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Ask a Beat Writer: Talking Rutgers Football With Keith Sargeant

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Plus bonus questions on men’s basketball and his historical perspective on both programs

Ohio State v Rutgers

With Spring camp over and the school year coming to an end, Rutgers football is now in true offseason mode with the summer beginning. As head coach Chris Ash is in his third year at the helm of the program, I wanted to get firsthand insight as to where this team stands right now. No one in the media has seen more of Rutgers football up close over the past two decades than Keith Sargeant of NJ.com / The Star Ledger. I was fortunate to have an in-depth conversation with him this week, covering a range of topics including the current team, how much Ash has improved the program in his tenure so far, as well as looking at things from a historical perspective. It’s a lengthy read, but one I think all Rutgers football fans will find extremely insightful. Plus a bonus non-football question at the end. Let’s kick things off here.

AB: You are the longest tenured Rutgers football beat writer, correct?

KS: I am. I covered Schiano’s first season in 2001. I was pretty much the #2 guy at the Home News & Tribune from 2001 to 2005. Right in the middle of the 2005 season when they were contending for a bowl game, I got bumped up as the main guy. I covered the Insight Bowl and that entire run. Was on the beat from 2006 through 2012 season and then started covering university news in the wake of the Mike Rice scandal. I still kept my hand in football a little bit and was still around. When I went to NJ.com before the 2014 season, I was back on the football beat full-time. There was a little break, but I’ve always been around Rutgers.

AB: You then have the most in-depth perspective of anyone in the media in regard to this program. Let’s start with any notable stories you have from over the years?

KS: The first time I ever covered a Rutgers football practice, it was in 2000 during Terry Shea’s last year. I was covering high school football and high school sports at the time for the News and Tribune. I thought it was a big deal that I now got to cover a college football practice. My editor rewarded me for my hard work. I go out for a training camp practice and Terry Shea used to have a golden retriever that would be let loose on the practice field. At one point, and this is my first practice, the dog ran onto the field and took a dump on the field. First football practice. I don’t know if that was a metaphor for what was to come in the years I’ve covered Rutgers, or if it was a sign, but it was something that I’ll always remember.

AB: At a minimum, it was a metaphor for Shea’s tenure as head coach.

KS: Certainly.

AB: You have obviously seen a lot of different stages of Rutgers football over the years, how would you assess the current state of the program right now?

KS: I think they are improving. It’s no secret that Chris Ash inherited a mess. I took a little criticism I think event from my own staff after we had a podcast after Ash’s first season. We were asked to grade following the 2-10 season and I actually said an A. Steve Politi and Ryan Dunleavy and a lot of fans even, were criticizing how I could do that. It wasn’t that, it was more to the fact that I had covered all of the Kyle Flood stuff and I knew first hand some of the stuff behind the scenes. Obviously, all that was reported and then some stuff that wasn’t reported. One of the things that we had known and we believed to be true was something that came out about Marques Ford. We had heard about that for a year and not something we could ever report. There were a few other examples of that. This week, we see Nadir Barnwell in the news. There were a lot of bad apples that Chris Ash had to clean the program of. I think he inherited a total mess and anyone looking at it fairly would say it was going to take at least two years to kind of get out of that mess. I think year three, you could almost say he is starting year one now. I think clearly there is talent now, especially offensively at skill positions. Everyone thinks, me included, that (Artur) Sitkowski is going to be the guy. They have a lot more playmakers. I think it’s going to boil down to, and this is probably true of any Big Ten program, building an offensive and defensive line. I think there are still some question marks along both in the trenches and that’s going to take time. I think Rutgers is clearly on the right path.”

AB: It bothers me that some people really don’t understand how much of a mess the program really was at the end of the Kyle Flood era. You covered the program at the start of the Schiano era when he took over from Shea, can you compare the two situations at all and give a little more insight on how much of a mess the program really was when Ash took over?

KS: It’s probably different. Schiano had bad talent. It wasn’t Big East caliber of talent. Ash had to sift through players who weren’t Big Ten talent. They were clearly recruited to play in the Big East and the American Athletic conference. But he also had to sift through and decide whether or not some of the players he needed to get rid of was because they were bad kids. It’s a little bit different. I’m not saying one was any harder than the other. I’ll leave that to others to decide. It’s a fair question, I just think they are different. I will say that Schiano’s turnaround, and I give him a lot of credit, because it’s really hard to turnaround a program with no history of success for close to 20 years. He did benefit from the fact that the Big East broke up at the time that it did. West Virginia, Miami, Virginia Tech, even Boston College, were losses every year. You replace those schools with a fledgling Louisville program, Cincinnati was still a work in progress, South Florida, UConn and on. I think it allowed Rutgers to get better in a hurry. Ash clearly isn’t going to have that luxury in the Big Ten East division. Clearly the path to a bowl game is winning your non-conference games and beating Maryland and Indiana on a perennial basis. Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, none of those schools are going to get any worse any time soon. They all have a clear distinct advantage when it comes to money, recruiting, tradition.”

AB: In terms of Ash, where do you think he has improved the program the most and how do you think he has improved himself as a head coach the most in the 2+ years you’ve seen him?

KS: I’ll say this about Chris Ash, I haven’t seen this with every coach I’ve covered, he is willing to adapt. If you remember in year one, he came in talking about they were going to be this gun run offense, kind of like Ohio State is. He clearly had an offensive coordinator who was green in Drew Mehringer and tried to put a square peg into a round hole with personnel that did not fit that system. They did not have a quarterback. He said that entire season they were going to do this to rip off the band-aid so to speak and they’d be better for it in the long run.

Well, now we are two years later, what do you know. they are pro-style again. I know McNulty has said they are going to be multiple. Make no question, they are going to be pro-style. They are going to be what they were in 2007, 2008 under John McNulty. They have a quarterback who isn’t a dual threat. Sitkowski might have a little athleticism, but he certainly isn’t going to be running like J.T. Barrett. My point is that Chris Ash is willing to adapt and I don’t think a lot of coaches that I’ve covered in the past would be so willing to adapt the way he has.

He has done it in other areas as well. I like what he has done in trying to recruit in New Jersey, particularly in hiring (Nunzio) Campanile. I think he sensed they needed to do better in North Jersey. I think there is still some work to do down in South Jersey, but let’s face it, Penn State is always going to have an advantage down there for the time being. The bulk of the talent is still in North Jersey, so bringing in a guy like Campanile is going to improve that.

AB: How would you assess the current state of recruiting? You touched on Ash having made some in-roads in New Jersey, but overall entering year three now, how would you say they’ve done recruiting wise?

KS: Better, but I still have to see some of these skill position guys come through. I believe Shameen Jones will have a breakout year, but he has to do it. I believe Bo Melton is going to have a breakout year, but he has to do it. People forget what the linebacker situation was. They were maybe the worst linebacker core in power five when Ash arrived. They are now near the top echelon in the Big Ten with their linebackers. They aren’t Penn State or Ohio State, but they have guys you could see playing in the NFL. They have depth at linebacker. You could say the same thing at defensive back. It wasn’t so long ago they were terrible in the defensive backfield. They are much improved. They are one of the best units in the Big Ten. That does speak to recruiting.

Offensively, I give them a lot of credit for staying on Sitkowski for sensing that even after he committed to Miami, that he might still be a little home sick, which I think was the case. They still recruited him and did a good job of getting him. If Sitkowski turns into the player that we all think that he will be, he will be Ash’s biggest recruiting gem by a mile.

An underrated facet has been Ash’s ability to get grad transfers. We’ll see how Jonathan Hilliman turns out. I think he will be starting running back. Ash had Gus Edwards last year, who became the offensive MVP. Being able to get Hilliman, who soured on Rutgers after originally wanting to go there, but was turned off by Kyle Flood, only to ultimately get him four or five years later is a tribute to Chris Ash.

AB: Good point. What do you think the ceiling is for Sitkowski in his Rutgers career?

KS: I said this on podcast last December, I’m from Old Bridge. I’m familiar with the program there and I watched Sitkowski as a sophomore in high school. One thing that always gave me pause when we talked about him was he didn’t dominate at Old Bridge. His numbers were pedestrian and yes, you could say it wasn’t really the right system. Old Bridge used to run a true wishbone option offense and then changed it up to more of a modern day gun run type offense and he wasn’t a fit for it. You could say that, but he still didn’t dominate at the high school level. When you see a guy with that type of talent, you expect them to rise above it. He did not do it. He went down to IMG and it’s been well documented, he lost the starting job there. It is a program that produces a lot of college talent, but he still wasn’t the guy in his one year there. That gave me pause. However, after seeing him the limited amount of times the media is allowed to watch practice and seeing him in the spring game, I think he is going to be really good. I think he has all the tools. There are people inside the program who think he will become a pro level quarterback. I think that might be setting the bar a little too high, too early. I want to see him do it. I think the talent is there.

I think he is the best QB recruit Rutgers has had since Tom Savage. Having watched Savage as a freshman, I remember some of the throws that he made. One of the most impressive throws I’ve ever seen was the one against UConn to Tim Brown to win the game. I remember talking to Schiano a day later about it and he was just marveling over it. He called it an NFL throw. I can tell you that I saw Sitkowski make a couple of those type of throws during spring camp, albeit against a second team defense most of the time. I do think the talent is there to be the starter from day one.

AB: Strongest position group for next season right now?

KS: I’ll say defensive backs and if you want one, I’ll say cornerbacks. Bless Austin and Isaiah Wharton, who you could say is a bit underrated, even though he will be a four year starter in the Big Ten. I just spoke with Austin the other day and he said he is now 100% healthy. I remember talking to a Big Ten assistant last summer who said Austin will be a pro level cornerback. I think that position group is probably the best.

AB: Weakest position group for next season?

KS: Defensive line, especially the interior. I think Julius Turner is going to be pretty good. You have to be concerned about the overall size of the unit in playing against Big Ten competition. I haven’t heard a Rutgers coach talk about it, but it does remind you of the old Big East days when they had Rameel Meekins and Eric Foster, who were good in spurts, but when they played against a West Virginia, it just didn’t work. They were good against a team like South Florida or Navy, using their quickness against undersized lines. When they were matched against some of the bigger teams, it didn’t, like when North Carolina came in and had their way. That would concern me, the interior defensive line.

AB: Who would say is the best pass rushing threat?

KS: I’ll say Kevin Wilkins and the reason why is he can do two things. He can play outside at end or interior defensive tackle in nickel and dime situations, which they do so much of. To say Rutgers is a 4-3, they are really multiple. In this day and age, they probably play the nickel about 75% of the time. In those situations, Kevin Wilkins is generally the guy who can slide in. I think he is going to be really good this year. I was talking to Darius Hamilton about him and I think Wilkins is going to be a pro. He just has that type of look. You have to put him in the right system, but I think NFL teams are going to see his athleticism and versatility. You are hearing NFL scouts now say about Kemoko Turay that he had a pretty productive year, but that didn’t really translate sack wise. Rutgers doesn’t get a whole lot of sacks and (defensive coordinator) Jay Niemann has talked about this in the past. It’s the way they scheme within the defense, but as far as disruption, I think Kevin Wilkins is going to be the guy.

AB: Which position battle is the most intriguing heading into fall camp?

KS: It doesn’t matter who starts, but I want to see the wide receivers do it again (from the spring). They clearly showed improvement through the spring, but that was such a weakness Aaron, when you look at last year. I don’t want to overstate it, but you could make the case that they were the worst unit in power five football, production wise. Then you lose Damon Mitchell and Janarion Grant, not that they produced great numbers, but they were probably the two best wide receivers on the team. I still have to see this new group do it. If you are asking me about a starting position battle, I don’t think it matters. I just need to see how that depth plays out. I would think Bo Melton, Hunter Hayek, Shameen Jones, I think those three guys are going to have a pretty good opportunity to play right away. I just have to see them do it.

AB: That’s fair. How good can the defense be next year, can they be in the top half of the Big Ten?

KS: Statistically, I think that they can be and one of the underrated facets is that the schedule loosens up a little bit. There isn’t a Washington on the schedule early in the season. Essentially that game gets replaced by Kansas. I think they can, again a lot of it is going to depend on how they handle that late October, early November stretch against fierce Big Ten competition. How will they be injury wise at that point. Early in the year, I think they’re going to be pretty good. If you remember last year, those games they won in Big Ten play, they won because of the defense. They won the Illinois and Maryland games because of the defense and against Purdue they were so good. They can be that type of unit again. I’m not comparing this team to the 2006 team, but they could be similar in approach and clearly is the way that Chris Ash wants to win. Of course, unless Sitkowski proves himself as an upper echelon quarterback in the Big Ten. Defense, ball control, don’t commit turnovers and give yourself a chance to win in the fourth quarter. I think based on what they have back and the way they’ve played in spurts a year ago, I think they can be that type of defense.

AB: How much have you seen of Justin Davidovicz in practice and what’s your take on him?

KS: I think he is going to be very good. They have the potential to be better in that area than they have been so far in the Chris Ash era. I think a lot of it is going to be dependability beyond 40 yards. Previously, the kickers were dependable up to 40 yards, but in this day and age, that’s not what you are looking for in a kicker. You are looking for when you get to the 20 to the 35, you want a kicker who you can rely on. There have been so many times over the past two seasons when they were at the 31 or 32 yard line and we saw examples on a fourth and long of them taking a delay of game penalty in order to punt from the 36 or 37, which is mind boggling. It just speaks to the lack of faith Ash had in the kicking game the past two years and based on what I’ve seen and how Ash has spoken about Davidovicz, I think he is going to have a lot more faith in him.

AB: How would grade Ash’s coaching hires this offseason?

KS: I’ve heard a lot of great things about Noah Joseph. The defensive line coach (Corey Brown), I would not profess to be an expert on him. I have heard a lot of good things on the cornerbacks coach from Temple (Cory Robinson). As I said before, I think Nunzio Campanile, aside from his ability to recruit, I just think he is going to be a really good college coach. The one thing I’ve heard people from Bergen Catholic and other North Jersey coaches, the guy is a workaholic. At this level, you need to have that in a lot of ways, a guy who is willing to grind it out and work 15-16 hour days.

I think John McNulty may lean on some of these guys and Nunzio ran an innovative offense in high school. I thought Lester Erb did a good job developing the running backs a year ago, which might speak to his ability to develop wide receivers, since he played the position in college. As far as developing the running backs, I don’t know what type of job Nunzio is going to do, but I think he is going to work hard enough at it. We’ve already seen some signs that he is doing a good job on the recruiting trail and I thought it was a really good hire.

I was as critical as anyone with Chris Ash’s inability to retain assistants, as there have been a large number that left in his two plus years. Part of that is college football today and I think in most examples, the coaches that have left did so to take what you would perceive to be a better job or went back to their alma mater. In most examples, Ash has replaced them with at least on paper, a coach with an equivalent or a better resume.

AB: I agree. Who has been your favorite player that you have interviewed since covering Rutgers football?

KS: Can I go with a tie?

AB: Yes, go with a tie.

KS: They both are from the same era and were both great. I’ll go with Jamaal Westerman and Kevin Malast. Jamaal Westerman was so good during his time. One thing I remember was in 2007 for the International bowl, the day we got there myself and another reporter were outside the bubble in Toronto. It was probably 10 degrees out. Westerman was from Canada. This was the Ray Rice 2,000 yard season and a lot of people felt Rutgers deserved a better bowl game, so there were still some bitter feelings about having to go to Canada. It was freezing when we first arrived. We are standing outside the bubble and the entire team gets off the bus. Players and coaches are all shivering, except you see Jamaal Westerman walking through with just a tank top on carrying his helmet and just embracing the cold. I think that kind of set the tone for the entire bowl trip.

AB: I love that story.

KS: Kevin Malast’s story was well documented of what he experienced as a true freshman with the tragedy with his brother. He was very gracious and kind to talk about that with me, I’ll never forget that. He ended up becoming a spokesperson for the entire program and carried the torch after Brian Leonard left. He still does great work and is still involved with the program. Both of those guys were two of my favorites.

AB: Favorite Rutgers football team that you have covered over the years?

KS: It’s hard not to say 2006, only because we were there so much. Access is different now and we’ve documented that before. I’ve taken some criticism for challenging Ash on having less practice access. Practice was different back then in that you covered it all. If they had a two a day, you were there for the morning and the afternoon. Greg Schiano made everything available. The group was myself, Tom Luicci from the Star Ledger and couple of other guys from Trenton Times and Trentonian I think. There weren’t as many internet guys back then. You might of have had 5 or 6 team beat reporters there. I just remember it started with the North Carolina game when they won and it just continued to build week after week as they continued to win. It got to week 8 or 9. You asked me to share some stories and I’ll share this one. There was a practice in week 7 or 8, when the national media started showing up and week after week you saw more media at practice. There was a practice that a person from NJ News, not News 12, was there for the pack interview with 6 or 7 reporters and maybe two cameras. The cameraman was working without a reporter and asked Schiano right before in the press conference, which you never see done, can you just tell us your name before you speak? Greg kind of rolled his eyes and said sure. He said S-C-H-I-A-N-O, Schiano. The cameraman then goes, and your first name?

AB: Oh my god!

KS: In front of everyone.

AB: That is bizarre.

KS: He had the kind of ego that a lot of college football coaches had and it was growing by the week. To his credit, he actually obliged. That stands out as an example as the media started to ascend towards the program. I still think to this day that it had an effect and Schiano may even admit it. After the Louisville game, I do think whether you want to say they got caught reading the headlines or whatever, I just don’t think they weren’t ready coming off the Louisville game to play a really good Cincinnati team. I still think that had an impact on them. But that was a very fun team.

AB: After so many years of losing, to have the run that they did, it must have been really fun to watch that up close.

KS: Yes, absolutely.

AB: Who plays things closer to the vest in terms of team and injury information, Greg Schiano or Chris Ash?

KS: Wow, that’s a tough one. I’ll tell you this about Ash, while the access is different, he is honest when giving information. Injury information is different now than it was back then. Schiano would be a little more forthcoming with that type of stuff, and now Rutgers is not unlike most other schools in that you can’t get a lot of injury information. I would probably say Ash plays it a little bit closer to the vest, not in a bad way, but in the way that a lot of college coaches do.

AB: What is your favorite road stadium you’ve ever covered, both non-conference and in the Big Ten?

KS: My favorite trip is Nebraska. I just think it’s a great setting. I like Arkansas. You really felt, and that was a bad Arkansas team, even so, the fans were there and it was truly an SEC environment that you hear about with tailgating. It was packed and I stayed on campus. I remember getting there very early and it was packed in a way that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I like barbecue so that helped. And with the Big Ten, I think Nebraska is a really fun trip. We’ve stayed both in Lincoln and in Omaha. I just think Nebraska is a great environment.

AB: Okay let’s end with some hoops stuff. How long have you been covering Rutgers basketball?

KS: I covered Gary Waters in the final two seasons of his era. I was around a little bit during the Kevin Bannon era, but I can’t say I covered the program enough to really know like I did with football. I also did a lot of women’s basketball at that time. I covered the last few years of Gary, I covered Fred Hill, I covered most of Mike Rice, obviously Eddie and now Pikiell.

AB: What are your thoughts on where Pikiell has the program right now?

KS: I think they are now in as good of a position since maybe the early part of the Waters era. Probably an even better position because now they have resources. I remember for so long doing stories and talking with former Rutgers AD Bob Mulcahy about building a new arena downtown. The coaches, because it was still fantasyland, would use it on the recruiting trail saying this is going to happen. Obviously, it was make believe. Now it’s a reality in the sense that buildings are actually popping up. That does help. Resources wise they are in a better position now as a program than maybe they’ve ever been. I think that has been reflected in terms of recruiting.

I’m still curious to see whether or not they will be a better team without Corey Sanders. I understand the school of thought that the offense was stagnant and over reliant at times because of Corey and his ability to create late in the shot clock and wasn’t a true playmaker. I get all that. I’m still of the opinion that you lose the talent of a Corey Sanders and not having a guy as proven as him, I still don’t know if it’s a good thing. So I’m still curious how they make that work. I think even losing a guy like Deshawn Freeman, who had his moments both good and bad, I think that could have an impact.

I think Geo Baker is going to be the type of player that Villanova gets or had gotten. Those four year guys who are just a cut below the one and done or two and done type players. I think Geo Baker is going to be a four year guy who could play in the NBA one day, but I think he is going to be a great, and I don’t use that word often, but I think he is going to be a great four year college player. Beyond that, I’m curious to see if the offense is going to be more creative. After two years, the offense has struggled. You can cite a lot of examples with that. If it’s still that way after three years, then it becomes a pattern. I think Pikiell has a lot to prove from an offensive standpoint this year.

AB: In terms of the Pikiell era overall, how would you grade him so far through 2+ years?

KS: I would give him a solid B, maybe a B+. I would be careful to give him an A because I think that should be reserved for getting to a postseason. It’s a credit to Pat Hobbs and the administration as a whole in that Pikiell has had more resources than Eddie Jordan or any coach that preceded him. He has taken advantage of that, I’ll give him credit for that. I’d be reluctant to give him anything higher than a B+. I think that is a really solid grade and that comes from his ability to win some Big Ten Tournament games and be a lot more competitive overall. Three years ago we documented the Big Ten losing streak and how many 20 point losses they had, so they’ve certainly been a lot more competitive. He still needs to do it with his own players. It’s fair to say he hasn’t done it with his own recruits yet. He still needs to get to a postseason.

I wanted to sincerely thank Keith for taking the time to speak with me and for giving Rutgers fans such great insight in this interview with football, basketball, as well as his historical perspective in covering these programs the better part of two decades. I personally think he is the most underappreciated Rutgers writer on the sports beat. I also wanted to thank him for being extremely welcoming and supportive to this “blogger” ever since I broke onto the scene almost three years ago. It has meant a lot and he remains a must read for me when it comes to anything Rutgers sports related.