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Rutgers Spring Football: Fans got what they were looking for

Staff opens things up in the passing game producing Sitkowski to Melton highlights.

NCAA Football: Morgan State at Rutgers
Images like this may be more frequent for Melton in 2018.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers Football spring game recap was covered here, but let’s check back in with specifically what we were watching for.

Who is getting reps at corner?

Note, the camera angles were not as high up as they normally are in a game so simply being able to tell player from player was at times challenging especially in the defensive backfield where on certain plays there was no way to tell which number was on a particular jersey if they were even in the frame! This is partially since it was likely not a full camera crew, but also appreciated by the Rutgers coaching staff as the BTN replay will be more difficult for opponents to study. Throw in some new faces and even the most knowledgable observers needed to check the team roster to match new names and numbers.

First note is that Bless Austin did not play in the game, so Damon Hayes and Isaiah Wharton were in the outside cornerback positions in the base. Tre Avery (sat out due to NCAA transfer rules in 2017) got reps in the slot and at times outside with Hayes back inside. Coach Chris Ash had positive things to say about Avery during spring practice and he wasn’t wrong. Avery looked strong and compact, roamed the field smoothly, and showed quickness/agility. I don’t recall seeing Hayes much at safety with the first group, K.J. Gray and Saquan Hampton manned their usual spots. Gray continues to show more agility and playmaking with each game he participates in, impressing with a tough angle INT near the goal line. Hayes was in there as a safety with the second team to open the second half as it seems evident the coaching staff wants more experience at safety even at the expense of having to use more raw corners. Malik Dixon may have played but I need to re-watch.

With the second team, Naijee Jones looked to get a lot of action with a mix of really good while also getting burned deep a few times. He saw some plays with the starters as well. Tim Barrow (wearing #33) I thought was Olakunle Fatukasi early on because he looked to be about the same size and “Fat” had switched to that number midway through 2017. Early enrollee Kessawn Abraham was in street clothes and will need to switch his jersey as Elorm Lumor is also #7. I don’t remember seeing Tank Lopez at corner or safety as walk-on Rani Abdulaziz (#32) was in the two-deep, even getting a look with the starters. I don’t remember seeing Larry Stevens or Kobe Marfo either. Walk-on Jelani Garvin got a ton of reps with the second and third groups, rudely greeted downfield by Bo Melton and Mo Jabbie.

Which quarterback / wide receiver combos have chemistry?

As I mentioned before, Rutgers simply needs to have one human being be able to throw the ball to another human being. By controlling the situations, the coaching staff elected to open things up in the passing game which worked out well. This is what you want to see to galvanize a fan base and give hope to the program overall that there is upside even at the expense of a few turnovers.

Artur Sitkowski made a few mistakes, but flashed an ability to make big plays. “Art” connected with Bo Melton on multiple touchdowns, including bombs into solid coverage that haven’t been observed in Scarlet uniforms since Gary Nova’s final year. Hitting a dime 50 yards downfield at one point with tight coverage is the element Rutgers’s offense has not had since their first year in the Big Ten. If defenses have to at least be aware of that it will open things up on shorter intermediate routes. Naturally, Mo Jabbie improved his chemistry with Art as the game went on and was open on those middle intermediate routes for a few different QBs. The turnovers weren’t ideal, but the bigger thing to me was that Art’s stats were padded by Melton winning a few 50/50 balls against backups that Michigan State or Wisconsin DBs would have knocked down or intercepted. That said his throws ranged from perfect to 50/50 at worst which is still pretty good. In a scrimmage, practice, try-out, or even spring game it’s about upside and Sitkowski has it.

Returning starting quarterback Giovanni Rescigno was calm and with a better team around him, should be even better in 2018 than previous campaigns. He didn’t look like he missed many open receivers, but despite the wide open play McNulty allowed, Gio played his usual risk averse brand of football. On one hand I would have liked to see him take a few more shots, but that’s not his game so it’s understandable. Of all the QBs, Gio faced the most pressure from the starting defense which was probably on purpose. He seemed to be on the same page as almost all his receivers when he could get through a read or two. One in particular was fullback Max Anthony. Anthony was discussed by Ash on a recent press conference and lined up all over the field. There was one play specifically when Max tricked a blitzing Elorm Lumor and leaked out into the flat for a hot route first down.

Johnathan Lewis did not perform quite as well as Sitkowski or Gio, but showed the same flash he did as a true freshman in limited action. Lewis is simply huge and it would have been enlightening to see the starting defense try and tackle him. The second stringers who he faced most of the day probably would have been trucked. Lewis is practically the size of the team’s offensive linemen and displayed nice pocket presence a few times when his first options were not open. He threw a nice pass on his first series that was dropped in the end zone by Nakia Griffin-Stewart, another that hit Eddie Lewis (seemingly always open) in the hands at the goal line, plus a 50 yard catchable bomb that Melton could not come up with, and last but not least a laser that saw Everett Wormley loose his footing. If any of those were caught, his stats would have looked a lot better. That being said, Lewis did not throw accurately on the run, his game is more to evade pressure by stepping up or to the side rather than Russell Wilson type rollouts which is why the staff did not feel comfortable with him playing more last year. JLew is progressing at the normal rate for a guy who hasn’t even been on campus for a full calendar year yet.

Griffin-Stewart and Travis Vokolek seemed to have pretty good rapport with several different quarterbacks. Nakia seems to have more physical upside as he seems to be at least a little bit open on every play, so with an accurate throw and catch could pile up stats like he did leading the team in receptions for the second consecutive spring game. Griffin-Stewart’s hands are not as good as Vokolek’s though, so it was obvious why several quarterbacks went in Travis’s direction on third down. Throw in a healthy Jerome Washington and it should be a solid position even if Jalen Jordan redshirts. Jordan didn’t do much.

Tom Flacco, I’ll get to him in a few moments. Jalen Chatman and Rob Nittolo weren’t bad and would surely have been pushing for the starting job in Spring 2017 had they been on campus. Chatman was Chas Dodd-esque as he struggled on shorter timing throws and check downs, but no one’s confidence in his abilities should waver after a poor statistical performance. Jalen had the best timing with Everett Wormley because more than any other quarterback, Chatman seems to understand proper angles and the amount of air to put under the ball for his receivers deep down the sideline.

Who is disruptive on the defensive line?

As Ash indicated, there was plenty of starters versus starters. Jon Bateky and Kevin Wilkins did a good job of “sitting down” meaning they weren’t over pursuing the backfield. This is more difficult to do than just running after the ball Waterboy Style because it requires holding your ground as offensive linemen will push you hard throughout. Julius Turner was not as effective with more snaps than he was in a part time role. Elorm Lumor was not impressive man on man, though scheme allowed him to get free a few times.

With the second group, Brandon Bordner showed why he was looked at a big time sleeper last year. Bordner looked tired in the 2017 spring game and ultimately redshirted. This time around, he looked like he’s at an effective playing weight. He wasn’t awesome by any means, but looks like a guy who can be perhaps this season’s Wil Previlon, a rotational player at minimum. Previlon didn’t show significantly more than he did a year ago. Mike Tverdov looked a tad overwhelmed but remember he was injured in the fall, he could make great strides before Game 1. Mike seemed to get better as the game went on and clearly was better against third string offensive linemen.

I don’t see Terrence Harris on the current roster. Jason Griggs was not as impressive as last year (probably because the O-Line is better). I don’t remember much of Jaohne Duggan which means at least he wasn’t wrecked at the point of attack. Tijaun Mason still hasn’t had it click yet and unfortunately is not the elite level talent Turay was even as a redshirt freshman. Mason has the body to get better so he could make strides, especially by the end of the year. This is why Manny Taylor had to move over from offensive line and he looked decent in his first action.

Can the offensive line get a push?

The starters primarily featured an alignment of Tariq Cole at left tackle, Mike Lonsdorf at left guard, Jonah Jackson at center, Nick Krimin at right guard, and Zach Heeman at right tackle. The first quarter featured red zone situations and the offensive line couldn’t push back the defensive front at all really. It would have been interesting to see how it would have went down if the defense was gassed at that point. Turner played the interior linemen to a stalemate several times, so it was relatively even between he, Jonah Jackson and Nick Krimin. Heeman seems to be solid enough to play as a backup if there is an injury but surely won’t unseat Kamaal Seymour when he returns from injury. I’m not sold on Lonsdorf at left guard though he deserves more time having just shifted from tackle.

Sam Vretman and Micah Clark did not play. With the second group, it looked like a lot of Zach Miseo at left tackle, Zach Venesky at left guard, Mike Maietti at center, Jim Onulak at right guard, and Raiqwon O’Neal at right tackle. O’Neal despite the fact that he like others on this list should still be in high school, Raiqwon was eating up defensive linemen trying to bullrush him. On one play I remember Wil Previlon who was an effective rotational defensive lineman last year simply stonewalled by O’Neal. Venesky looks pretty good and I’m surprised he was passed by Lonsdorf on the depth chart.

The third group featured Miseo pulling double duty, Jamal Beaty at left guard, Sam Howson at center, Owen Bowles at the other guard, and Charles Zarzecki at right tackle. Zarzecki is a walk-on project but man is he massive which is saying a lot considering the other players on this line are also big for their positions (especially Beaty and Howson). The cohesion wasn’t great with them, but one of these dudes will develop into a starter one day.

Who stands out? Is it Tyshon Fogg?

Fogg looked ok, but it was hard to tell if he should have been involved in more plays. The way the starting defense was playing vanilla and the offense couldn’t push back the line, it seemed like ballcarriers simply didn’t get to him. Tyreek Maddox-Williams seemed to be in the backfield constantly along with Wilkins which meant Fogg was left to clean up any backside plays. Overall the linebackers were clearly the deepest group on the team as in third team v third team action it seemed like it was a head to head battle between whoever was at running back and which ever linebacker he ran in the direction of. Rashawn Battle wasn’t good against starters, but he was fine against backups. It seems like Battle lost weight rather than gained it. Brendan DeVera looked ok and is definitely a man out there despite being a freshman, but didn’t wow. I’m not sure if Syhiem Simmons played but C.J. Onyechi was his usual self, being near the ball despite often as an undersized defensive end.

At running back, I came away most impressed by Jon Hilliman. Physically he looked a little better than I thought he might due to the injuries, but it was the vision that stood out. He definitely has the best vision of any running back since Paul James, particularly the ability to patiently set up blocks. Of course Jon is not the physical specimen of a Gus Edwards. Blackshear’s biggest moment was helping Mordecai Carthy get to the end zone on the game’s final play. Classmate Elijah Barnwell didn’t play. Charles Snorweah showed the burst we know he has and also looked more comfortable receiving than the other backs. Trey Sneed played ok and should develop into a receiving option also. Early enrollee Isaih Pacheco is not polished, but he definitely looks like a Power 5 talent physically. By his sophomore year he’ll probably be the best back on the team.

In the passing game the coaching staffs spring assessment highlighting the improvement of Melton, Shameen Jones, Eddie Lewis, and Vokolek was right on the money. Prince Taylor did not look as good as he did last spring, nor was he talked about as much. Cole Murphy was in there even with the starters at one point, but did do much of note other than serving as the team’s second holder on PATs. Hunter Hayek was with the starters but just didn’t look nearly as effective as the other receivers (he was victimized by a penalty nullifying a catch he made). His twin brother Tyler Hayek is pretty big for a receiver and when he understands things a little better should be the next Andrew Turzilli. Tyler, like Turzilli is simply a deer out there needing some more seasoning.

Adam Korsak, the early enrollee freshman “punter from down under” looked impressive in his first “game.” His kicks were pretty deep and seemed like they hung up forever as coverage closed in on return men who were only allowed to fair catch. The unconventional rotation on the ball seemed to be a factor for the return men as well and could be a weapon in the fall. Korsak shouldn’t be expected to be equal to All-Big Ten punter Ryan Anderson from a season ago, but we shouldn’t see a regression to 2016 effectiveness levels in the unit.

Tom Flacco surely “stood out,” the most polarizing figure for many commenters of OTB. Opinions ranged from him being the best QB on the field, to the worst, and everywhere in between. My personal opinion is it was somewhere in the middle. It’s true the defense missed him a few times because they forgot he could even be hit and Flacco must be hard to see through the line for defenders, but that goes both ways. Tom displayed a fearlessness, great leadership, and enough accuracy to liken at least one person to compare him to Doug Flutie. Most of his reps were against the third team defense, but no matter who you play it’s about dropping back, running through your progressions, and making a decision. Flacco did that and his play was surely better than anything RU got in 2016 and probably on par with much of what Gio did in 2017. That has to be encouraging that the team has options at the position. He is NOT Doug Flutie, but that’s because he doesn’t throw the ball as well, even if the leadership, reads, and scrambling are in the ballpark.

This spring scrimmage, game, performance, whatever term you want to use should be considered a success. The level of play was simply higher than it has been in quite some time. The answer to whether this looks like a Bowl team is a yes. That said, the schedule is incredibly tough down the stretch, so despite the improvement they still could be left out of postseason play. Plenty of teams will make 2018 bowl games that are not as good as this Rutgers club and that is a sign of improvement.


After spring practice, what is the deepest position group on Rutgers Football team?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    Quarterbacks. RU has never had 4th/5th guys on the depth chart with this upside.
    (57 votes)
  • 7%
    Running backs. Drop off from 2017, really?
    (14 votes)
  • 7%
    Receivers. They were getting open against the likes of Wharton and Hayes.
    (15 votes)
  • 4%
    Offensive Linemen. Three of the top guys didn’t even play!
    (9 votes)
  • 43%
    Linebackers. How many of these guys deserve to start?
    (84 votes)
  • 5%
    Defensive Backs. The gave up some big plays but they stopped WAY more of them.
    (11 votes)
  • 2%
    Defensive Line. Clearly by choosing this option I am relying on Corey Brown.
    (4 votes)
194 votes total Vote Now