Rutgers football coach Chris Ash met with the media yesterday afternoon to speak on the 2017 recruiting class to mark the end of national signing day. Here are some notable comments from Ash about this class, which is the highest rated recruiting haul for the program since 2012.
Johnathan Lewis Will Have Chance To Play Right Away
Although Lewis is not the highest rated recruit in this class, it’s hard to argue against him being the most important. While Rutgers has many areas that must be improved on, the instability at the quarterback position has plagued the program for years. Lewis has a chance to to solidify the offense and become the face of Rutgers football for many seasons to come. I have been hopeful for a long time that Lewis would have a chance to start right away, if he earned it, and Ash confirmed that fact yesterday.
“Yeah, a quarterback is everything. I don't care what level of football you're a part of, whether it's the NFL, college, high school; if you don't have a quarterback, you really don't have a chance. And to be able to get a quarterback with the characteristics Johnathan Lewis has means everything to us. He's big, he's got a strong arm and he makes great decisions. He can run. He possesses leadership ability.”
“I'm so excited about him and his family and the commitment they made and the loyalty they showed. Their willingness to recruit others, it's just been unbelievable and I'm excited to have him part of our program. Now is he going to walk in the door and start? No, there's no guarantees or promises of that. But he's going to come in and have a chance to compete, just like the quarterbacks on our roster and he's going to hopefully I increase the level of play of everyone in that room.”
“Quarterback and offensive line are two of the toughest positions for freshmen to have a chance to play let alone start.”
“A lot will depend on the amount of time and effort he puts in. We talk about the recruiting process that goes up to signing day and after signing day it's preparation time. We don't ever promise, I shouldn't say promise; we don't ever talk about redshirting to our recruits. We want them to come in with the mind-set that they are going to come take somebody's job and they are going to compete for playing time and we want them to prepare that way once they sign that national letter of intent.”
“So Johnathan's ability to come in and have a chance to compete or possibly start is going to depend on what he does between now and then to learn the offense, learn football, work on his skills, develop his skills, so when he gets on campus, he's ready to go.”
Lewis was firmly committed to the program, even after former offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer left for Texas. While the Jerry Kill spread offense will have some differences from Mehringer’s, Lewis has the potential to improve the quarterback play at Rutgers dramatically during his career. For more on our take on Lewis and highlights of his high school career, click here.
Open Minded & Long View Thinking Equals Smart Recruiting
As everyone knows and as Ash reiterated yesterday, recruiting is hugely based on relationships. Ash and his staff have had to put a ton of work into building relationships with the high school football scene in the state of New Jersey. We all know Rutgers has struggled mightily in retaining the best in the state year after year. Sometimes, you need to take chances on lesser recruits who you can develop, but that also help develop relationships. Personally, when there is a 3-star recruit in your backyard, like Piscataway running back Elijah Barnwell, you do everything you can to sign that player. Thankfully, Rutgers did just that yesterday, but I find Ash’ remarks on his recruitment telling:
“He's a guy we've talked about literally every week since we've been here watching his film as a staff, discussing how he would fit into our offense. I think one of the things that helped Elijah and Rutgers and the partnership, the relationship that came together today, was new offensive coordinator and new running backs coach. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and everybody sees things differently, and what we want to do offensively we need a back like Elijah.”
“Elijah is one of the best players in the State of New Jersey and we've had him on our radar screen since we've been here.”
“Honestly he's been on my radar screen since the 2015 season when I was at Ohio State. We evaluated him; so I've known about Elijah for a long time. It took awhile to get to the point where we offered him, you know, and that happens. It's part of the process.”
“And again I think with the switch in the offensive coordinator or running backs coach and the way they looked at Elijah and how he fit and what we wanted to do and what we needed, I'm extremely excited that he's here.”
Adding veteran coaches like Jerry Kill at offensive coordinator and Lester Erb at running backs coach should not only help develop and improve the offense, but it should improve the long term recruiting strategy for the program. Piscataway is often overlooked in the New Jersey high school football scene, but the school has produced a lot of good players over the years, including the highest NFL draft pick in Rutgers history with Anthony Davis.
While Ash and the program need to be more successful in landing the top players in the state from the top high school teams, Rutgers should own a school like Piscataway moving forward, which is literally a stone’s throw away from campus. Taking Barnwell doesn’t just give the program a player with potential to have a positive impact on the field, it improves a relationship with a key high school moving forward. This type of long view thinking is so important in rebuilding a program.
Special Teams Should Be Improved
As bad as the offense was last season, the special teams unit was probably worse and a big reason there were issues on both sides of the ball. Special teams play is an opportunity for freshman to get on the field and make an impact from day one. Leonte Carroo is a great example of that, as he never played an offensive series his freshman season, but made several key plays, including blocking kicks, his first season on the banks.
Team speed will help in every area, but it should help out in special teams right away. In addition, Rutgers added a Division III All-American Punter in Ryan Anderson and a preferred walk-on kicker in Justin Davidovicz. Here is what Ash had to say about the impact this class can have on specials teams next season:
“And we'll make no secrets about it: Our special teams where they needed to be. We needed to find a way to create competition at the punting position, the kicking position, and with who we have got coming in at both positions, I think we are able to do that.”
“Again, there's no guarantee just because he's a grad transfer he's going to come in and take the starting punting position. But we've created competition there where hopefully it makes who is on campus better with him coming in, and I'm excited to see what he does.”
“If you look at the class overall, there was a huge emphasis on the skill positions. You look at the wide receivers, DBs, running backs, who I think we have increased our overall team speed, I think we've increased the number of people that we can use on special teams early. A lot of these players I think are going to have a chance on special teams right away.”
“But yeah, the team speed and depth really for special teams play was really important for us and I think we've been able to address that.”
This unit was a killer last season and hopefully this class can upgrade the play of special teams, as early as this coming fall.
The Notice Of Allegations Are Impacting Recruiting
While I haven’t seen this mentioned much among fans, there is no denying that the potential violations that the NCAA is deciding on, regardless of the severity of them, is having a negative impact on recruiting. Other schools are using it against Rutgers and that really should not be a surprise. Ash had an uphill battle in improving recruiting after the void in depth of talent on the roster left to him by former coach Kyle Flood. Having to address potential sanctions from the NCAA is something fans should take into account when grading Ash’s performance on the recruiting trail. I think this class proved he is making strides in recruiting and patience is needed. Here is what Ash said regarding the notice of allegations that the NCAA sent recently:
“I think you're exactly right and make some good points there that we were aware that an investigation, the investigation was ongoing to things here in the program. It's not something that we were a part of. I really couldn't tell you what's true, what's not true. It's none of my business. I do know that an investigation took place and that we actually had conversations with recruits and their families well in advance to let them know.”
“There were no secrets. We talk about our recruiting philosophy is open, honest and transparent and we were open and honest about the things that were ongoing before they ever came out. When the notice of allegations came out, we knew that the other schools would discuss those in recruiting battles and they were brought up. It was brought up.”
“You know, can I sit here and tell you it made a difference or not in certain individuals decisions? I don't know. But there were conversations about that all the way through the recruiting process. But we tried to get out in front of it and it started way back in the spring and summer when we were recruiting players.”
It sounds like Ash is managing the hand he was dealt the best he can and being proactive in addressing it is the right way to handle it. While I don’t think the ultimate ruling of violations from the NCAA will have a major impact on the future of the program, it certainly doesn’t help perception in recruiting. Hopefully, a ruling is made soon by the NCAA and Ash doesn’t have to deal with other schools using this against him by speculating what the penalties will be. Click here for a summary of the violations and my take on them.
Leaders Of This Class Were Loyal
For Rutgers to ever make real strides in landing the elite players of New Jersey, year after year, Ash has to find the right type of players who are willing to lead and work hard to build the program into a winner. Regardless of star rankings, Rutgers fans should be thrilled with the type of leaders that the program added in this recruiting class. Landing 4-star recruits Micah Clark and Bo Melton, the first top ten ranked players in New Jersey that Rutgers has landed in years, were hugely important in building this solid class. Ash spoke about their impact and how vital their early commitments helped the staff assemble this class:
“Yeah, it was huge. I think we had 17 commits, 16 or 17 commits before August. We really got on a roll and started in summer camps to be honest with you. We had 11 of the guys we've signed today in summer camp so we got a chance to evaluate them ourselves, and that's my opinion, the best evaluation.”
“But when you can get a player of Bo Melton's status, so to speak, committed early, and you know that he's a legacy here from Rutgers, that means a lot and to watch him go out and to attack other players and to help get them here was important.”
“But we really, I thought we got caught on fire back in April May and June all the way through the summer camps and a lot of it had to do with Bo.”
“Micah, Bo, those were two of the top ranked players here in the State of New Jersey and again, any time those type of players jump in, it's kind of a snowball effect and it did. It created some momentum, it created energy and excitement. I can't thank guys like that enough.”
“Obviously when you go 2-10, recruiting's tough. But the fact that guys like Bo and Micah and Jamaal (Beaty), all the guys that committed early, they were committed, they were loyal. People came after them, tried to get them to take other trips. Most of those guys did not take another trip. They were really happy and excited about being here at Rutgers and that's really what's important to us is that we want players that want to be here.”
“They know what we are trying to build. They know the environment we have and to do that in here with a great education and do that in front of family and friends and never wavering, is outstanding.”
“I hear all the time, people say, you have to take your five visits -- no, you don't. If you find what you want and you're really happy about it, you don't have to take five visits. Very few people take five visits anymore. The fact that they found what they wanted for them personally and for their family, and stayed committed and loyal, means a lot to us.”
I’ve never understood the mindset of fans who get upset with recruits who don’t want to be at Rutgers. I look at it as a benefit, because rebuilding a program is certainly not for everyone. We need kids who are mentally tough and want to be a part of building a foundation, not one’s who are worried about self-promotion and the limelight. We need talent for sure, but they need to be grinders as well.
Players like Bo Melton and Micah Clark seem to possess both qualities and they attracted like-minded players. While this class did set any rankings records, there is a lot of potential here. Most importantly, they believe in Ash’s vision for the future and want to be part of it. No matter how talented someone is, if they don’t believe in the greater purpose of something bigger than themselves, it doesn't help any organization, no matter the industry or sport. Lamenting on who isn't here isn’t important. Celebrating those that do and supporting them is the most important thing now.
This class will hopefully be remembered for bringing Rutgers back to respectability on the football field. And if things work out just right, greatness, too.
To view the entire 2017 class, click here.
Here is Ash’s press conference in it’s entirety.