Prior to the season opener we got an official depth chart for Rutgers Football. Since then, Rutgers has won just one of its eight games. Every week we hear the same things, primarily these two phrases, “it’s a process” and “lack of depth at certain spots”. So this had me thinking, has the depth chart really changed much since the beginning of the season?
Rather than give out letter grades at the bye week, I took a dive into each spot to see if that position has injuries, updates, and a quick thought on how it is trending. There may not be a new official depth chart posted, so this is a best guess based on snaps in critical situations.
Position: Starter. Backup(s).
QB: Art Sitkowski. Gio Rescigno, Johnathan Lewis
Coming into the season all we heard was how much more depth there was in the quarterback room than recent years. Contributors even for this blog drank a little too much cool-aid and figured RU would surely shatter the 1,395 passing yards from the quarterbacks in 2017. With two-thirds of the season complete, Rutgers actually may not even best that mark, as RU signal callers have tallied 1,072 yards through the air, not counting Isaih Pacheco’s 39 yard pass. The last four teams on the schedule could all be ranked during the contests with RU. Sitkowski has not been as good as advertised, Rescigno is not as comfortable as he was the last two seasons, and Lewis has been moved to tight end.
The logic even if the team lost was that Sitkowski needed reps and would throw for some yards at least. I said that all I ask for in 2018 (of course I wish I could have asked for more) was if Rutgers was losing in a game, that they could move the ball and show some signs of life to at least have a chance of coming back to reduce the deficit. Or even if the outcome was decided, they could move the ball to have something to build on. That has happened against Buffalo, a bit against Indiana, and that’s about it. There seemed to be hope after the Indiana game, but right now it’s tough to feel good about the group at all.
With the new redshirt rule, I’d like to see Jalen Chatman get some snaps since he won’t lose a year of eligibility. I have had disagreements with people who say Art is McNulty’s guy and no need to muddy the waters, but I think this team needs to move the ball by any means possible because otherwise the other ten players on the field cannot even be evaluated accurately. TRENDING DOWN.
RB. Raheem Blackshear. Jon Hilliman, Isaih Pacheco, Trey Sneed
Everyone may be tired of hearing that a two, borderline-three star recruit in Raheem Blackshear (27 receptions, 399 rushing yards) is the best player on the team. That being said, everyone who watches Rutgers Football for a half or even quarter can tell that Running Back is the team’s best position group. Blackshear may not ever be a frontline Big Ten running back, but he can make plays in space, catch the ball, make a few guys miss, and throw in a sneaky stiff arm now and then. Jon Hilliman (291 yards, 5 TD), the graduate transfer from Boston College has been as good as I thought he would, though it may have snuck up on other people. He always seemed to convert on short yardage until it became so obvious to opponents to simply send everyone to the middle that RU could not block them all.
Blackshear and Hilliman have both missed time lately, but Isaih Pacheco and Trey Sneed were more than adequate filling in, even Charles Snorweah as the 5th man has five carries for 23 yards for a 4.6 average. Sneed is a redshirt sophomore who can do a bit of everything at, at least a passable level: carry the ball, pass protect, catch the ball, and play special teams. Having him as a number 3 or 4 running back and backup goal line guy is perfectly fine. Pacheco (299 yards, 2 TD, 4.8 yards per carry) finally broke a big one against Northwestern, but then promptly got was it one snap in the second half? The coaching staff is correct that his pass protection is not good and RU struggles to pass the ball as it is. You can’t blame him though as he was a quarterback in high school, so he wasn’t blocking much unless it was after he handed off to Nihym Anderson (now an RU teammate). Maybe Rutgers should use Pacheco at quarterback at least part of the time, (my dad outlined it when we talked the other day, but I know he avoids the internet at all costs so he won’t see this).
No matter how you look at it, running back has been the best position on the field in 2018; most consistent, most big plays, most star potential; most guys who can contribute. If the offense could pass the ball AT ALL, it would open up the box. McNulty has gotten a lot of criticism, but he has done more than most coaches would to try and get multiple running backs on the field at the same time. In the last four games, it’s even possible Blackshear simply becomes the slot receiver. If the offensive line could get just a little more push when the offense is on schedule, we would see a lot more yards. TRENDING UP.
WR: Bo Melton. Everett Wormley, Jalen Jordan
WR: Shameen Jones. Mo Jabbie, Zihir Lacewell, Tyler Hayek
WR: Eddie Lewis. Hunter Hayek
It didn’t take long for Eddie Lewis (22 catches) to become the team’s top check down target, second on the team in receptions. Lewis can get a step every time it seems, though his hands are inconsistent when the ball does come his way. Eddie does deserve credit that after he does make a bad play, when given the opportunity he has made up for it a few times. Unfortunately, in the Northwestern game, Rutgers never got the ball back after a key drop of his that may have resulted in a first down. Hunter Hayek has not gotten as many reps as the backup slot guy, but we know he is a passable back up in the slot despite only three catches on the year.
On the outside, Bo Melton has been a huge disappointment (21 catches, 202 yards) and somehow Shameen Jones has been even more of an underachiever (12 catches, 112 yards). Melton is tied for the team lead in yards with Jerome Washington, but even the most skeptical Rutgers fans would have been shocked that through a soft schedule over the first eight games, Bo would have zero touchdowns. Neither player outside of the Indiana game has been able to gain much separation and when they have there have been way too many drops. Inconsistent quarterback play and a lot of early season rotations made their jobs more difficult, but since then offensive coordinator John McNulty has tried to get some chemistry and confidence with Melton, Jones, Eddie Lewis, and Sitkowski with little improvement.
It’s not like the coaching staff has more bodies to turn to instead. Early in the season they tried to rotate more guys in but Jabbie and Wormley only have on catch each. Paul Woods, Zihir Lacewell, and Jalen Jordan are all true freshmen. Lacewell and Jordan have gotten a few snaps, but have not been able to register a catch and may not play again this season to preserve a redshirt opportunity. Tyler Hayek may be the beneficiary as the lone remaining tall target and perhaps will be able to get a step on the defense and use his size to haul in a non-perfectly thrown ball. By every possible approach to the question, this group is somehow worse than the previous two seasons of RU wide receiver play. TRENDING DOWN.
TE: Jerome Washington. Travis Vokolek, Daevon Robinson, and Nakia Griffin-Stewart
Washington is banged up again and probably has played less than half the offensive snaps this season, yet still is leading the team in receiving yards with 202. When he is in there, Jerome is a very good player. For all the talk about Vokolek, he has had only one good game where he made five of his nine receptions on the season. Daevon Robinson, the team’s second highest rated recruit in the 2018 class came to Rutgers because he was promised to get a shot on offense rather than just defensive end or linebacker. Robinson has shown some skills, registering nine receptions in limited action often in tight windows. Nakia Griffin-Stewart has been stuck playing a lot of fullback and is important in all the shifts the offense does, but oddly has not registered a catch this year.
If Rutgers had offensive line play like they did a season ago and Jerry Kill was still the OC, we would probably see a ton of three tight end looks since all these guys have the ability to split out wide at times. If someone other than Washington can truly emerge as a reliable target over the last four games, the season would be viewed as a step forward for this group unlike the team as a whole. TRENDING EVEN.
FB: Max Anthony, Griffin-Stewart
No fullback spot was listed on that initial depth chart, but Max Anthony was hurt in camp. Though unspectacular, Anthony is a solid blocker and versatile player. He hasn’t seen much action in passing downs and only has one catch on the year probably because removing the fullback simplifies the QB’s reads. Max should be entrenched for another season at the spot and with Griffin-Stewart as the backup, no glaring need at the spot to upgrade. TRENDING EVEN.
LT: Tariq Cole, Raiqwon O’Neal, Lonsdorf
LG: Mike Lonsdorf, Sam Vretman, Zach Venesky
C: Mike Maietti, Sam Howson
RG: Jonah Jackson, Nick Krimin
RT: Kamaal Seymour, Zach Heeman
Going into the season I had slightly higher expectations than some about the potential of this offensive line. At three of the five positions it has been a revolving door both in Rutgers personnel and often defenders coming through. Tariq Cole has been a disappointment considering he is a three-year starter and captain, but the other players who have replaced him due to injury or otherwise have been a significant drop off. Hyped freshman Raiqwon O’Neal was pressed into service for Cole in the second half of the Buffalo game. Unfortunately as Rutgers was in the process of possibly making things interesting and inside the ten yard line to make it a two score game, O’Neal was absolutely shoved backwards on one play resulting in a desperate throw away and beaten quickly resulting in a sack on 4th down that resulted in a turnover on downs. Of course freshmen lineman are rarely ready, especially to play left tackle.
Left guard seems to be a game time decision every week. Mike Lonsdorf who seems more of a natural tackle starts when he and Cole are both healthy. Sam Vretman showed promise at times, but still seems to need more time as it is just his second season. Zach Venesky finally got his first career start last week and if nothing else delivered some toughness and attitude. It’s anybody’s guess who draws the assignment the rest of the way assuming all are healthy.
You have to give Mike Maietti credit. Despite being undersized and therefore probably the lowest ceiling of the starters, he continues to be healthy and do a solid job. The team at no point has fielded questions about whether Jonah Jackson should be moved back to center from right guard. Jackson is BY FAR the team’s best run blocker and it’s no shock that most of the big runs that break are between he and Kamaal Seymour on the right side. Jackson’s back up Nick Krimin has not really done much, though another year of weight training and growing may get him over the hump. As good as Jackson has been in the run game when healthy, he and Seymour really struggle in pass protection. If the other team knows a pass is coming, the outside rusher always seems to be able to take advantage of Seymour’s lack of lateral movement drawing him far away and creating a huge hole in the pocket. Jackson is then forced to deal with stunts and blitzing linebackers without the ability simply wall them off. If you watch, Jackson and Seymour seem to be able to protect on first down because the defense wants to stay home in the event of a run, yet Sitkowski and the receivers despite the lack of pressure can’t seem to get in rhythm.
The injuries and lack of quarterback and receiver play are surely contributors to the offensive line taking a step back from 2017. The team has missed the graduated Dorian Miller who started for four years as a reliable though unspectacular interior guy. Fans were happy Marcus Applefield took his talents to Virginia for his 5th year, but it sure would be nice to have him back as he is the starting right tackle on a team that is 4-2 on the year. The big picture is that so many guys are back (only Cole and backup Zach Heeman are out of eligibility) and offensive linemen do get better and stronger every year, even if it is not as noticeable as other positions. But for 2018 ... TRENDING DOWN.
No college defense can stay on the field all game, especially one as depleted as Rutgers. Running back is the only group that has improved since 2017, though tight end and fullback have stayed steady. The blame for the entire team’s failures is hard to divide up between the quarterback, wide receivers, and offensive line. Are the quarterbacks bad because the line doesn’t protect them? Or is the line looking bad because they don’t get help from the quarterbacks? Can any receiver get open on a hot route or quick slant to get easy yards? When the protection does hold up and a good ball is thrown, why can’t the wideouts make the play? If the line could block to allow for more run yards, would that even help the passing game?
It’s a chicken and egg problem: the team can rarely stay on schedule, so they often pass on first down to try and get some momentum. This also makes defenses leave a little room on first when RU does decide to run. More often than not when RU does throw, those balls no matter how risky or safe end up on the turf so the team is forced into second and long. Then the defense fully expects run on second to try and set up a third and manageable, so McNulty is faced with another dilemma, do they pass again with a stacked box leading to a potential third and long or run right into nine defenders?
All indications are that whatever happens these final four games, Chris Ash will be back at the helm in 2019. Though I have had some serious debates with people about whether or not having the same OC for two consecutive years would be a reason to keep Ash, it would do these offensive players some good to finally be in the same system for two years in a row. It will be at least intriguing to see players in a system they have familiarity with, particularly the QBs.
Forgetting the future and focusing on the present, this passing offense may be worse than the one in Ash’s first season, 2016 when at least NFL bound Andre Patton could get open from time to time, unpredictable Jawuan Harris could get separation, and unheralded tight end Nick Arciadacono could be counted on. All this despite the 2018 run game being fairly decent overall when the 2016 edition was abysmal. When looking at what so far has been the worst Rutgers team since 2002, it’s hard to believe the passing game is more anemic than that team that had its QBs throw for a whopping 1,876 yards, albeit against Big East competition.
Dear RU offense, please give us some glimmers of hope for the future against top notch competition over the final four contests.
Here is Part 2 covering the defense and special teams. Also in our poll and chime in with your comments below.
What/who deserves the most blame for the offensive struggles?
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2018 Coaching staff
Different OCs/systems every single year.