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Ash Era: The Rebuild of Rutgers Football

Ohio State v Rutgers Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

After the recent drubbing to Ohio State the fanbase seems to be defeated and rightfully so. Granted, this loss was not as embarrassing as the 78-0 defeat suffered against Michigan last year, but this one stung nonetheless. I left the stadium Saturday night feeling somewhat hopeless, dejected, and honestly embarrassed to suffer yet another very lopsided loss. We've all heard the "Give it time..", "This is a rebuild..", "Have faith.." words of encouragement, but at what point do those words start to lose meaning? Now that some of the sting has worn off, I am able to see things more level headed. I have spent the day really evaluating all of the things I have not only thought to myself, but have heard from other fans. I have reviewed the stats, listened to the press conferences, and went through the research. And then I asked, "Chris Ash what have you done for me lately?"

Thus far in his tenure, Ash has cleaned up most of the character issues, boosted the APR, navigated NCAA sanction issues caused by former head coach Kyle Flood, improved strength and conditioning, stabilized recruiting, and has been able to improve the facilities through generous donations from alumni. So, what has been missing? Plain and simple: The results on the field.

When head coach Chris Ash took the job two years ago, the message to the fanbase was clear: This is a multi-year all hands on deck rebuild. His assessment of the job then and now is truthfully spot on:

“Moving forward, I have a message for fans, supporters, administrators, players, basically anybody that loves this program: We need to create some positive energy around this program. It's going to take an extreme amount of work. It's going to take a lot of the right people going in the same direction. Organizational alignment here in this athletic department and in this football program is going to be essential to our success.”

So here we are in year two of the Ash Era rebuild and where do we stand? Let's take a closer look.

Ash Era Year 1:

sports-reference.com

The Scarlet Knights finished the season 2-10, went winless in the Big Ten, and were shutout four times. They were outscored 450-188. They were bad, very bad. Offensively they finished dead-last nationally in total yards per game (282.4), second to last nationally in scoring offense (15.7 ppg), and 97th in total defense (450.7 ypg).

Despite the massive struggle on the field, Chris Ash was able to put together a 2017 recruiting class which ranked 42nd nationally and 9th in the Big Ten according to 247Sports.com. This class included two top recruits from the state of New Jersey, Micah Clark and Bo Melton. The class was not without its disappointments though as on the field struggles led to several high profile decommitments from top 35 state of New Jersey ranked players; Jonathan Taylor, Johnathan Lovett, Bryce Watts, and Ihmir Marsette. The loss of Jonathan Taylor is especially disappointing as he currently leads the Big Ten in total rushing, ahead of Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley and freshman phenom J.K. Dobbins. Coach Ash MUST be able to secure these types of commitments going forward.

Ash Era Year 2:

sports-reference.com

Ironically enough, the 2017 season started with promise with a closer than expected loss against then ranked #8 Washington. However, that positive performance was quickly voided with a very disappointing loss to Eastern Michigan at home. Granted, the Eastern Michigan Eagles are coming off of their first bowl game in 29 years, but it was still a "must win" for Rutgers as well as an opportunity for Ash to show improvement on the field. Ash then had another chance to show improvement against a Nebraska team that also lost to a MAC opponent in Northern Illinois. But alas, the results were more of the same: a disappointing loss. Despite the most recent lopsided loss to Ohio State, the on-field results have improved in the statistics but not yet in the win-loss column. Offensively, Rutgers is ranked 118th nationally in total yards per game (303.2 ypg), 109th nationally in scoring offense (21.8 ppg), and 54th in total defense (364.2 ypg). Also, the 2018 recruiting class is on par with last year's, 43rd nationally and 10th in the Big Ten.

So, where do we go from here? With much of the fanbase feeling defeated, disgruntled, and hopeless, as well as with some fans calling for the firing of Ash, the answer is simple; he needs more time. Now, some will accuse me of wearing scarlet colored glasses, and you are not wrong, however when it comes to major decisions surrounding the program we must look at the bigger picture. We are not the first to rebuild a football program and certainly won't be the last. The data suggests the third year is the typical time-frame for a program turnaround, a term Bill Connelly refers to as “Third Year Hope”:

If something big is going to happen, the odds are good that it will have happened by the end of a head coach's third year on the job.

By your third year on the job, the program is mostly yours. Sure, there are some fourth- or fifth-year guys who were recruited by your predecessor, but the depth chart is mostly filled with guys you signed. Plus, you've got the lay of the land by now -- you've got a decent read on your conference foes, you know which boosters you have to most obsessively placate, etc.

Quite often, we don't see third-year magic coming. It can be pretty random.

In 2015, USF's Willie Taggart looked like his third year might be his last until his Bulls dominated in the second half of the season; they ended up improving by 20.2 adjusted points per game.

In 2012, Mike MacIntyre's San Jose State, having already improved from 1-12 to 5-7 in his second year, exploded to 11-2 and 18.6 adjusted PPG higher than the previous year.

In 2006 under Mark Dantonio, Cincinnati improved by 17.9 points and ranked 17th in S&P+.

Let's take a look at a few more examples for comparative purposes. And whom better to start with than none other than Greg Schiano.

Greg Schiano (Rutgers): Before taking the job at Rutgers Schiano was a first class defensive coordinator at Miami, a program that finished the 2000 season ranked #2 in the polls after winning the Sugar Bowl, including an impressive win over Rutgers 64-6. Prior to Miami, Schiano spent time with the Chicago Bears from 1996 - 1998 as a defensive assistant and defensive backs coach. Schiano went 68-67 (.504) as head coach for the Scarlet Knights.

2001: 2-9 overall (0-7 conference)

2002: 1-11 (0-7 conference)

2003: 5-7 (2-5 conference)

2004: 4-7 (1-5 conference)

2005: 7-5 (4-3 conference)

2006: 11-2 (5-2 conference)

Kirk Ferentz (Iowa): Before taking the job at Iowa, Ferentz was the head coach at Maine from 1990-1992. After his brief stint at Maine he jumped to the NFL where he coached the offensive line for the Baltimore Ravens until he was hired by the Iowa Hawkeyes in 1999. Ferentz is currently 138-94 (.595) as head coach for the Hawkeyes.

1999: 1-10 (0-8 conference)

2000: 3-9 (3-5 conference)

2001: 7-5 (4-4 conference)

2002: 11-2 (8-0 conference)

Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State): Mike Gundy took over the program in 2005 and similar to most first year coaches he suffered his share of setbacks, but things rebounded relatively quickly. Gundy is currently 108-51 (.679) as head coach for the Cowboys.

2005: 4-7 (1-7 conference)

2006: 7-6 (3-5 conference)

2007: 7-6 (4-4 conference)

2008: 9-4 (5-4 conference)

Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern): Pat Fitzgerald took over the program in 2006 and went 4-8 in his first year, but things turned around quickly for the Wildcats. Fitzgerald is currently 79-64 (.552) as head coach for the Wildcats.

2006: 4-8 (2-6 conference)

2007: 6-6 (3-5 conference)

2008: 9-4 (5-3 conference)

2009: 8-5 (5-3 conference)

Mike Leach (Washington State): Mike Leach took over the Cougar’s in 2012 and brought with him the air raid offense that has continued to leave defenses perplexed. Prior to Mike Leach the Cougars went 20-53 from 2006-2011. The struggles continued under Leach’s first few years. Leach is currently 34-34 (.500) as head coach for the Cougars.

2012: 3-9 (1-8 conference)

2013: 6-7 (4-5 conference)

2014: 3-9 (2-7 conference)

2015: 9-4 (6-3 conference)

P.J. Fleck (Western Michigan): Fleck began his coaching career under Jim Tressel at Ohio State University after which he landed at his alma mater Northern Illinois as a wide receiver coach. He also had a brief stint at Rutgers under Schiano in 2010-2011 and then went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Schiano in 2012. He returned to the college ranks in 2013 as head coach at Western Michigan. Fleck went 30-22 (.577) as head coach for the Broncos.

2013: 1-11 (1-7 conference)

2014: 8-5 (6-2 conference)

2015: 8-5 (6-2 conference)

Am I suggesting that the Ash Era rebuild is on par with the above rebuilds? Absolutely not. We have won a total of 3 games in almost a year and a half. What I am suggesting is that we give coach Ash more time. It is simply too early to tell how the Ash Era will play out. But what I do know is the Rutgers Football program is in better shape than when Coach Ash found it.

Let me leave you with this perspective to show the level of talent and depth that Coach Ash inherited:

Rutgers Football 247 Recruiting Rankings
247Sports.com

The 2012 Schiano class has a ton of talent, but is long gone. This was Greg Schiano's class, Kyle Flood merely held it together the best he could, and he never could improve upon the 2012 class. The subsequent years, 2013 - 2016, had an average recruiting class of 56th in the nation. While Chris Ash was technically the head coach on signing day for 2016, I give Kyle Flood "credit" for that class as Ash had a mere month or so to actually recruit. To put things in perspective the 2016 class was beat out by Oregon State, Temple, Georgia Tech, Memphis, Syracuse, and Virginia.

In addition to subpar recruiting, Rutgers was hurt by dismissals, transfers, and decomittments in the 2013-15 recruiting classes of Kyle Flood. During Flood's tenure dismissals included five players from the infamous robbery and assault scandal; Andre Boggs, Ruhann Peele, Nadir Bardwell, Razohnn Gross, and Delon Stephenson. Additionally, his 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes saw 17 decommitments including Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, Penn State wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, Temple wide receiver Adonis Jennings, and former Miami tight-end and first round draft pick David Njoku, to name a few.

Has Chris Ash made mistakes as head coach of Rutgers Football? Absolutely, and he must improve upon these mistakes going forward. Is Chris Ash Capable of rebuilding Rutgers Football? I believe so. Will he? I don't know. What I do know is I am willing to give him more time to find out.