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Rutgers Football: Chris Ash’s Third Year is Crucial

Can the program take another step forward in 2018?

Rutgers v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Chris Ash is in his third year as the head coach for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. This means that the majority of the active roster are officially “his guys”, players that he brought into the football program. With that said, the 2018 Rutgers football season will be key in determining how much progress Ash has made since taking over.

What will happen in 2018? Will Rutgers Scarlet Knights end their four year drought from going “bowling” or will another losing season be the result? Only time will tell, but Chris Ash must have a decent season on the field, in order to change the narrative off the field with recruits that Rutgers does in fact have a bright future. Also, it will further give Rutgers fans and alums hope that better days are ahead.

Chris Ash took helm of the football program in 2016 that was lacking Big Ten talent and only won 2 games. The roster and culture had to be rebuilt. The offense was pedestrian and the defense was incapable of stopping opposing teams from scoring. It was a year that most Rutgers fans want to forget and bury the painful memories of defeat.

In 2017, Rutgers improved their win total by winning 4 games, including three conference contests. Even in losses to Washington, Penn State and Michigan, you could see signs that development was occurring with the football team. However, the offense remained stagnant and very predictable, which highlighted Rutgers’ deficiencies and weaknesses, especially at the quarterback position.

Rutgers v Penn State
Rutgers’ offense struggled back to back years. Will this be the year that the Scarlet Knights get it right?
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

In back to back years in Ash’s tenure, and nine consecutive for the program, Rutgers replaced their offensive coordinator every season. For Ash, he had Drew Mehringer in 2016 and Jerry Kill in 2017. Both produced minimal results on the gridiron. In 2016, Rutgers revamped their offense to the power spread offense, one that can flourish with a physical QB who can run well off the draw and connect in the air on creative routes at a fast pace. Unfortunately, the power spread offense was a dud and did not click with the football roster that Rutgers had.

In 2017, Jerry Kill introduced hybrid run heavy offense that was effective at times with the senior running back duo of Gus Edwards and Robert Martin. That allowed Rutgers to minimize mistakes, control the clock, and allow their defense to flourish in victories over Illinois, Purdue, and Maryland. However, against stiffer competition, there wasn’t enough consistency to move the sticks at times. Kill’s offense was conservative and predictable, making it dull to watch.

With the arrival of John McNulty, the offense is returning to its roots with the pro-style he orchestrated during the program’s high point in the late 2000’s. McNulty needs to find playmakers on the current roster to find the answer to the offensive struggles Rutgers has suffered in the modern day, in order to relive glory from the past. Importantly, finding consistency at offensive coordinator with McNulty by staying multiple seasons will help the program improve on the field, as well as off with recruiting.

Texas Bowl: Rutgers v Kansas State
McNulty is trying to revive RU’s offense like 2006
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

A third year for a college football head coach is crucial in proving to potential recruits that progress is occurring. High school recruits not only go to colleges for a solid education, but to find a team with schemes that fit their skill set and will best utilize their talents. Having a consistent coordinator/playbook will help with recruiting and attract the specific players that fit the long term plans of the current staff at Rutgers. If McNulty brings Rutgers back to life, expect more 4-star recruits heading to Piscataway in the near future.

Building a college football team is a daunting task, especially in the social media era. High school recruits in today’s time tend to post on social media at a rapid rate, constantly detailing which teams are recruiting them. The bigger the brand, the more likely a 4-5 star recruit will sign the LOI for that team.

For example, Heisman candidate and NJ native Johnathan Taylor made a verbal commit to Rutgers before de-committing and landing with Wisconsin. Their large fan base and annual trips to bowl games was certainly a major factor. It’s been tough for Rutgers for years to beat the blue bloods of college football for the top players in New Jersey. Jabrill Peppers, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ron Dayne, and countless other NJ greats left the state and never seriously consider Rutgers, despite it being the flagship school for New Jersey. NJ recruits tend to have wandering eyes for other, more historically successful schools, which will always be a an issue. Michigan, OSU, and PSU rule the recruiting trail in NJ and steal their best high school players on a yearly basis. However, there should still be hope that Chris Ash can change that over time. Pushing the program to 5-6 wins this upcoming season will be a move in the right direction. It could start to change the heart and minds of top recruits, especially in NJ, showing real progress is happening. Victories and consistent winning can change the old narrative that Rutgers is a “safety school” for NJ recruits. With so much talent in the Garden State, Rutgers should and can be a force in the Big Ten long term, if they can match their vision with victories in 2018 and beyond.

Wisconsin v Minnesota
Rutgers had Jonathan Taylor in their hands but he left for Wisconsin. Winning this year is crucial for recruiting
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

This year is the most important year for Chris Ash. Great coaches tend to improve their teams by year three in taking over a program. For example, Coach P.J. Fleck turnaround a Western Michigan team from 1-11 to 8-5 in his second and third season’s, including a bowl victory in year three. Chris Petersen from Washington turned around the Huskies football program from a middle tier PAC-12 team to a championship contender within his third year. Obviously, Ash inherited a program in a far more competitive environment than Western Michigan and in far worse shape than Washington. Do I expect Chris Ash to win the national title in 2018 or make the college playoff, let alone challenge for a Big Ten East title? Of course not, that would be extreme and unrealistic expectations. Nonetheless, after a strong spring, I expect a leap forward for Rutgers in 2018 on the field. With a somewhat manageable schedule, at least before November, a bowl berth is possible. A 5-6 win season will be great for the program and give them the building blocks necessary to continue building towards a brighter future.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin
Former RU coach assistant PJ Fleck made a losing program Western Michigan into a bowl contender in this third year, can Chris Ash do the same
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images