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Chris Ash on Rutgers Football Spring Practice

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Two-thirds of the way through, what does the old ball coach think?

Howard v Rutgers
Coach Ash’s even keeled approach may be paying off.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As you should have gotten the hang of by now, each of the fifteen Rutgers spring football practices sees one of the coaches meet the press. This week we got our first look at Coach Baker on Tuesday and the dual-focused Coach Okruch before him. Chris Ash normally provides the update every Thursday and today was no exception. The full presser can be seen in the tweet below.

Overall

"Finished up practice 10 today. I thought it was another productive practice. Just at that time of spring where we've got to continue to push them mentally and physically ... They are ready for the spring game and to see the light at the end of the tunnel ... Most guys are practicing." "You see a lot of guys end up earning playing time and potentially taking jobs because of things like that that happen. I can't sit here and say that someone has done that yet.”

The skinny: None of the “reserves” have morphed into stars and the dog days are taking their toll. This team is super-thin at many spots as we already know from defections. The staff seems pleased in the continuous improvement, but is looking for ways to keep momentum going without risking health.

Spring game

"The spring game is good (but) we're still debating on whether it's going to be live or not," if not, “you'd still have a spring game, but it just wouldn't be live to the ground to try to keep guys healthy." "We'll go 1s (vs.) 2s like we did last year ... 11 players that have been practicing for what will be 14 practices ... we want them to stay together and work on that chemistry." "Our 1s will be in red (uniforms), our 2s will be in white and selected others with be mixed in there as well."

The skinny: These players are still ones that grew up before “rugby tackling” was back in style. Anecdotally, when I started playing football in college, the generally accepted football tackling technique seemed counter-intuitive. It did not align with the athletic, though less violent moves of other sports I had played like soccer, basketball, or ice hockey. Rugby tackling on the other hand can be simulated and more easily practiced, so I think “thud” in a spring game is less of a concern. A reminder of an interview with Ash before he was at RU.

This isn’t a team that should be curtailing confidence in any way so keeping the starters together is fine. Also as much as it’s exciting, do we really need hits like the one from the improving Julius Turner (clip below) or perhaps Turay leveling Robert Martin or Trey Sneed (pictured) in an exhibition game?

Offense

The Dark Knights and passing game: "The quarterbacks will be in black." "There is no chance we will touch them at all.” "[Gio]'s improved his overall knowledge of the offense and knowledge of defensive identification.” “He's provided tremendous leadership for not only that (quarterback) unit, but the offense. He's making better decisions. .. He's our clear-cut No. 1 with where we're at after 10 practices."

"Last year we needed Janarion to do a lot of stuff. We tried to feature him until he got hurt. We'll see where we're at in training camp." "We're constantly thinking on both sides of the ball and special teams: What do we have, what are we going to have and what are we going to have to do to feature the guys we need to be able to feature. There is nothing set in stone that we are going to do this, this, this and that with Janarion." Then on the thin receiver group, "I still feel really good about the direction that we're going. We still have a long way to go and we still have a lot of work to do."

The skinny: Finally this team has a leader at quarterback, something all good RU teams have had historically. (Policastro, McMichael, Teel, etc.) No matter what else happens, this team will go nowhere without significantly upgraded QB play. Maybe Kyle Flood’s late flier on a project QB from Big Ten Country will pay off?

Last year the staff only had confidence in one playmaker on offense. This year they feel Grant is not a one man show and I asked the question before he was injured whether the risk of injury on kickoffs was too great. Ironically he was injured on a long gain that was not a return. His gamebreaking ability on special teams for a team that will still not feature a ton of points is probably needed (sensing a poll?) for morale, forcing other teams to game plan, and possibly even forcing squibs or pop up kicks that would improve the field position differential from 2016 all else being equal at minimum. It was noted Grant seemed a little less agile today, hopefully that is nothing serious.

Poll

Should Janarion Grant return kicks in 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Absolutely not
    (17 votes)
  • 3%
    Punts only (fair catches ok)
    (9 votes)
  • 8%
    Kickoffs only
    (24 votes)
  • 82%
    Punts and kickoffs: Turn him loose!
    (236 votes)
286 votes total Vote Now

Power football: “[Running backs coach] Lester [Erb] is a great coach, a great teacher and just a good person in general," Ash said. "I think he's done a great job of connecting with his players. ... he's does a nice job of mentoring those guys, leading those guys and helping them become better." “The two tackles have made huge strides ... Kamaal needs to work on technique ... but he knows his assignments.”

The skinny: To a fan of a powerhouse program, being happy your starting right tackle knows what he’s doing is laughable. To the diehards among us, it was obvious that Rutgers momentum in the season finale was extinguished by two third and short sacks near midfield solely on the failure to pick up a pass rusher who wasn’t even a blitzer. If something is only as strong as it’s weakest link, this is a positive. There’s no doubt Seymour has the strength to succeed in close combat.

The criticism of the running game earlier this spring was due to fumbling and dropping passes, but no doubt the talent and coaching is there for success if the rest of the offense is functional.

Defense

“Kemoko has had a tremendous spring” and is “a guy we have to keep healthy ... because of what he can do”. “Our corners [Wharton and Austin] have had a great spring ... Saquan Hampton playing fast and at a high level ... the secondary I’m really pleased with what I have seen.” “Deonte Roberts is probably the most improved kid on the team.” On what makes Austin so adept at defending passes, “His belief in himself ... his tremendous length.”

The skinny: Sensing a trend that even though the staff preaches competition to the nth degree, the early returns are an emerging group of new leaders whereas many of last year’s captains had been a face of the program for years (i.e. Muller and Hamilton). Anyone who has ever played football knows that regardless of the talent level of the position, linebackers need to be vocal leaders. The staff seems comfortable in one for the first time with Roberts. DBU is trending in the right direction. And oh yea, Kemoko Turay is pretty flippin’ talented.

Off the field

  1. Visiting recruits: "Probably more excited about getting on the road [than the spring game] and getting the evaluation process going.”
  2. Recruits visiting: "The spring game is great and all that, but I love to have them here to watch us practice and get a chance to sit in meetings and spend time with them. You can't do that stuff with the spring game. We don't have meetings. There is so much going on. It's hard to get an opportunity to meet with them individually. Especially if a bunch of them show up."
  3. Spring Fever: "I hope we have a great environment ... with the concert and [festivities] ... ”
  4. There are no individual awards like Most Improved Player because, "We have our Champions Club where we honor guys for doing the right thing, their attitude, their effort, their performance -- both athletically as well as academically,"
  5. Ash also noted his happiness with the practice fields construction.

The skinny: For the lack of commitments Nj.com did a nice job examining some key data points after Ash indicated he is not concerned. By no means do you need to have a dozen commits at this point because they could decide to change their mind for a number of reasons, you’d like more time to know if you are recruiting the right players, and if the team exceeds expectations you may even be able to get better players. All that said, it would be nice to have a few commits as a starting point for no other reason than showing someone is buying a product this staff is selling.

What Ash didn’t cover

Ash did not comment on the “jumbo front” observed by media and in the video of practice. This defensive formation saw three defensive tackles (Bateky, Wilkins, and Joseph) flanked by an end on one side (Lumor of note). Rutgers coaches have been downplaying the schematic portions of camp, choosing to emphasize fundamentals. The staff’s stubbornness with the sets came back to bite them big time last year so you’d be a fool to think they aren’t at least experimenting with ways to get more out of the players they do have on the roster.

We leave you with some insight into a player’s experience at a spring practice with Damon Mitchell mic’d up.