Rutgers football held their annual media day today and head coach Chris Ash covered a variety of topics about this year’s team. While there are plenty of things that need to happen for Rutgers to improve on the field this season, I was more interested in Ash’s comments on the big picture and where he feels the program is headed under his leadership. Ash has proven early on to be a straight shooter and pretty honest in his assessment of things over the past year and half that he has been head coach. He projected a sense of confidence and belief that the team is in a far better position than it was this time last year. There are tangible reasons to be expect this team to be improved.
There is a lot of work still to be done and plenty of details to perfect, but it’s exciting that the rebuild is past the early stages now. This season will prove whether or not all of the changes that have occurred are moving the team forward on the field. Here are five big picture takeaways from what Ash had to say about this team less than three weeks from the opener against #7 Washington.
Ash’s Culture Is In Place
One aspect that is hard to quantify in the first season of a head coach taking over a program is the amount of time and effort it takes to implement their new system, communicate expectations, and changing the culture in a positive way. While Ash inherited a roster lacking depth and playmakers, he also inherited a program that desperately needed renewed focus and direction. As the players are now in year two of Ash as head coach, it seems like the program has taken a big step forward, in terms of the new culture in place. Ash spoke very highly of the players and the work they’ve put in. For a coach that is very straightforward in discussing his team, it was nice to hear him open up a bit about how positively he feels about the players in the program.
“I really like our football team right now. We talk a lot about these players are like our sons and we treat them like our sons; and we all love our sons, but sometimes you don't necessarily like being around your son. We really like being around these guys. They have a great attitude. They are committed, they are invested; and we not only love them but we really like being around them every single day that we get that opportunity here in training camp. And when you can say that about your team, it's a good spot to be in.”
“The attitude and effort is there. The want-to, the care factor is there from our players, and like I mentioned before, I really like that. We are better fundamentally right now than what we were a year ago. The guys know how to practice. They come out with the same attitude and effort every single day. We don't have to coach that. So we are able to focus on just trying to make these guys better football players here at this training camp instead of trying to build toughness and the right type of attitude that we wanted.”
“Our focus in this training camp wasn't about building toughness. It's about trying to make these guys better; the best football players that they can be. It's a long training camp; it's five weeks, and we need to make sure we come out of it with our players mentally and physically fresh, with a team that is healthy and still getting enough reps so that they know what they are supposed to do on all three phases of the game and in critical situations. I like the work that we have been able to do so far.”
The bottom line is the coaches can focus on working to improve the players and developing them on the field, because the culture in place has everyone in the right mind set. The players are focused and pulling in one direction. The psychology of focusing on competition in all phases of their lives, as Ash has done, has helped to eliminate any issues and focus on the task at hand. The team has a long way to go in improving their performance on the field this season, but this was a necessary step forward to allow that to happen. This is a positive sign.
Team Benefitting From Strength & Conditioning Program
Aside from the culture, the players have shown obvious gains in working under Kenny Parker for another offseason. The players have looked noticeably bigger and stronger during training camp. Another way to measure improvements in this area is how well the team has stayed healthy during the first two weeks of camp.
“From an injury standpoint through the first 11 practices, we have our typical training camp bumps and bruises and things that happen when you play football. But for the most part, we've been relatively healthy other than some of the preexisting injuries we had before we started with certain individuals. But we've been really healthy from that standpoint.”
Other than Tyreek Maddox-Williams tearing his ACL, there have been no other major injuries. There hasn’t been a lot of missed time from players tweaking something as they adjust to the rigorous pace of training camp. It shows that the roster was well conditioned and prepared to compete after working hard this past spring and summer. Of course, injuries are part of the game, but Rutgers is in great shape midway through training camp. This is also a major step forward and ensures that players get the most development time as possible, which should lead to progress on the field this season.
Offense Will Be More Dynamic
While it wouldn’t be too hard to top the predictable and unproductive offense from last season, which was one of the worst, if not worst, in all of college football, there are actual reasons to be hopeful this year. With Jerry Kill running the offense and several new playmakers in the mix, both grad transfers and freshmen, the offense, at a minimum, should be far more interesting and entertaining.
“We're going to be a lot more multiple on offense, and I think what we're going to do is with our offense, is do what we need to do to win games. There's going to be times that we can speed it up and there's going be to times that we have to slow it down, and we're not just going to be a team that goes fast and we're not just going to be a team that goes slow. We're going to do what we need to do to have success. And that's not just offensive success. That's defensive success, also, because the best defense is the best offense and vice versa. “
“We're more multiple, so we can use different personal groupings. We can use our best players. We have contingency plans if injuries occur at certain positions and we don't have guys anymore.”
“Again, do what we need to do to manage the game and the clock so we can play really good defense, because that's our No. 1 plan to win. We've got to hold on to the football and keep the offense on the field; and if that means slow it down, then that's what we have to do.”
“But Jerry looks at that, and that's why he was such an important hire. Because he looks at it from a head coach's standpoint: Hey, what do we need to do to have success. It's not about my stats; it's not about, you know, points -- we need to have points or score points. We want to have great offensive stats, but at the end of the day, what do we need to do to give ourselves a chance to have success, and. That's the way he looks at it and that's what I wanted in that position.”
The ability to showcase multiple looks, in order to best utilize his playmakers, as well as the fact that there are many more weapons on the offensive side of the ball this season, give real hope that Rutgers can be much improved this season.
The Freshmen Class Is The Future & Future Is Now
We knew the freshmen would have a chance to make an impact right away this season and Ash backed up that sentiment in his presser. When asked which have impressed him so far, he had this to say:
“There's been a lot of them. I'll just talk about the offensive guys to start because that's where we've had the greatest need for young players to come in and contribute right away. “
“Raheem Blackshear at running back has really stood out. He's going to be a guy that's going play for us. Bo Melton has stood out. Really all those wide receivers that we signed last year have stood out: Bo Melton, the Hayek brothers have both stood out, Shameen Jones, Everett Wormley. All those guys, really, are going to have a chance to compete for playing time on offense and on special teams here this fall.”
“We're still not in position to determine what freshmen exactly are going to help us. We still have some time to sort through that, but those are the ones that are really standing out.”
“Travis Vokolek at tight end is going to be an outstanding tight end. He's got great length. He can run. Just got to get bigger and stronger, but really like his football IQ and just the way he works every single day.”
“Micah Clark had missed a little bit of time early in training camp but the last few days he's been back out there and showing the promise that we expected him to show at an early age, and he'll be a guy that definitely we hope to be in the two-deep here by the time we're done with training camp.”
“There's some others offensively, too, but those are the ones that really are standing out defensively. Some of the linebackers -- we call him 03, I don't even attempt to say his name (Olakunle Fatukasi), 03, the linebacker, he's a guy that's starting to do some good things for us in defense. He's getting some reps in the two-deep. He'll be a special teams guy. But a lot of the offensive guys, because they are getting more reps out of need more so than the guys on defense.”
I wrote this morning that having a lot of freshmen will bring growing pains, but it’s also exciting. After seeing how badly the roster needed a talent infusion after last season, relief is finally here. Watching the freshmen get their feet wet and gain experience for the future is something to be positive about. And there is real talent in this group. The biggest concern I have about this season is establishing reliable depth in the two deep, something that was a major issue a year ago. The quicker that some freshmen can step up and contribute, the better this team will be.
Ash Is Realistic Of Fan Expectations
A reporter asked Ash about attendance expectations and how much of a difference the home crowd can make. He gave a realistic and candid response:
“When you win, they all come. That's what it is. We over -- at times, over-complicate attendance. We want fans at our games. We want people there to create a tremendous environment, but I also know a lot of that is determined by the product you have on the field. If I was a college football fan, too, I probably wouldn't be paying money to go to a game that it wasn't going to be very competitive. That's just calling it as it is, you know.”
“We hope to be more competitive. We hope to be winning more games this year. We hope the fans will want to come out and watch us play and watch some of the exciting football we play here in the stadium.”
“You know, like I mentioned, we're a lot better football team right now today than we were last year at this point, and hopefully that translates into more enthusiasm and excitement once we start games and people get to see that.”
While fan expectations should be realistic regarding the 2017 season, there is no doubt there are many reasons to be optimistic about this team being much improved in year two with Ash as head coach. How much that translates into improving their final record remains to be seen. However, even just winning two more games this season would mark tangible progress. Who knows, depending on how fast certain players develop, more success is possible. Patience is key.
The biggest takeaway right now for fans should be that Ash is in control and seems to have settled into the role of head coach. He has shown a willingness to learn from his mistakes, is not threatened by adding more experienced coaches to his staff, and has been very resourceful in adding talent to the roster. How it all comes together will be the true measure of his second year in charge. With the season opener less than three weeks away, the first opportunity to showcase how far the program has improved is almost here!