Rutgers football completed their tenth Spring Football practice on Thursday. Coach Ash was very tactful yet straightforward for the fourth straight week. Watch the full conference here.
The spring game marks an end to spring football next Saturday, April 14. With roughly five months to go before the opening kickoff of the first game against Texas State, 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.
“It’s not going to be a legitimate football game.” Yet, “we’re going to live tackle.”
Wait what does that mean? Coach Ash did his best to provide many details about how exactly this will work. “It’s not going to be a legitimate football game. It’s going to be kind of a scripted scrimmage.” “It’s going to be a scrimmage. We’re going to live tackle.” “It’s going to be ones versus ones.” ... “We want to get work in the red zone, third down work, backed-up work. Sometimes when you just play a game, things don’t come up. We just can’t afford to miss an opportunity to get work in those situations. So it’ll be a good-on-good live scrimmage, as long as everything goes smoothly the rest of spring practice.”
Dave’s take: At first listen this doesn’t sound as cool as a “game” does, but when you think about it, it does make sense. Ash said, “we’re going to control the situations we’re in, where we put the ball, to make sure we get a good work day in all areas.” This is a very elementary example of how this coaching staff knows what they are doing, even at the expense of the glamour of an actual ‘game.’ Any coach can just throw a jump ball (in hoops) or place a ball at the 25 yard line and let the kids scrimmage all day. It takes a truly prepared staff to have all the situations, drills, and time mapped out. At the end of the press conference, Ash took the preparation to another level when the media seemed surprised he said the Rutgers staff watches their opponent’s spring games. Heck, a friend and I both scouted my upcoming opponents at the 2008 National Rock, Paper, Scissors championship in Las Vegas and a lot less was riding on that!
Back to football, concerns that the players won’t be able to handle adjustments on the fly would be overblown. Just think back to last year’s kicking competition when it was won by Andrew Harte due to his performance in the impromptu middle of practice pressure field goal contests. I am happy about the live tackling too because despite the risk, at least it gives defensive guys reps at a very challenging skill. How easy is it for you to tackle somebody running full speed wearing the equivalent of samurai armor without practice?
“Nothing to report.”
Ash eventually added some minimal color to his answer about clarity in the quarterback competition; “A bunch of guys that are competing and showing up every single day to try and get better trying to lead the offense and make plays.” “There will be no clarity on the quarterback competition until training camp at some point.”
Dave’s take: Wah wah wah ... For everyone hoping to get at least a little nugget to chew on, this was on the Belichick / Gregg Popovich level of emptiness. As annoying as it can be, at least there is a televised team spring game next weekend to allow us to reach our own conclusions about the state of the quarterback position. So beware everything that follows in this section is complete speculation ...
If Gio was the number one, Ash may have indicated that since he’s the incumbent starter and about to be a 5th year senior. So that means Gio is not leading the pack by a sizable margin if at all. Of course if a starter was anointed who has something other than Rescigno on the back of his jersey, that could only get the sharks circling to try and pry him out of the program for a final year of eligibility. Possibility 1: If Johnathan Lewis was leading the pack, the staff surely would not say that because we don’t want to see early enrollees leaving right away a la Jon Pollock nor give JLew a big head. Possibility 2: Unless you are say Urban Meyer who does whatever he wants, you don’t name an early enrollee freshman your number one QB after four weeks because what message does that send to guys who have put in time and effort for multiple years? So let’s just see what happens with the signal callers on April 14. Patience is a virtue.
“We’ve talked about Bo Melton.”
Ash was responding to a question about if anyone has shown him more than expected this spring at any position. He mentioned Melton and Travis Vokolek with strong performances first, though “I can’t sit here and say they have done more than I expected because the expectations of those guys were pretty high.” Bo’s biggest setback from being more productive last year was “being a freshman.”
Dave’s take: No pressure! We’ve only had the worst passing game in division 1A other than option run teams over the last two seasons with a current six man quarterback battle and a ninth consecutive year with a different OC. Later on Ash was asked about receiver’s other then Melton, none of which was exactly a ringing endorsement, for example “Wormley has be fine.” Jabbie has been injured while “Shameen Jones has probably been the surprise of the group.” A question later in the interview about Eddie Lewis adjustment after prep school was positive but not earth shattering.
If Bo Melton does not look good in the spring game that means almost nothing, it will not be good for P.R. That said, if he does look good and has chemistry with any quarterback it will be good P.R. because current 4-star prospects can look at the situation and say ‘hey, that coaching staff knows talent’ and ‘i can get on the field early, too.’ Nevermind that good chemistry could translate to winning actual football games that count in the fall, it’s all about perception.
“Raiqwon O’Neal has done a nice job as a true freshmen here early.” Then later “Our whole interior line is a work in progress.”
Ash mentioned O’Neal as the offensive lineman who has impressed this spring when he was cycling through individuals from several different position groups earlier in the presser. Then later on, Ash was specifically asked about if anyone has stepped up at right guard. Noteworthy: “Kamaal Seymour has been out with a surgery.” “Our guards and centers we have been rotating quite a bit.” “It’s not just the right guard spot.”
Dave’s take: More love for young players who were rated highly. When I interviewed people close to Sean Chambers hours before he decomitted and flipped to Wyoming last fall, the message they all took from the Rutgers coaching staff was that the younger Scarlet Knights were the team’s better players. So it’s possible that the primary driver here was that. More likely, it’s probably that the offensive linemen have not progressed this spring as much as some other position groups. Ash said that “every player has made progress” this spring but not all “huge.” So that opens the door for a young guy like O’Neal especially with two-year starter Seymour sidelined. In the next week, I’ll be brainstorming how I plan to make sense of the offensive line situation in the spring game other than simply seeing who gets reps. Thoughts welcomed in the comments section.
“Our offensive staff has done a great job getting two tailbacks on the field in different packages.”
The question originally was about running backs which Ash mentioned the “four or five guys getting reps with the ones and the twos. After first talking a little bit about several off the players including how “Raheem Blackshear picked up right where he left off,” Ash pivoted to the staff. “That will hopefully create some problems and get some of our better players on the field.”
Dave’s take: It’s about time! After I finish patting myself on the back for floating this idea in the running back position review, this means at least one of three things: 1. The coaching staff knows the running back room has talented guys so why not get more of them out there (this is what Ash alluded to), 2. the staff knows they need to be creative to have a chance against Big Ten powerhouses, or 3. the rest of the skill positions are severely lacking. It’s probably a combination of all three factors, but #3 is partially just as much a Plan B. Even if the wideouts are flying around the practice field, they have no track record in actual games, and with so many quarterbacks chemistry will be very complex. So why not have more wrinkles with the running backs?
The way to have a chance against superior opponents is to take some risks and not play everything straight up. Rutgers first attempt was to go Mehringer spread in Ash year one, but the staff adjusted quickly toward other offensive innovation in year two. In year three I like the idea of going the Harbaugh/Shaw Stanford route and mixing in multiple tight end sets or multi running back sets. This simply gives defenses more to have to think about in game planning and can add a little more doubt in player’s minds near the snap. In fact, Michigan, now coached by Harbaugh was a little too predictable in 2017 and as a result didn’t beat anyone other than teams they were “supposed to beat”. Just goes to show that unless you are maybe Ohio State or Alabama, there has to be some element of surprise.
Periodically when another source does a nice job we don’t provide him or her their proper due. Ash talked a bit about long snapper Bill Taylor and Keith Sargeant grabbed some of the details. It’s a true underdog story.
OFF THE FIELD
Love it or hate it, the Big Ten invited Rutgers to stretch its footprint to the New York Metro Area. So ... love them or hate them, all three of Mike Francesca’s WFAN replacements (nicknamed CMB for those unfamiliar) will be at the aforementioned Spring “game”. Chris Carlin will be doing the announcing as usual while Bart Scott (a former NFL player) and Maggie Gray will serve as celebrity coaches. Ash had some humor about the whole thing; “They better come prepared, because we’re going to let them call a lot of plays,” “We need a playbook to look at, we need to approve it, make sure it’s all good. We’re going to be on TV, and we don’t want to show any of our plays.” Naturally, the blame starts with the celebrity coaches, “The plays you see, if they don’t work, talk to the guest coaches about that.”
Dave’s take: My job does not allow me to stream WFAN all afternoon. In the segments I have been able to tune in for though, the show really focuses almost exclusively on football and baseball unlike the original Mike and the Mad Dog, a lot more diverse in its coverage. Since the scarlet-white game features pigskin and tackling, Bart and Maggie won’t be a net negative. Maggie (a die hard Buffalo Bills fan growing up) did an excellent job in her Sunday NFL preview show which means a lot coming from me because my standards for NFL coverage are exceeded only by those for pizza and bagels.
So as annoying as CMB could be day in and day out for a hockey, basketball, horse racing, golf, etc. fan, RU will take the additional attention.