to do so. It’s obvious it will take Lewis more time to develop as a passer, but his arm strength is better than Bolin or Rescigno. He simply has more upside than either of them and it’s time to get Lewis valuable experience the rest of this season. His timing and feel for the game at this level will only improve the more he plays. Having a leader like Bolin next to Lewis to help in his development the rest of this season would be beneficial as well.

The sad reality is that if Rutgers doesn’t beat Illinois in two weeks, they are likely looking at a 1-11 record this season. However, that is a winnable game and starting Lewis gives the offense a fresh start out of the bye week. Kill can use the off week to get Lewis ready and work on the read option. They need to switch something up on offense and Lewis is the obvious choice due to his skill set. It’s time to take off the kid gloves and let the kid play for real. He is physically ready and has been mentally preparing for this for a long time. Lewis is going to make mistakes, but if anointed the starter, there is an investment in living with those missteps and using them as teaching moments in his development.

Ash’s second season was hopefully going to show that forward progress was happening with the program. While many big picture and off the field changes have been very positive so far in Ash’s tenure, including facility improvements and recruiting, results on the field have been brutal. A sixteen game losing streak in Big Ten play is a harsh reality of how bad things have been on the field.

The fan base needs something hopeful to latch onto. Ash can’t add to the roster mid-season and he can’t control injuries to key players, which are starting to pile up, especially in the secondary as Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton were both injured in last night’s game. However, the biggest positive generated at the end of the 2017 campaign could be the fact that Johnathan Lewis gained valuable experience, improved in the second half of the season, and showed that he deserves to be the starting quarterback for years to come. That would be something tangible to take away from this season and a reason for Rutgers fans to have hope for the future. It’s time to start Johnathan Lewis.