One of the most encouraging things to come from the 65-0 blowout win for Rutgers over Morgan State on Saturday was the play of several true freshmen in the game. We had hoped coming into this contest that many of those players would have an opportunity to show what they could do and several of them came through in a big way. Let’s review which true freshmen contributed and how it bodes well for the future.
Stat line: 2 of 2 passing for 12 yards and 1 TD; 11 carries for 58 yards and 4 touchdowns
All Lewis did in his first extended action and in just the second game of his career was to tie the program’s all-time record for most rushing touchdowns in a game, tying Ray Rice, who ran for four touchdowns in the 2008 International Bowl. He also threw for the first touchdown on his first pass play of his career. While I wished Lewis was asked to throw more in this game to get him more experience, he did run with authority most of the game, as it took several Morgan State defenders to take him down on most of his carries. Head coach Chris Ash said after the game that Kyle Bolin is still the starter, but you have to imagine offensive coordinator Jerry Kill will continue to look for ways to get Lewis involved in the gameplan every week moving forward. Here is what Ash said about the performance of Lewis in the game:
“He's got a lot of work to do, but I think what you did see today is his ability to run the ball, and we did throw the ball with him today, and he's gotten better at that and needs to continue to work on that. But I'm just really proud of him because he works really hard. He studies the game really hard. He's gotten comfortable with the game plans for the first three weeks and was able to go in and execute the calls that we've had for him today.”
“I'm happy for him. He's been patient and been persistent in his preparation. He did a good job, when the opportunity presented itself, to go out and play more snaps than he has so far this year.”
Starting QB Kyle Bolin also spoke about how he encouraged Lewis to show what he could do in this game:
"We've been pushing to get him on the field the past few weeks. This game was a great opportunity for him to come in. I told him on the sidelines 'man, it couldn't be easier'. He came in and scored touchdowns on four plays, so that was good."
While it was obvious Lewis is still learning on the job and he made some mistakes in the game, his potential was on full display and the future is very bright for him in a Rutgers uniform.
Stat line: 14 carries for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns; 2 catches for 30 yards
As impressive as Lewis was, Blackshear made sure he wasn’t the only true freshmen to have a big day with the stat sheet. After debuting in the opener against Washington with 3 carries for 9 yards, Blackshear busted out with some exciting runs and he showcased his trademark speed. His 33 yard touchdown late in the game showed his ability to spring free from a defender after making a cut and he sprinted down the sideline for the score. He also showed he is a threat in the receiving game as well. With the news that Trey Sneed is redshirting and with Josh Hicks fumbling in the game, Blackshear is now the clear cut #3 back and hopefully Kill will look to get him more involved in the offense moving forward. Ash seemed to back up that thought in praising his performance after the game:
“I was really excited about Blackshear going out there and running the way he ran. He's not a very big guy, but he ran hard. He's physical. He's obviously got great feet. He's got good speed, where he's got a chance to make some plays in the open field and take it down the field. But we want to use him to help us. I think we've got some good backs in front of him, but we will use him as he continues to grow and mature and improve in certain situations.”
Fellow backfield mate Robert Martin spoke about Blackshear’s performance after the game as well:
"I was real happy for him. I know he was really anxious to get out there. My high school played his high school in the state championship, so he's used to winning. When he got in there, I told him just to be patient and let it come to him. That's what he did and I'm really excited for him.”
After the game, I tweeted that the future of Rutgers football with both Lewis and Blackshear on offense is something to truly look forward to.
The most exciting thing Rutgers fans should take away from this game is the potential of Raheem Blackshear & Johnathan Lewis FT next season— On the Banks (@OTB_SBNation) September 16, 2017
The former 4-star receiver had failed to make a reception in the first two games of the season, but he made a big splash with his first catch of his career on Saturday, which was a diving 48 yard grab on a pass from Kyle Bolin. There was hope before the season that Melton could develop into a deep threat in the passing game and it was great to see him show his athleticism in making the catch that he did yesterday. He is another true freshman with a ton of potential that you hope to see get more involved in the offense moving forward. Ash made that point clear in talking about his catch after the game:
“Bo Melton had a really nice reception on a deep ball today. We need to get him continuing to improve and get going and hopefully add value like that to our offense too because that's what's been missing in the first couple of games.”
Another former 4-star recruit played well yesterday, as Fogg saw a lot of action in the second half, filling up the stat sheet with 5 tackles and making the first interception of his career. The true freshman linebacker has been on the two deep all season and has played in spots, but it was good to see him produce on the field in the first extended action of the season. He should certainly be challenging for more playing time the rest of the way.
The 5’9” receiver from Wayne made the two deep out of training camp and had 2 catches for 2 yards last week against Eastern Michigan. On Saturday, Hayek proved his value on special teams, showing his speed by blocking a punt. Rutgers sent the house on the play but Hayek got there first. He also returned two punts for a total of 14 yards. Hayek is an intriguing and crafty player to have on the roster and should be fun to watch throughout his career.
The linebacker made a tackle in both games prior to Saturday, both on special teams, and doubled his total with two more yesterday. He hasn’t played a ton, but he is getting solid experience early on in his career and could see more time on defense as the season goes on. He certainly is a player who has a chance to start at linebacker down the road and is very athletic.
As he is just handling kickoffs so far this season, it’s easy to forget about Davidovicz. However, he has consistently showed off his big leg in non-conference play and six of his eleven kickoffs went for touchbacks in the win over Morgan State. Rutgers struggled last season on special teams with kickoffs, something that put pressure on the defense with Big Ten offenses consistently starting with good field position. With the improvement of the special teams coverage unit so far this season and the ability of Davidovicz to kick the ball into the end zone, this is an underrated, but important development for this team heading into Big Ten play.
As painful as last week’s loss was to Eastern Michigan, this game highlighted the fact the the freshman class has a lot of talent and that it bodes well for the future of Rutgers football. All of the players mentioned for their performances on Saturday will have an opportunity to be a factor the rest of this season. There are others as well, like receiver Everett Wormley, offensive tackle Micah Clarke, and Edwin “Tank” Lopez, who have a ton of potential. While Ash has been fairly criticized for the team’s disappointing loss last week, this game reinforced what a great job the staff did in hauling in a 2017 recruiting class that is clearly the future of the program. If they can sign the 2018 class already assembled, it will be another big step forward in greatly improving the talent level on the roster. As for this year’s freshman class, quarterback Johnathan Lewis summed it up best:
"As a group, we've been practicing every week together and together we improve every week and it showed that we have a bright future."
As yesterday’s game proved, the future might just be now for many of the true freshmen on this roster. Rutgers opens Big Ten play next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Nebraska, with the game being shown on BTN.