Rutgers football head coach Chris Ash met with the media to talk about the upcoming season opener against #7 Washington this Friday night. Most coaches are positive this time of year, but after last season’s 2-10 debut, it has seemed throughout training camp that Ash feels much better about his team heading into his second campaign. Here are some highlights of what he had to say and some key takeaways from them.
In Ash’s opening statement to the media, his optimism and excitement level for this team was apparent.
“Just looking at our team coming from training camp, we've met several times, talked several times. It's been a very productive training camp. I've said this before, this is a different football team than what we had last year in a lot of regards. We have different players, we have different coaches with different players. We have certain faces on offense and defense and special teams where you look on the film from early in last season, we will have completely 11 new different players out there than what would have played in this game a year ago.”
“So excited to watch these guys go out and play. We have transfers, we have freshmen that haven't been around on game day; so excited to see how they go out and handle that moment and that spotlight, so to speak, Friday night, with being on national television. It's a lot of unknowns, also. There's excitement, there's unknowns that we have to see how they handle when we get to game day.”
While on NBC with Bruce Beck last week, Ash was asked what his message was to fans entering this season. His response was “don’t sleep on us.” It’s certainly encouraging to hear the typically conservative Ash speak in a positive way about this team. He has plenty of experience and it’s obvious he feels much better about this team compared to last season.
The kicking game is one area that has still not been decided, in terms of who will be the primary starter taking field goal and extra point attempts. Ash made it clear it’s down to Minnesota transfer Andrew Harte and David Bonagura, who was the starter last season, with a decision on who will be the guy coming after Monday’s practice.
“Yes. Justin Davidovicz has won our kickoff position. He will be our kickoff guy. But right now, it's Harte and Bonagura that are battling for the placekicking duties. Bonagura was here last year. Harte was not. He's a newcomer to the mix. Again I like both of them. Just we're looking for the guy that will be the most consistent and neither one of them has necessarily been consistent every single day of training camp. They have done well and they have shown some really good -- they have done some really good things. They have made some really big kicks in critical moments and scrimmages in practice, but it's who is going to be the most consistent. It's almost dead even right now.”
On opening up against a ranked team in #7 Washington, Ash admitted it was a measuring stick for where this team is at the moment.
“You talk about the long off-season, the long summer workouts, the long training camp, what's a motivating factor for the players to play. Open up against a team like Washington is very motivating especially when you play them last year and the results weren't necessarily what they wanted. They went on and had a great year and we didn't. That's motivation for our whole program, coaches and players alike, to be able to go back out, line up against a team like Washington again and measure yourself. Washington, you know, they are not going to determine the success or failures of our overall season, but to go out there in game one and play them again and measure your football team, the improvement, hopefully that you see, that's a motivating factor for everybody.”
On the backup quarterback position, Ash said the competition between Gio Rescigno and Johnathan Lewis continues. I wrote last week that it was always the real battle, as Kyle Bolin seemed to be the clear starter for some time. However, Ash made a telling statement about he and the staff feel about Johnathan Lewis.
“It's still ongoing and probably will be for the majority of at least the start of the season. Anticipate that there's an opportunity for Johnathan and Gio both to play in a game based on the situation. It is a nice luxury to have a backup quarterback that started so many games like Gio has and been in games and done well. Specifically, the Minnesota game last year. So that's a comfort. But we do want to get Johnathan Lewis into games. How much the first game will have to be determined. It won't be a surprise if at some point all three of those guys, not necessarily in one game, but could play throughout the first half of the season, until we really get comfortable with what we're doing.”
If there were any questions remaining on whether Lewis will redshirt, Ash was pretty clear in saying he would not. The staff obviously believe in Lewis as the future starter and getting him experience this season makes perfect sense ahead of next year. And that doesn’t mean Lewis can’t actually help this team this season, either. Ash praised his talent and potential.
“The kid is a talented kid. If you're going to play another quarterback, there's got to be a reason. He's a different skill-set than the other two quarterbacks. We do think he's going to have a chance to be a quarterback for us and we think his skill-set brings a different element to our offense, and if we can take advantage of that and use that, we'll do that. If we don't think it's the right time, we don't. We're not going to force it just to say we're going to but there are opportunities and situations where Johnathan Lewis could help our football team. It might be the first one, might be third or fourth -- depend on quarterback and how they handle game week lineally and being on national television, playing against a really good opponent. We don't know that about Johnathan Lewis yet and we have to go through the week and see how he's doing, before we say, he's going to go in this game or that game.”
Ash spoke on the health of Kemoko Turay, who hasn’t been a full participant in practice as of late. He was asked if he was confident that Turay will play Friday against Washington.
“I am. It's not 100 percent yet but all indications that he will be. He's not been completely cleared yet so still a slim chance he might not be. He's worked a lot in training camp but just limited here lately. He's feeling pretty good here right now. Just we'll find out tomorrow.”
One area that Ash and many of the coaches have been asked about during training camp is the need for Rutgers to improve on turnover margin this season. Ash confirmed it’s been an area of focus.
“It's been an emphasis the whole offseason. We talked about Rutgers can't beat Rutgers. We talk about the things you have to do to win games. We talk to the players about how games are lost and how games are won, and a lot of it has to do with the turnover margin. More games are lost because you turn the ball over. We did that too much last year. We did that too much in this game against Washington last year. You look at the final score and you try to figure out why. Well, there's several reasons. One we didn't take care of the football. Two, the kicking game, we gave up explosive plays in the kicking game and some touchdowns. Those two areas right there have a been major emphasis for us since last season. They were an emphasis for us during the season.”
“We've done some different things within the program and our structure of practice and preparation to improve on our ball security, improve on our ability to take the ball away and improve on our kicking game. We're not just going to continue to do the same old thing. We did a lot of research and put a lot of time and effort to try to fix that because that's not a talent thing. We as a staff and as a program are doing more right now on winning the takeaway battle than anywhere I've been in my career, anywhere. It's been a major, major emphasis. Now, will it work? We'll find out when the games start. But I can tell you we have invested the same amount of time on holding on to the ball and take the ball away than anywhere I've been.”
Four days, my friends. The season kicks off under the lights of High Point Solutions Stadium on Friday night at 8 p.m. At the time of this writing, Rutgers is currently a 30.5 point underdog against #7 Washington. As Ash said, this game won’t define the season, but hopefully the Scarlet Knights can surprise the oddsmakers and doubters by proving they are a much improved team.
It’s been a busy few weeks and get caught up on all of our preseason coverage and positional previews here. Our staff round table with how our contributors think Rutgers will do this season is here. We will have plenty of coverage throughout the week and the season. For now, let’s enjoy the first game week of the 2017 season!