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Impact of the Class of 2017: Review, progress, and future outlook

Twelve scholarship members have already seen action.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Rutgers
Blackshear tallied the winning TD against Purdue.
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow will mark only four more Wednesdays before early Signing Day, on December 20. We continue with the impact of each of the last five recruiting classes have performed and their outlook for the future. We will work backwards having started with the transfers/walk-ons two weeks ago. Several true freshmen have already seen action in 2017 and project to nice careers on the banks. There is one more game for them to make an impact as true freshmen, and wouldn’t we be thrilled if anyone can use it to vault himself up (cough cough Johnathan Lewis) in these rankings.

Greatest impact of the 2017 class through their first 10 games:

1. Raheem Blackshear - RB, Archbishop Wood, Warminster, PA

State (PA) Overall Ranking: 27 National WR Ranking: 211

Speed. Speed. Speed. His initials are perfect for his position and our readers have already started using them like they do with other players like GR and BM. Blackshear flipped his commitment late to Michigan State and then at the 11th hour to Rutgers. So far this year he has proven to be the change of pace to the bigger, one cutback runners ahead of him. Jerry Kill acknowledged he could be special and has added to his package of plays each week he has been healthy. He’s not a threat between the tackles in a traditional sense, but is already a valuable piece to this offense.

Spring projection: Starting Running Back unless the staff opts for a bruiser to keep RB fresh.

2. C.J. Onyechi - OLB, West Orange, West Orange, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 31 National OLB Ranking: 102

Simply put, he is a football player with athleticism. Onyechi was one of the less heralded members of this class, not as highly rated as classmates Fatukasi and Fogg. C.J. played virtually every position on both sides of the ball in high school and made his mark on special teams at RU from week 1. As time has gone on he has gotten more defensive reps. This week, he may one super nice play in the first half embarrassing the PSU tight end assigned to block him and taking down Barkley for a 7 yard loss. He seems to “get it” already and there has to be a place for him throughout his career.

Spring projection: In a battle to start at SLB, perhaps pass rush specialist.

3. Olakunle Fatukasi - OLB, Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY

State (NY) Overall Ranking: 5 National OLB Ranking: 58

Grand Street is becoming a local RU pipeline. Fatukasi, #3 (now 33), Fat, or any of the other nicknames is a huge hitter on special teams per the clip above. He hasn’t yet found a major role on the defense as Trevor Morris has racked up tackles and remained remarkably durable. He continues to make special teams tackles and at times has seen some action on defense. Morris is a two-year starter but will be pushed hard for that spot in 2018.

Spring projection: Pushing incumbent Morris for the weak side linebacker spot.

4. Johnathan Lewis - QB, St. Peter’s Prep, Jersey City, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 19 National QB Ranking: 16

After Tylin Oden showed he could not throw the ball and was then dismissed, Lewis was the only face of the future of Rutgers quarterbacking. In high school he showed a cannon of an arm, tremendous pocket presence, and great speed once he got going. Despite Kyle Bolin and Gio Rescigno putting up underwhelming performances, the plan with Lewis is to play him when he’s ready. Lewis is the player most responsible for snapping RU’s overall losing streak. Against Ohio State he was able to show some signs of immense potential, and has battled an ankle injury ever since. Gio has won 3 of his 6 starts, while JLew has battled an ankle injury. If Lewis can control his cannon of an arm with speed and power better than Gio’s, he could get the start Week 1 2018.

Spring projection: Strongly competing for the starting QB position.

5. Hunter Hayek - WR, Wayne Hills, Wayne, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 53 National WR Ranking: 390

Hayek was a high two-star prospect according to most sources, mostly due to his lack of size. He earned a late offer, much later than his twin brother Tyler after competing in the 100 meters at the tournament of champions. Despite having to climb past several other freshman and all the upperclassmen on the depth chart, he now is the de facto starting slot receiver. He has made some catches, but not yet generated a signature “good” moment or broken enough tackles to truly be viewed as a threat. Lately he seems to get more targets than any other wideout.

Spring projection: Two-deep slot receiver.

6. Bo Melton - WR, Cedar Creek, Egg Harbor City, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 5 National WR Ranking: 37

The child of a former Knights football player and women’s basketball player, it was a huge recruiting grab to secure Melton, one of the top players in New Jersey. He emerged in the two-deep at receiver almost immediately, earning two starts early in the season. After securing a 48 yard bomb against Morgan State, he has not quite been able to make plays down the field despite blowing past his defender a few times. Melton finally made the second catch of his career late against Penn State, but the team needs him and Gio to develop some sort of chemistry. The physical skills are there and he will be counted on big time for the next 3 years. Let’s hope for a Leonte Carroo type-trajectory after being mostly a special teams guy as a freshman.

Spring projection: Starting wide receiver.

7. Everett Wormley - WR, Burlington Twp, Burlington, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 36 National WR Ranking: 225

Wormley remained steady in his commitment and was one of the quietest stories of the 2017 recruiting cycle. He has the physical tools to play as a true freshman, as per Coach Kill very early on. His blocking has improved, though his reception count has not ticked up much. The team was pressed to use him a little earlier than he was truly ready, so expect big development from year one to year two.

Spring projection: Two-deep receiver.

8. Tyshon Fogg - OLB, Calvert Hall, Towson, MD

State (MD) Overall Ranking: 9 National OLB Ranking: 15

Fogg was arguably the top recruit in this class. He had been slowed by an injury during the middle of the season, hence why we didn’t see more of him on defense. Finally showing a combination of size and speed late in the Indiana game, he tallied five tackles on just a handful of plays. If he can show some speed to go along with the size you want to see, he should unseat somebody in the starting lineup soon.

Spring projection: Pushing for a starting linebacker spot.

9. Brendan DeVera - LB, Wayne Hills, Wayne, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 57 National OLB Ranking: 201

DeVera has to be one of the most notable fringe 3 star prospects in quite some time due to his versatility at successful Wayne Hills as a quarterback/linebacker. Jerry Kill specifically brought him in to fill the newly created H-back position, but by training camp he was getting reps at linebacker. Like Fogg, Devera also got some burn in the Indiana game. It didn’t show on the stat-sheet, but Coach Niemann did mention him in the press conference. Max Anthony and Jim Brady have proved serviceable as fullbacks, but I have a hunch Rutgers will look to add a playmaker to that spot in some situations, DeVera being a likely fit.

Spring projection: Getting a short look at fullback, then back to MLB.

10. Travis Vokolek - TE, Kickapoo, Springfield, MO

State (MO) Overall Ranking: 11 National TE Ranking: 104

Vokolek seemed to be an odd signing, coming from so far away. The connection was Jerry Kill having worked with his uncle and hearing about Travis being a late bloomer with some length. Travis’s redshirt was pulled midway through the season in a somewhat surprising move. Previous to his playing, Kill seemed to indicate he may have only been 220 pounds, rather light for a tight end in the Big Ten. He looked pretty smooth on his first career reception, a 14-yarder against Indiana. Hopefully the staff can bring him along like the previous regime did with Tyler Kroft, as he gets bigger and stronger.

Spring projection: The 3rd Tight End behind Griffin-Stewart and Washington.

11. Micah Clark - OT, St. John Vianney, Holmdel, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 2 National OT Ranking: 16

Clark was the consensus highest rated player in this class. He enrolled early and was a key recruiter to ensure the remainder of the class honored their commitments. Coming into the fall he ended up in concussion protocol, prior to Rutgers adopting the guardian caps. He came into the Ohio State game and might get a long look at right tackle on Saturday. Very, very few true freshman linemen, even early enrollees make an impact on the field, but there could be a huge jump in 2018. He was projected anywhere on the line plus Tight End or even on the defensive side. This staff seems to want their best linemen at tackle, especially if they have a lot of eligibility left.

Spring projection: Two-deep at tackle. Starting at LT if Cole leaves for NFL.

12. Sam Vretman - OT, Cheshire Academy, Cheshire, CT

State (CT) Overall Ranking: 6 National OT Ranking: 76

Vretman came in better than expected because he has not played a lot of football, but he did grow up playing a lot of ice hockey. As an early enrollee, he was able to show some promise especially in his lateral movement to the point the staff kept him at tackle, rather than moving him inside to guard. He has spent time on the two deep and expect him to be a contributor who is at worst a super sub with special teams value later in his career. The upside is there, so being 12th on the list means this class is in pretty good shape.

Spring projection: Mauling people ... er, somewhere on the two-deep, probably LT.

Economy class- Redshirt 2017: order of likely impact as a RS Freshman in 2018.

1. Brandon Bordner - DE, Hilliard Bradley, Hilliard, OH

State (OH) Overall Ranking: 38 National SDE Ranking: 46

His offer list was long, before ultimately choosing RU. Bordner is a defensive lineman and that position is hard to crack as a sophomore, but he enrolled early so he’s ahead of an average redshirt freshman. The team graduates three defensive linemen (Turay, Davis, and Joseph) and will need to fill out the rotation which included 9 or 10 guys in 2017. He has some quickness to go with the size and therefore like a Wil Previlon, Kevin Wilkins, or Jimmy Hogan can play inside or out, which this staff values.

Spring projection: Backup DE.

2. Eddie “Tank” Lopez - DB, Woodrow Wilson, Camden, NJ

State (NJ) Overall: 26 National S Ranking: 88

Tank came in with a reputation as a tough hitter from South Jersey. When asked before the season about which true freshman would play on special teams, Coach Okruch did mention Lopez because he liked to run and hit. Unfortunately he was nursing an injury and the staff never got him on the field in 2017. They want him to get a little bigger and stronger as long as it doesn’t slow him down. Had he not been redshirted, he probably would be ahead of Hunter Hayek for punt returns based on high school film. He should bring some energy that the defensive backfield lacks a little bit, especially when Kiy Hester is dinged up.

Spring projection: Battling for a two-deep corner spot. Returning Punts.

3. Jamal Beaty, OL - St. John Vianey, Holmdel, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 23 National OG Ranking: 50

Beaty came along with his stepbrother Micah Clark as an early enrollee. One of the more unheralded recruits, I can’t emphasize enough how important linemen are, especially enrolled early to a program. I put him in the three spot here because in the spring game, he looked like a stone wall on field goal and punt protection. I expect him to be staying at guard and eventually an offensive contributor, but his days on special teams will begin as a redshirt freshman. Seriously, he’s bigger than Clark and probably got plenty of practice having to block him or block for his brother, on and off the field.

Spring projection: Fighting for two-deep guard spot. Fixture on special teams.

4. Tim Barrow, CB - Tottenville, Staten Island, NY

State (NY) Overall Ranking: 6 National CB Ranking: 101

Barrow is the first place on this list I really need to explain my case for his being so high. In high school he showed tremendous ability for his quarterback to just chuck it downfield and him to run under it. I saw the speed but wasn’t surprised the staff opted to put him on defense with so many freshman wide receivers. It is disappointing that we have not heard much about him, especially being the 6th best player in New York per 247, barely behind Fatukasi. He seems just too fast not to get time somewhere on the field in 2018. Everyone seems to like Hunter Hayek who has comparable straight line speed, but Barrow is bigger and stronger. It seems odd he never got a shot at corner in 2017 unless he simply had way too much to learn.

Spring projection: Two-deep somewhere, maybe nickel corner.

5. Owen Bowles - OL, Cedar Creek, Egg Harbor City, NJ

State (NJ) Overall: 25 National OG Ranking: 56

Owen Bowles was the fourth and final member of the offensive line in this class. He was heralded as a wrestler who had an unstoppable rip move as a defensive linemen. He projected more on the offensive side of the ball where he remains outside of the two-deep right now. I see a bigger version of Mike Maietti, so if he can demonstrate the leadership and keep the toughness, he will push for playing time at center in 2018 even though both Jonah Jackson and Maietti are back and have been serviceable.

Spring projection: Two-deep center after forcing Maietti or Jackson to play guard.

6. Shameen Jones - WR, Cardinal Hayes, Bronx, NY

State (NY) Overall Ranking: 8 National WR Ranking: 151

Jones was another guy slowed by injury from what we heard in the crowded group looking for wide receiver reps. He had a long offer list and I was most impressed by his cutback ability in his film. He moves smoother than he is fast and the key like all the receivers on this list is whether he can defeat press coverage. He has some length so I think he eventually will be able to. Most of the other receivers are not as tall so he offers a different dimension if he can use his arms to get open and corral passes.

Spring projection: Outside the two deep, but could be a return man.

7. Mike Tverdov - DE, Union, Union, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 29 National WDE Ranking: 79

Mike Tverdov is yet another top state recruit and followed in his brother’s footsteps out of Union, New Jersey. He is another tweener who could end up anywhere on the line depending on how he grows. He is relentless at the point of attack and maybe just what the team needs in practice and in front of a large home crowd. This year he was ruled out for the season early on, so I doubt he can truly make an impact in 2018.

Spring projection: 3rd string DE with a chance to start in 2018.

8. Jaonne Duggan - DL, Liberty, Bethlehem, PA

State (PA) Overall Ranking: 24 National SDE Ranking: 67

Duggan is a guy who earned an offer at Rutgers camp as by all accounts he was the best lineman there in early summer 2016. His commitment seemed steady all the way through and more people took notice as the season went on. He is a little shorter than the highly recruited defensive linemen, but seems to be a Julius Turner type, but probably a little farther along. I don’t expect anything in 2018 so anything he can do will be gravy.

Spring projection: Fighting for a spot in the DL rotation.

9. Syhiem Simmons - LB, Carver (AL), Jersey City, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 63 National ATH Ranking: 112

If there is any guy with perhaps a tougher road to the field, it’s Simmons. He projects at linebacker primarily, though safety and running back could be an option. There is a logjam in this class at linebacker and safety. He reminds me of a Trevor Morris early in his career, but Morris had a clear path to the two-deep at linebacker. I’d like to see him at running back where a lot of experience is being lost. A guy who went to Alabama to get more exposure as a recruit, he has taken the long hard road before. He may be needed at linebacker two years down the line.

Spring projection: Looking for carries.

10. Naijee Jones - CB, Timber Creek, Sicklerville, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 32 National CB Ranking: 165

Coming from the Timber Creek pipeline, Jones was the first commit to this class if i recall correctly. He has some length, so I’m guessing perhaps he was not viewed as strong enough to play defensive back right away in the Big Ten. I think he will eventually start and be somewhere along the lines of a Brandon Jones at worst. He seemed relentless at the high school level and at best could be close to a Marcus Cooper.

Spring projection: Trying to crack the corner rotation.

11. Tijuan Mason - DE, Trezevant, Memphis, TN

State (TN) Overall Ranking: 36 National WDE Ranking: 76

Mason has been compared to Kemoko Turay because of his body type and late development in high school as he ended up to be one of the later commits. I believe he missed 2017 due to injury and may need some time to figure things out. I would not want to be lining up as a Texas State Bobcat quarterback on opening day 2018 and seeing an athletic freak like him on the other side when I know I have to pass. Look for him to by 2019 be a situational pass rusher.

12. Elijah Barnwell - RB, Piscataway, Piscataway, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 42 National APB Ranking: 34

Elijah was committed to Buffalo before being a late add when the staff needed running backs, badly. The local of local products was mentioned as on Chris Ash’s radar from Day 1 and I don’t doubt it. He seemed to be their 3rd choice of running backs in this class, but with Jonathan Lovett (Baylor) and Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin) defecting they leaned on Barnwell as a running back rather than perhaps a linebacker. The late signing got lost in the media frenzy of signing day to reduce talk of how he follows his brother Nadir to the banks. Elijah is a tough runner who probably doesn’t have the top end speed to be an every down back, but he has proven to be a star everywhere on every stage thus far. I expect him to have a shot at goal line carries in 2018 as he will likely be the biggest running back on the roster.

Spring projection: Battling Trey Sneed for short yardage reps.

13. Tyler Hayek - WR, Wayne, Wayne Hills, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 43 National S Ranking: 153

Tyler was the first Hayek twin to commit, not Hunter. Let’s face it though, he looks like a hanger in his high school clips. I liken him to a Myles Nash in that he doesn’t really project at any one position. Over the course of his career could pop up at safety, receiver, even outside backer or tight end. I’m not quite sure what to make of him yet, but he seems like he will be a contributor somewhere on this team down the line.

Spring projection: Playing offense.

14. Eddie Lewis - WR, Mater Dei, Middletown, NJ

State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 18 National WR Ranking: 95

Eddie deserves an asterisk because with the numbers crunch he took a grayshirt. He looked pretty smooth in high school with solid hands and was much higher rated than every other receiver with the exception of Melton and maybe Shameen Jones.

Spring projection: Getting his feet wet on the scout team.

No longer with the program:

Everyone from the class is expected to be on the banks in 2018.

20/20 Hindsight:

1. Linebacker depth exploded with this group. When doing the scholarship update I described the freshman role in 2017 in more detail. The 2016 group had some great human beings, but most have some limitation that prevents them from being above average Big Ten starters. Everyone was back this year but the infusion of energy and upside helped to push the incumbents to their best seasons on the banks.

2. Wide receivers have gotten plenty of chances, but not done much with them. In an otherwise horrible performance by the team overall, it was nice to see a few freshman make catches even in the first half against Indiana. The biggest need for Rutgers is obviously an improved passing attack so every little thing helps, continuity, more game experience, more practice reps, more chemistry with the quarterbacks, more playing time on special teams, etc. Someone needs to and should step up.

3. Defensive backfield has been a let down. With a coaching staff most known for coaching defensive backs, it seemed logical that the depth issues created by 2015 attrition should have finally fallen off the map by 2017. A combination of recruiting and coaching should have been enough, yet the team ended up having to move several players from offense. The fact that a class with several athletes, WR/DB types had no true freshmen able to even provide depth at defensive back was discouraging. With so many upperclassmen returning in 2018, they may not get another chance until 2019.

4. Trench depth is the biggest wildcard and we won’t truly know for probably another three years. The numbers are there with four on each side of the ball. If just one guy can become an above average starter on each side of the ball plus another average starter from the group, plus depth provided by the others, that would be passable.

5. Should so many true freshman have played in 2017? This question warrants a much longer post than simply a few sentences here. My short answer is yes for two reasons. First, if early playing time was promised in recruiting, the staff has to follow through. Second, I do think the freshmen made an impact on special teams, units that were WAY better than a season ago. This staff can’t be thinking about 2021 right now, and if having Fatukasi on kickoff helped win the Maryland game, or Onyechi or Fogg etc, that one extra win was worth it.

NOTE: For the rankings in this article, I arbitrarily chose 247 Sports. We will dive into composite recruiting rankings at a later date.

Purdue v Rutgers
Wormley has started a few games.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images