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Who will be Ash’s Brian Leonard? (Part I)

The last four RU regimes strapped their wagons to a skill position player, who will be the 5th?

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Syracuse Orange v Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Leonard carried the team to victory against Syracuse and at times, the entire team on his back.
Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Rutgers has had five head football coaches in the last 25 years. In each case, the coach came in with little time left in his first recruiting cycle and did his best to keep commits, like Kyle Flood convinced Darius Hamilton. Any minimal time left was to secure some more last minute undecided guys or flips from the place he came from. In no example did that coach find “his guy” his first abbreviated class, but in every situation there was one player who came to carry the torch after a full season hitting the recruiting trail by that head man. Let’s review and then discuss who could be that guy for Chris Ash.

Doug Graber: Running Back Bruce Presley, Highland Park, NJ Class of 1991

Prelude: Graber was a defensive guy, coming to the banks after serving as the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. History will tell you that defensive coaches value a ball-control, power running game and Graber was no exception. He did secure the services of NJ native Bryan Fortay from Miami (FL) as a transfer who was ineligible in 1991, so an argument could be made for him in this spot as well. I go with Presley because Bruce was a local hero from Highland Park with 4 years to play.

Signature Moment: The Thunder that came before the Lightning, Presley showed skills spelling Craig Mitter in 1992. He put the nation on notice in a nationally televised game, the first night game in the history of Rutgers stadium with a two touchdown performance, outshining future NFL Hall of Famer Curtis Martin on the other side in a 21-16 win over Pitt.

Aftermath: The ‘92 team looked destined for a bowl, but did not receive an invite. The next year the team fell to 4-7 even though Big East Rookie of the Year Terrell Willis exploded on the scene. The staff had to keep him on the field (more than Bruce) due to his production of 1,261 yards and 13 TD on only 195 carries! Willis described the poor relationship as a reason he left early for the NFL, which did not work out. The staff also had a controversy at quarterback with Fortay and Lucas which once Fortay graduated in ‘94 they steadied the ship somewhat at 5-5-1 (only 2-4 in Big East). A down ‘95 season sent Graber packing. Presley got a shot in the CFL.

Fact check: Marco Battaglia was not even the top TE prospect in his class, so no one expected him to be the face of the era like he ultimately became.

Terrell Willis
Willis outperformed Presley amid the QB controversy.

Terry Shea: Quarterback Mike McMahon, North Allegheny, PA Class of 1997

Prelude: Rutgers athletic administration saw the dysfunction with the coaching staff and players with a reduction in momentum of being able to sign the best Jersey players like Graber did initially. So they decided to go with the polar opposite, a QB guru from California who had worked under Bill Walsh. The strategy made sense because when you are overmatched in the trenches (deja vu), a great passing game can give you a chance to come back AND a little excitement might bring in recruits. RU needed to get a shot in the arm because the number of TV and bowl games were exploding, a critical time in college football. Shea snared McMahon from the QB fertile Western PA.

Signature Moment: The ‘97 team went 0-11 but McMahon showed flashes enough to entrench himself as the starter in ‘98. After a huge 25-21 win on ESPN+ @Pitt recovering from a 21-10 deficit in his hometown stadium, they won 36-33 @Navy to give the team a 5-4 record and a shot at Bowl eligibility, with Shea named Big East coach of the year.

Aftermath: Rutgers had one “decent” season by the 1990s standards, even though that would have been considered poor after 2005’s success, falling in the final two games of ‘98 to West Virginia and Virginia Tech. In McMahon’s two final years the team managed only 4 total victories, so Shea was fired. If you have the quarterback and don’t have success, you never will. McMahon (backup QB) and Shea (QB coach) both went on to have successful careers in the NFL. Shea did plant one magical seed at RU though covered later.

Fact check: Yes, a 5-6 season (3-4 in Big East) somehow can win you coach of the year.

Mike McMahon
McMahon’s stats and team success did not mirror his talent.

Greg Schiano: Running Back Brian Leonard, Gouverneur, NY Class of 2001

Prelude: With Schiano the administration decided to do the opposite of Shea, a New Jersey, detail oriented defensive guy. He had NFL experience, success recruiting the northeast at Penn State, and success in the Big East at Miami. When Greg was looking for his “guy”, it was the brother of one of his players, Nate Leonard, that got his attention. With Nate injured in high school, several schools pulled his scholarship offer, but in a miracle, not Terry Shea and RU! So Brian chose Rutgers over offers from Penn State AND Syracuse among others, something not seen at RU since maybe Malik Jackson? Schiano also decided to play Leonard at tailback even though he could have been an All-American at fullback, tight end, or linebacker potentially.

Signature Moment: The team showed steady progress, though not overnight. Leonard obviously was a player from the moment the fans saw him and his commitment/work ethic were contagious in the entire program. A 2005 ESPN play of the week, the origin of the “Leonard leap”, was followed by another nationally televised win over Pitt (yes again!) that almost assured bowl eligibility. Even though the Knights lost their second bowl appearance EVER! to ASU in the desert 45-40, you could tell they were a team on the rise with tons of playmakers only lacking (oddly enough) defensive backs!

Aftermath: The 2006 season was even more magical than 2005 with Pandemonium in Piscataway and Leonard’s “other” signature moment, directing the band after he led a Knights rushing attack that shoved the ball down the throat of hated Syracuse in a rout. Unlike the Willis/Presley controversy, when Ray Rice emerged Schiano moved Leonard to fullback though it cost him individual accolades. The rest is history as the Knights went on a run of 9 bowl games in 10 seasons, while Leonard AND Rice ended up second round picks in the NFL.

Fact check: Leonard played from 2003-2006 with a redshirt in 2002. He had committed in August 2001 during Schiano’s first recruiting cycle having been hired in December 2000. The argument for Ryan Hart is interesting, but Ryan Cubit was starting over him as a freshman so he clearly wasn’t the “chosen one” from Day 1.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Rutgers
In an odd twist of fate, Laviano’s defining moment came without Flood on the sideline.
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Flood: Quarterback Chris Laviano, Glen Head, NY, Holy Trinity Class of 2013

Prelude: Flood was a last minute scramble selection who interviewed well and preached continuity from the Schiano era. An offensive line guy he showed success holding together the 2012 class and was on the prowl for the heir apparent to Gary Nova with Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins on the roster at RB. We were told Flood was “certain” Laviano would lead this program to success in his career. I felt good about Laviano as well because he demonstrated toughness and leadership while facing a lot more adversity than Mike Teel or Gary Nova did in high school. He struggled in relief of Nova as a true freshman, but the competition in those games was rough.

Signature Moment: An up and down start to the season included Laviano being suspended (Moment 1a) for the first half of the first game for using a fake ID giving the fans a glimpse of Hayden Rettig’s cannon. Rutgers was staring their first bowl-less season since 2010 in the face and Coach Flood was suspended. Yet, in a nationally televised blackout game against #4 and eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State, the Knights played the game of their lives tied at 24 late in the 4th quarter. After Connor Cook completed one unbelievable 3rd and long pinned deep in his own territory MSU scored a TD. Laviano in what was certainly his best game had some time to be a hero but ended up getting sacked on a 3rd down killing valuable time on the clock. Instead of getting a 4th down manageable 40 yard Hail Mary opportunity with one second left, Laviano spiked the ball on 4th down. (Moment 1b)

Aftermath: Even though it is unlikely RU completes the Hail Mary, the spike video went viral making it seem worse than it was. All the die hard fans I spoke to agreed that Laviano seemed like he would be the QB of the future. After an improbable 25 point comeback against bowl bound Indiana the following week, the team looked like an actual football team. The wheels fell off after that and Flood was fired for losing control of the program. It got so bad the fans actually booed Chris (signature moment #2) returning to a game after being injured because no matter how bad things got Flood refused to try another option at QB on game day (namely Rettig). Then Laviano publicly criticized the fan base. Chris would only lead the team to one more victory (after the Indiana win) over an FBS opponent despite being the unquestioned starter by Chris Ash as well before being benched and transferring after the 2016 season.

Fact check: Yes Leonte Carroo was the best player on the team and you could argue Janarion Grant the image, but they were not the guys Flood “had to have”.

Chris Ash: TBD

Prelude: Ash was primarily brought in to clean up the program. A defensive coordinator at multiple power five programs, he had a lot of similarities to Schiano, but one major difference. Ash values a spread offensive attack requiring a mobile QB. He like all but Flood before him did not have much success on the field in his first season and his biggest splash in recruiting during his mini-cycle was low risk, high reward Tylin Oden who was clearly not ready as a true freshman.

The 2017 recruiting class has a few candidates, so we will make the case for a few and give the reason for optimism/pessimism for each in Part II.

New Mexico v Rutgers
Who will be his guy?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images