Rutgers football completed their fourth Spring Football practice on Thursday and Chris Ash fielded questions from the media. As usual, Coach Ash was very tactful yet straightforward. With roughly six months to go before the opening kickoff of the first game, so much can change. Nothing that happens or is said should be taken TOO seriously. However, it’s our job to relay facts and offer our best attempt at reading between the lines. Here’s the five biggest takeaways from listening to the press conference.
“We’ve made more explosive plays this spring that we have in the past two years”
As is the case seemingly year in and year out, the number one priority is finding a new quarterback that fits yet another new system. Chris Ash said on the quarterback depth chart: “We’ll look at it after we scrimmage on Saturday”. Couple that with the team’s other biggest need in consistent play from the wide receiver group and Ash made a point to mention that more explosive plays were being made in practice. He also did mention “a guy like Bo Melton whose got speed and been able to get behind the defense.”
Dave’s take: It’s good the staff is taking time to evaluate the quarterbacks and not just anoint the biggest, strongest, fastest guy right away. And yes, I know it’s practice, not a game (thank you Allen Iverson) but Rutgers faithful need any positive news they can get about what was in 2017, a completely inept passing attack. Previously hearing about how the 2017 group was quicker than the 2016 unit clearly did not translate into big plays. If they aren’t making big plays in practice, it won’t suddenly happen on game day against superior Big Ten squads. Combine this with the fact that chemistry is just beginning to be developed with many of these guys and there’s a non-zero chance we see it this fall. Hearing how quarterbacks (plural) “have done a nice job throwing the deep ball” is definitely a good thing.
“The biggest concern on the offensive line is from left tackle to right tackle.”
“All five of them.” Offensive line unit improvement was strongly mentioned by Coach Ash when he was asked specifically about guard play being the most pressing. He mentioned “communication” as an area that needed to be better.
Dave’s take: Tariq Cole has been solid in his career, while the team returns experience at center (Mike Maietti/Jonah Jackson) and at right tackle in Kamaal Seymour. That said, offensive line jelling sooner than later is hugely important to have a functional offense overall. In the scrimmage this weekend (open to fans and students in particular) it will be interesting to see how many guys rotate on the offensive line and at what positions. As much as pundits may be penciling in certain guys already, it’s not like Rutgers was exactly the 1991 Washington Hogs: there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Defensive line “depth is the big concern.”
Ash was responding to a question about where his biggest concern was about the defensive line. “The frontline guys have all played, they have all played good football.” He didn’t talk long on this topic as there were no follow ups on the topic.
Dave’s take: This does not seem to be out of the book of motivation. Any coaching staff will want nine or ten guys who can rotate on the defensive front. Rutgers had that in 2017, but lost four players to graduation so they will need to replenish. That being said, when you combine the confidence in the top defensive linemen and how good Ash feels about the linebacking corps, (“a very solid position”) does that mean the team will again have no outside pass rush? With no key returnees being true edge rushers, it may be another year without too many sacks from the RU front.
“Bless is doing great.” “He’ll be fully cleared by the time we start summer workouts.”
Multi-year starter Blessuan Austin has “really done an outstanding job this offseason of developing his body, doing what he could do with that ACL injury.” Ash also had positive things to say about a transfer: “I really like Tre. He’s going to be a nice addition to that group of corners.” Since high school, “he’s put on a lot of weight, but he’s fast. He’s a good player.”
Dave’s take: This is encouraging for a fan base that is still in disbelief that a team with only two quality, healthy cornerbacks squeaked out three Big Ten wins. With Austin, Isaiah Wharton, and Damon Hayes all having been average at worst cornerbacks in careers where they were pressed into duty as freshmen plus Avery, the team should be in good shape at the position even if none of the redshirt or true freshman are ready in 2018.
“It’s not fair to compare another running back to Gus.”
The question from the media was specifically if Rutgers could catch lightning in a bottle for the second consecutive year with a grad transfer running back. Chris Ash explained that Gus Edwards was a very good player and he wishes they had him more years for the fans to truly appreciate his ability. Ash did not knock incoming Boston College graduate transfer Jon Hilliman, but was merely mentioning how dedicated to football Jon is and that he “is going to be a very good running back for us. Time will tell.” “He’s a serious individual that works very hard.”
Dave’s take: There seems to be no reason to gush over Jon Hilliman right now. So the only way Ash would have said anything other than what he said is if he thought he could incentivize Hilliman to do more through the media. Otherwise, what would be the point? Plus, why not give props to a guy in Edwards who was a good soldier and hopefully gets a look by NFL teams? Even if Hilliman was setting the world on fire, would that do anything to make a tangible impact on fan support or class of 2019 recruits who will see the truth on the field in six months? No. So the only real takeaway here is that Hilliman is not someone who needs to be called out publicly by his head coach to get more serious about the game. He still appears to be in line to split the load with Raheem Blackshear. Hilliman shows vision on tape that no running back at RU since Paul James really had in terms of taking angles to the edge, so I’m optimistic.
NOTE: Jerome Washington is out for the entire spring after postseason shoulder surgery.
Also a nice mic’d up with Jay Niemann.