Head coach Chris Ash addressed the media after the first practice of training camp, opening his second campaign with the program. He seemed upbeat and confident in the improvements the program has made over the off-season, as well as the players successfully adjusting to expectations and preparing better for this season. He was also realistic in his assessment of where the program is on day one of year two.
“We are way further ahead than last year. But where we need to go, we have so far to go still. In my opinion, we have improved, but we have so far to go still. As long as we keep going in the right direction, that’s what is important.”
Restoring pride on the field is the type of progress that must happen this season. You have to crawl before you can walk. More on that in a moment.
While there were obviously many questions about the quarterback battle and the stable of running backs, as well as Ash’s obvious excitement for the new practice facility, set to be dedicated this coming Sunday, there was one answer that stuck out to me.
Ash was asked what he was looking for out of the linebackers at training camp. While Ash spoke about improved depth and freshmen having the opportunity to find a spot on the two deep this season, he then focused on an area that was a major issue a year ago.
“The number one thing I want to see out of our linebackers are guys that will go play on special teams. We didn’t have that last year. I think they’ll go and play fine on defense. I want linebackers to help us play on special teams. I want to see that happen at training camp more than anything else.”
That last statement is perhaps an exaggeration, but it makes an important point. Ash knows it will be much harder for Rutgers to improve on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball this season if there isn’t drastic improvement on special teams. For a program that was known for outstanding special teams play for nearly a decade, watching what occurred with that unit last season made things so tough to swallow.
Field position was often a problem for the offense and the defense was put in stressful situations time and time again. I don’t need to belabor the details of the issues that existed, but too many times special teams put the offense or defense in a bad position. Neither were capable of overcoming that type of adversity.
If there is one reason to believe many freshmen will play right away this season, it’s the fact that the staff is looking to upgrade special teams in every way. Remember, Leonte Carroo, one of the best receivers in program history, played exclusively on special teams as a freshman. That was for a different coaching staff, but expect the same approach this season.
Roster depth was a major issue last season and the newcomers to the program can make a big impact right away on special teams. Hearing Ash talk about his approach in getting capable linebackers contribute on special teams reinforces his focus in fixing this area as soon as possible. He has envisioned and sold the freshman on having an opportunity to play right away on special teams. The staff has also done a good job in adding competition with all of their specialists with additional kickers, punters, and long snappers added to the roster. For Rutgers fans, that is an encouraging thought, both for newcomers to gain experience on the field and the fact that a talent upgrade is being infused for a unit that badly needs it.
There is no question that the front line talent, especially on offense, appears to be greatly improved from last season. However, the success of this team will be based on whether the coaching staff can establish quality depth at all positions. Special teams is where we may see that improved depth pay off first, which would be a very positive development.
Here is the video of Ash’s full press conference with the media after the first practice.