During head coach Chris Ash’s press conference after the first practice of spring, he announced two bits of coaching news. One was the promotion of defensive backs coach Bill Busch to an additional role of co-defensive coordinator, which was reported a few weeks ago. However, Ash also announced that he has promoted offensive line coach A.J. Blazek to assistant head coach.
This is a savvy move by Ash and another example of the growth he is exhibiting in his second year on the job. Ash gives off a serious vibe and is meticulous in his preparation, while answering questions in a reserved manner. It’s likely Ash prefers to be in the film room evaluating players and developing them on the field above all other aspects of his job. His demeanor and approach is straight Belichickian.
That’s why Blazek is a perfect sidekick for Ash. He is an energetic presence who is a great salesman for the program. The new title will likely allow Blazek to take certain responsibilities off of Ash’s plate and he represents the program well in public. Ash can focus more on football related tasks at times because of this. Blazek is the best recruiter on the staff, so he has proven early on that he can market Rutgers in a positive way. Here is what Ash said in the presser about Blazek:
“I think A.J. does a great job for our program. He's tremendous with our players, he's great out in public with high school coaches, fans, donors. A.J. is high-energy, very intelligent, cares about people, does a great job in our program, a guy that I lean on a lot to help on day-to-day things in our building but also to do things externally on the outside.''
Blazek may not have had any FBS experience as a coach before coming to Rutgers, but he had a Big Ten pedigree as a player as a former captain at Iowa. However, this is not the story of a small time coach in over his head, which we have seen on the banks before. He is a rising star who has paid his dues coaching at FCS school Western Illinois as late as 2015 and Division II Winona State before that. At Rutgers, Blazek quickly established himself as a recruiting presence in the state and a tireless worker. He was offered the offensive line job at Iowa, his alma mater, just last month. Instead of jumping ship for a traditional Big Ten power, Blazek stayed at Rutgers.
Ash rewarded that loyalty and has reshaped the coaching staff significantly in his second year in charge of the program. After adding Jerry Kill as the ninth OC in nine years, he upgraded at running backs coach with Lester Erb. Adding Henry Baker as defensive backs coach, the only assistant with a background from New Jersey, should help with adding experience and a local presence for recruiting. Elevating Busch and now Blazek adds stability and maintains continuity to the program.
There is a lot of work to be done this spring in preparing this team for next season, coming off a 2-10 campaign. Ash has upgraded the staff by a wide margin from his first year on the job. Despite the changes, the expectations and standards for the players has long been established by Ash and the opportunity for greater improvement this spring versus last exists. Ash said this during his presser:
"When you watch them, they practice a lot faster. There’s not a lot of questions. We’re not coaching the little things like alignments and stances as much as we were a year ago. We’re not coaching guys to finish drills, to finish reps like we were a year ago. There’s a lot that goes into player development, but I really like how our players have developed over the past year.''
Yesterday was the first of fifteen practices this spring. There is a long way to go, but you can’t help but be encouraged by the moves Ash has made this offseason. Hopefully, the progress he saw on the field in day one sets the tone for a positive trajectory in 2017.
Notes: Tight End George Behr and cornerback Jarius Adams, both reserves, are now on medical scholarships and their playing careers are likely over due to injuries.....Players deemed as limited this spring were guard Marcus Applefield, linebackers Trevor Morris, Tyreek Maddox-Williams, and Ronnie James, tight end Jerome Washington, and kicker David Bonagura......In addition, wide receiver Janarion Grant did return to the practice field, but will be utilized in a cautious manner this spring....Wide receiver Jawuan Harris will split time between baseball and spring practice.
Here is Rutgers head coach Chris Ash’s full twenty minute press conference: