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OTB Round Table: Initial Thoughts As Rutgers Football Training Camp Begins

Many of our contributors got together to share early takes ahead of the 2017 campaign.

Howard v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

“The Hunt” is officially underway, as training camp for the Rutgers football team began today. There will be plenty of action and developments that will occur over the next five weeks, ahead of the season opener at home against Washington. To kick off the start of the season, some of our contributors got together to give some initial thoughts on the team as camp begins. Let’s dive in!

What Offseason development are you most excited about?

Bob Cancro: This is a multi-part answer, right? A) Jerry Kill B) Kyle Bolin C) almost everything else. Last year under Drew what’s-his-name, the offense was the gang that couldn’t shoot/throw/run/block straight. Jerry Kill has to (and will) be an improvement. Like others, I think Bolin will be the starter at QB; instant credibility and likely instant (if not prolific) offense. It’s year two; it should be better anyway and it likely will be better.

Jim Hoffman: I am most excited about how much stronger I think our offense will be in 2017. In almost every area, the strengths stayed strong, and weaker areas improved. A new OC, a real QB battle between Gio and Kyle Bolin (I love Jon Lewis, but I think he should redshirt a year), the continuing strength of our running back corps (Martin and Hicks, with Sneed a close third), and the receiving corps is much improved through the addition Duwop and Ahmir (if he’s able) Mitchell, return of Jawaun Harris, and most importantly the announcement of Janarion Grant’s health being “100%.” I love the upside of Bo Melton, but I hope they use him sparingly this year, and permit him a redshirt. Once I hear more about how the OL is doing, I’ll be psyched to see it working under an experienced offensive coordinator who adapts with the skill set of the players in place.

Aaron Breitman: The coaching staff is vastly improved with the addition of three veterans in offensive Jerry Kill, running backs coach Lester Erb, and defensive backs coach Henry Baker. Kill is the obvious upgrade in taking over the offense, which was woefully mismanaged by Drew Mehringer last season. However, I think the addition of Erb is being undervalued. He was very successful for many years at Iowa and has experience from several different programs over the years. The running backs were also mismanaged last year and having Erb in place should get a talented group on the same page, which would be a major benefit to Kill and the offense.

Dave White: Clear the infusion of talent and speed at the skill positions is very exciting, not to mention three quality QBs competing for the starting job. I think there’s a good chance this team, with Jerry Kill’s knowledge, shows flashes of excitement on the field. Some electricity on offense will do wonders for building an atmosphere at High Point Solutions Stadium.

Cara Sanfilippo: Firstly, I could not be more excited to see Janarion Grant back in action this season. The fire and excitement that will ignite by having him on the surprise attack will definitely improve the offensive play next season. With that, I am excited to see what the infusion of new coaches Kill and Erb will bring in terms of the style of play, and how they will utilize the influx of transfers of great transfers and recruits to create variety in the offensive play-calling. I could have called the playbook of Mehringer last year we were so predictable, so it will be exciting to see us hopefully shake it up a bit.

David Brown: The development of the secondary is the most exciting. Rutgers was 97th in defense yet were 18th in the country in pass defense. Some may say it's due to poor run defense which less passes were thrown but ranking 18th out of 128 isn't fluke. HC Chris Ash was a former DB at Drake University and taught the secondary for many years. I expect Rutgers to be "DBU" again.

Namrita Singh: Am I allowed to say everything or is that cheating? As a student, it’s kinda hard (sorry) to get excited about a team that went 2-10 last season, failed to score a single point in four games, and was blown out more often than not. But it’s not all bad. In general, I’m excited about a potentially rejuvenated offense. But what can I say that hasn’t been said already?

Matt Mortenson: The sheer number of new faces. Whether the grad transfers (Kyle Bolin, Duwop Mitchell, Gus Edwards), sit-out eligible transfers (Ahmir Mitchell, Jerome Washington) or the 27-man freshman class can contribute, there is a lot of new blood in the locker room. The competition and depth should elevate play all around.

Which position group do you think is the strongest?

Bob Cancro: Offense in general, wide receivers in particular. It’s deep already and there are newcomers talented enough and anxious to show their stuff.

Jim Hoffman: Defensive Secondary, beyond a doubt. They improved tremendously through last season, and I am excited to see how they come out of the gate this year.

Aaron Breitman: I agree that the defensive backs have a chance to be the strength of the defense. Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton have a chance to be one of the best cornerback tandems in the Big Ten. I think we see Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton take a step forward as safeties. Damon Hayes and KJ Gray also showed flashes of their potential last season.

Dave White: I always believe in experience and there are a lot of seniors at the defensive backs position. There’s a lot to love at this spot. And since Jim and Aaron said everything I could have about the defensive backs... who’s excited about that first dunk by Corey Sanders in November?

Cara Sanfilippo: While I am most excited by the developments in the offense, I agree with Bob, Aaron, and Dave in terms of the secondary. If we can bring back the Kiy Hester who blocked the Michigan field goal, in addition to the senior talent, I think that could be a real strength for us.

David Brown: The wide receiver group advanced a lot during the off season. With the return of Janarion Grant, this position is in elite status. Also graduate transfer such as Damon Mitchell from Arkansas will make an impact due to his SEC experience. I think freshmen Bo Melton may have a chance to get some significant playing time.

Namrita Singh: I’m going to agree with what Bob, Aaron, Dave, and Cara all said but specifically, I’m really excited to see what Blessuan Austin can do this upcoming season.

Matt Mortenson: The defensive backs (Blessaun Austin, Isaiah Wharton, Saquan Hampton, and Kiy Hester) are all very experienced and were productive last year. I expect the corners to make even bigger leaps in year-two of Chris Ash's press coverage scheme, which they should be fully adjusted to at this point. There is even some depth (Damon Hayes, KJ Gray made a few big plays last year) to make this unit the most well-rounded on the team.

Which position group do you think is the biggest concern?

Bob Cancro: We were 2-10; could be any of them, although I’m still concerned about the defensive line. It’s the Big Ten which means smashmouth football. Can we withstand that?

Jim Hoffman: I agree with Bob above. Our DL was porous last year against the run, and unless that improves, the best pass defensive secondary won’t mean a thing.

Aaron Breitman: Although right guard appears to be the only starting spot on the offensive line still undecided heading into camp, I worry about this group. Tariq Cole has a chance to be a star this season at left tackle and having Dorian Miller next to him should make that side a strength. However, Jonah Jackson at center, whoever plays right guard, and right tackle Kamaal Seymour need to prove they can rise to the same level and provide consistency for the rest of the offense. If they don’t, the improved talent at the skill positions will be far, less effective.

Dave White: Until proven otherwise, I’m always concerned about the offensive line. No matter how many tricks Kill has up his sleeve, unless his can give the QB some time to read the field, the offense will never fully click. I’d like to see some development out of that line, but I’m always concerned about it. If they click, it can be exciting.

Cara Sanfilippo: Honestly, I would say both the offensive and defensive lines. Not only were we 128th in run defense, but our o-line was extremely porous. We have spoken a lot on this site about the offense not being able to get anything going, and the lack of holes the line was able to open, or time given for the QB to find an open receiver definitely did not help things. Any improvements on either front should hopefully make a big difference.

David Brown: The LB group is the position that concerns me. Last year, Rutgers couldn't stop the run. Ohio State ran 410 yards down Rutgers' throats without hesitation. Freshmen Tyshon Fogg will get playing time due to this vulnerable position.

Matt Mortenson: There has been a lot of buzz about the Wide Receiver group being re-tooled, but I am concerned the expectations for this group may be set too high from us hopeful fans. I am worried about Ahmir Mitchell's ACL injury and if he will be able to make a full and timely Rutgers debut this year. I think Duwop Mitchell (84 receiving yards, 1 TD in 3 seasons with Arkansas), Janarion Grant (892 receiving yards, 1TD for his career), and freshman Bo Melton all have the physical tools to make this position group successful, but there is not much of a track record to go off of. Jawuan Harris is the statistical leader here with 481 yards and 3 TDs last year. If this position group struggles to develop, the Rutgers offense will be in trouble again as well.

Which Incoming Freshman Do you think will have the biggest impact this season?

Jim Hoffman: Micah Clark. Our offensive line needs assistance with graduations, and he’s the strongest player in the incoming class. He’ll have lots of opportunities to show what he’s got, and I think he’s going to open a lot of eyes.

Aaron Breitman: Brendan DeVera. Kill plans to utilize the fullback quite a bit in this offense and DeVera could play a major role from day one. With a veteran stable of running backs and the advanced physical development that DeVera brings as a true freshman, he could have a huge impact on the offense this season , helping to clear running lanes.

Dave White: Chris Ash’s big recruiting class is full of crazy talent. If Jonathan Lewis wins the starting job, it will certainly be him. However, I think that’s unlikely as they need him to develop. So I don’t know... Bo Melton? He could be fun to watch.

Cara Sanfilippo: I agree with Dave that there are a lot of reasons to be excited about this recruiting class. With all the depth added at QB, I don’t think Lewis will start unless I would have said he will have the greatest impact. It’s hard to pick just one, but I guess I would say Clark or given his versatility DeVera. On a completely random side note, I am friends with Brendan Bordner on Instagram, and I love how excited he is to be at Rutgers.

David Brown: I think Tyshon Fogg will get significant playing time because the depth for LB isn't the strongest.

Namrita Singh: I’m going to echo Jim and say Micah Clark; he’s put on weight and he’s explosive, and I’m glad that he decided to stay home. I’m also looking forward to watching C.J. Onyechi play; he can do pretty much everything and he’s also another Jersey kid.

Matt Mortenson: I would not be surprised if Tyshon Fogg is starting at linebacker at some point this season. Rutgers really struggled with LB depth last year and Fogg is a consensus 4-star recruit who is physically ready for Big 10 play now (6'2", 240).

Which transfer player are you most excited about?

Bob Cancro: Bolin. As I said, I think he starts and everything starts with the QB. I know defense wins championships, but if you can make things exciting and score points (and keep the defense off the field for more than a minute at a time) people tend to forgive some flaws.

Jim Hoffman: Duwop Mitchell. The graduate transfer is here for two reasons, one to demonstrate his strengths, which he may have felt was not appreciated enough at Arkansas, and two to be able to play once more with his younger brother Ahmir. He is an unselfish player, and a good all-round athlete, willing to play whatever position gets him on the field. That demonstrates a desire to achieve that motivates others to succeed as well.

Aaron Breitman: Jerome Washington. The tight end transfer from Miami hasn’t gotten mentioned much but he brings size and skill to a position that Kill has said will be much more of a focus this season. He has a real chance to be a breakout star on offense this season.

Dave White: These questions are starting to get a little tricky. You’re making me Google, Aaron. I DON’T HAVE TIME TO... fine. Ross Douglas is part of the DB position I highlighted earlier. I think he has a chance to make quite an impact as a college senior. So I’ll say him.

Cara Sanfilippo: I feel like I need to name someone else besides Kyle Bolin, who I am also excited to see adding much-needed depth and talent to the QB position. Although he is currently sitting out due to an ACL injury, I am going to say Ahmir Mitchell. Before his injury, Ash was consistently singing his praises and #InAshWeTrust. He’s fast, he has great ball control, and I think being closer to home and playing with his brother will help keep him on the straight and narrow. Speaking of his brother, I am pretty excited to see him make an immediate impact as well.

David Brown: Kyle Bolin is the most intriguing transfer because he came from a Power 5 school in Louisville and a QB which is a position that needs vast improvement. Rutgers' passing attack was a weak area in the offense. Bolin will face Gio Rescigno and Johnathan Lewis who's compared to Cardale Jones.

Namrita Singh: Without sounding too redundant, Bolin. I don’t really need to say much else. His talent, his skill level, his preparation and work ethic… they all excite me.

Matt Mortenson: Kyle Bolin has an opportunity to impact the program in a really meaningful way. If he emerges as even a middle-of-the-pack Big 10 Quarterback, Rutgers will take a huge step forward this year.

Which player do you think will make a name for himself this season that's previously been under the radar?

Jim Hoffman: Offensive lineman Jonah Jackson. Jackson is a freight train that has learned how to focus, and I think he is ready to take on being in the trenches of big-time Big Ten football. I’ve been a fan of his attitude since his arrival at Rutgers, and he is now at a size (6’4”, 299 lbs.) and now sculpted by hard work in the weight room to make some real noise this year.

Dave White: Under the radar players? Google is my friend. Google is my friend. Be nice. Be nice. Don’t make a basketball reference... don’t.... Mike Williams is going to have a great senior year. He’s going to find his shot from three point land, play fantastic defense and be a leader on the court. Book it! takes a deep breath Okay I got that out of my system.

Cara Sanfilippo: Hmm, this is a tough one. Given the openings left by JPO and Darius Hamilton on the defensive line, and his experience learning from them, Jon Bateky. He is physical and had 5 tackles for a loss last season. He has a huge opportunity to make an impact this season.

Aaron Breitman: Larry Stevens. He came out of nowhere last August to earn playing time and looked good on specials teams and in the secondary in the first few games, before suffering a season ending injury. The former Don Bosco product and walk-on has a chance to earn a role again this year.

David Brown: Dacoven Bailey will be a good contributor in the offense. He's very versatile and can play both RB and WR. He played very well at the Spring Game and has impact speed and playmaking.

Describe in one word what Janarion Grant means to you in regards to this football team?

Bob Cancro: Hope. Followed by excitement, then fear. He is as dynamic a player as I’ve ever seen and can change momentum in an instant.

Jim Hoffman: That word would be electric. He is the spark that moves the offense. With him, we have a working unit, without him, everything grinds to a halt. And Bob, you used three words, not one!

Dave White: Grant is one of those players who can be electric, like I said above. At any time, he just break off with his speed and score a touchdown, whether on a kick return or as a receiver. Had he not gotten hurt last season, I think Rutgers would have found at least one more win. Look for him to go out on a high note.

Aaron Breitman: Everything.

Cara Sanfilippo: MVP. He gives Brian Leonard a run for his money as my all-time favorite Rutgers player. I cannot wait to see how he upgrades the level of talent and competition on the offense, and how he is utilized in different ways in Kill’s offense.

David Brown: Batman. He's the one player that can change the fortunes for Rutgers with one single play. Without Grant, Rutgers could've been 1-11. He's the best player on the team.

Namrita Singh: Resiliency. He’s 100% healthy and he’s going to have an incredible season. It’d be nice to see him break the all-purpose yardage record; just Terrell Willis (who holds the record), Ray Rice, and Brian Leonard are ahead of him. And even if he doesn’t, he is a very important member of this team and he’s going to have a huge impact.

Matt Mortenson: Dynamic. We know that he can change the course of a game with his special teams play, but if this team is going to take a big step forward, it's going to be because Jerry Kill figured out some creative ways to utilize Grant in the offense.

What Are Your Initial Thoughts on the quarterback battle?

Bob Cancro: I don’t think there is one. Bolin has been to the mountain top. Admittedly he went there with a different group of sherpas, but he knows the drill. I think Bolin steps up and gets the nod to start. I think Zach Allen may get some opportunities along the way, and in the early games Gio will be in for some snaps. Lewis gets his redshirt year, which is what he and Rutgers need.

Jim Hoffman: I am very excited to see how it goes. I think it is easy to anoint Kyle Bolin as the heir apparent, but if Gio continues to grow as he has since his arrival in Piscataway, I see a real battle brewing, with the winner being the Rutgers football program.

Dave White: I bet Jonathan Lewis makes them earn it. Chris Ash is going to need his marquee recruit to make an impact and will give him every chance to at least be the back-up. However, I think it comes down to Kyle Bolin—who has the experience and knows how to win—with Gio getting the back-up job. Both will play enough minutes that some memories of Greg Schiano’s rotating QB play will come back into fans’ memories.

Aaron Breitman: Kyle Bolin didn’t come to Rutgers to sit on the bench. Gio Rescigno showed enough resolve and toughness last season to prove he isn’t going down without a fight. Johnathan Lewis brings a skill set Rutgers hasn’t had at the position since maybe Ray Lucas. The coaching staff will not care about anything other than picking the quarterback they think gives them the best chance to win and whoever they choose will have earned it.

David Brown: I think the QB battle comes down to who has the best talent. I respect Gio Rescigno's efforts last year but if Rutgers can get an upgrade in that position, then they should go with the better player. Maybe Gio Rescigno improved himself in the offseason but he has tough competition with Kyle Bolin and the new freshmen Johnathan Lewis who was an Elite 11 finalist.

Namrita Singh: It’s exciting. The fact that the team is even having a QB competition is huge. Healthy competition is always a good thing and while it might be too early to declare a winner (*coughs* Kyle Bolin *coughs*), whoever does end up with the starting job is going to have to earn it. But no matter who it is, they’ll be fun to watch next season.

Cara Sanfilippo: One thing we know about Ash is that he is not afraid to make changes if something is not working, unlike his predecessor who blindly continued to play Laviano despite his lack of consistency. Unfortunately, last season, he didn’t have many options, and in my very humble opinion, it may have forced Ash to continue to play Gio even after he was injured and no longer as mobile. So to echo, Namrita, I’m excited, and I see the battle continuing to evolve over the course of the season. None of the quarterbacks should rest on their laurels, and therefore it heightens the level of play at this position. I am excited about Bolin, but I would love to see Gio fight for this position and should use the version of himself who lit up during the Minnesota team last season. I love an underdog, so Gio I am rooting for you!

Matt Mortenson: Kyle Bolin and Jonathan Lewis have the highest ceilings at this position. I don't expect Gio to lose the job (he will be prepared, work hard, and not make many mistakes), but both Bolin and Lewis can win the job with a strong camp performance. With that said, I fully expect Bolin will emerge as the starter for Game 1.