The Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team takes a break from practice with spring break this week. At OTB, we never take breaks and continue with our spring football coverage.
This series reviews the state of each positional group in spring practice that runs throughout March into April and concludes with the spring game on April 14.
We continue with the Tight Ends and Fullbacks.
Position coach(es): Vince Okruch
Key players lost: Myles Nash
Key players returning: Jerome Washington (RSr.), Max Anthony (RJr.), Nakia Griffin-Stewart (RJr.), Travis Vokolek (So.), Jim Brady (RSo.)
Newcomers: Jalen Jordan (Fr. - early enrollee)
What they did well in 2017: Catch the ball.
Choose if you prefer to believe the group did a better job blocking or receiving, as they did a solid job on both fronts. The tight ends combined for 43 catches on the year and Anthony added two of his own. Rutgers only completed 135 passes, which means the tight ends plus fullbacks were exactly one third of the team’s total. In an ideal world the tight ends will put up similar numbers, but the wide receivers will do more. (The tailbacks had 44 catches themselves, too.)
Washington led the team with 28 catches (12 more than the next closest - Grant). Defenses were surely keying on him as a primary receiver as safeties were much more concerned with him than a corner getting beat deep by one of RU’s outside receivers. These safeties and outside linebackers played in the box a lot to slow the RU running game, often too many guys to be blocked. Until Rutgers establishes some semblance of a passing game that can get chunks from its wideouts, the tight ends will need to make even more catches in traffic to help keep the offense moving.
Needs Improvement: Short yardage.
Griffin-Stewart was on the other end of Johnathan Lewis’s first passing touchdown (tweet above), but Rutgers needs this group to step up more on short yardage and in the red zone. None of them had a rushing touchdown and Washington only had one receiving along with the aforementioned one by Nakia. This number of touchdowns simply has to go up or Rutgers will again be in danger of an absolutely abysmal number of passing touchdowns (7 in 2017).
Of course if a fullback can gain yards on a quick hitting dive play, that would add another wrinkle to the offense as well. With Giovanni and Lewis being good runners, using fullback runs is less of a priority. Whether it’s play action to tight ends, fullbacks leaking into the flat, or simply overpowering edge defenders, this group needs to do more to help Rutgers move the chains on third down and near the goal line.
Changes expected in 2018
The team burned Vokolek’s redshirt, perhaps partially to protect themselves from Washington trying the NFL draft or playing as a grad transfer elsewhere. With Nash having graduated but Washington returning, Rutgers will enter the season with three experienced tight ends, a significant difference from the beginning of 2017. This experience should help the quarterbacks in the passing game and in run blocking.
At the fullback spot, Brady does not appear on the spring roster. The preferred walk-on was the back-up fullback virtually all of last season despite Brendan DeVera specifically being brought in to play H-back and Solomon Manning moving over from defense. With DeVera on defense and Manning having left the program, it may just be a numbers game. Without big time weapons on the perimeter, new offensive coordinator John McNulty will have to find ways to create matchup advantages with every available offensive skill position player. Fullbacks in the flat may be one and they will be more likely to get open if tight ends can draw attention on deep seam routes.
Even if Brady is back for fall, McNulty may experiment with some two tailback sets. Jon Hilliman and Trey Sneed certainly have enough size to do a little blocking themselves and Rutgers will do everything they can to get their best players on the field. Expect this look to become even more popular if Rutgers can’t get more production in the passing game.
Way too early predictions
With Cole and Seymour back at the tackle spots again, the tight ends may be able to get more free releases to the second level without having to chip defensive ends first without compromising blocking schemes. Washington will lead the team in receptions again, freeing up Anthony, Griffin-Stewart, or even true freshman WR/TE Jalen Jordan to make chunk plays and touchdowns. It was a smart move by Jerry Kill to bring the fullback position back into the Rutgers offense. Expect Griffin-Stewart with his size and speed to be in there as an H-back at times, exploiting a slower linebacker or even defensive end. If the wide receivers can’t make plays downfield, McNulty’s patented play-action might find it’s way into the hands of tight ends down the seam or even on flexed out corner post routes.
Previously covered groups