As the calendar has turned to August, the beginning of fall training camp for Rutgers football begins on the practice field this Friday. It’s been over three months since spring camp ended and players will be together as a team on the field for the first time in months. The work that they’ve individually put in this past summer will be extremely important to their success as a team this fall.
Two players that needed to make big strides this summer were quarterbacks Artur Sitkowski and Johnathan Lewis. The true freshman and true sophomore both worked extensively this offseason with respected quarterback trainer Tony Racioppi in an effort to improve and get ready for the season. I was fortunate to speak with Racioppi this week about the work that Sitkowski and Lewis put in with him over the past few months.
First, about Racioppi, he was a two-time Division III All-American quarterback at Rowan and played professionally overseas and in the Arena League, as well as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. Since his playing days ended, Racioppi has coached in various capacities the past 16 years, including as a graduate assistant in Al Golden’s first season at Temple, as well as working at the high school level in not only football, but basketball and baseball. However, he has established a great reputation as a trainer in recent years, working at TEST Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey, where he trains players for the NFL combine. This past spring, Racioppi trained five guys in the last combine class. Four were ultimately signed and were in rookie mini-camps, with two of them now in training camps this summer. In addition, Racioppi is a quarterback trainer working with players on the high school, college, and pro levels. He is the full-time trainer for second year pro quarterback Davis Webb with the New York Giants. Racioppi also works with over 40 high school clients and most of the top quarterbacks from New Jersey who play Division I college football right now. Aside from Sitkowski and Lewis, he trains Rutgers freshman Jalen Chatman, Kenny Pickett at Pitt, Frank Nutile at Temple, Anthony Brown at Boston College, former Rutgers signal caller Mike Dare, now at Sam Houston State and Princeton’s Kevin Davidson.
In regard to the offseason development of Sitkowski and Lewis, Racioppi has spent a lot of time working them out to get ready for the season ahead. “I’ve seen both of those guys pretty much since the end of last season for Rutgers and when Art finished up his time at IMG Academy and came back to New Jersey”, said Racioppi. “Since January, I’ve seen those guys a ton through the winter and obviously took a break during spring camp. We picked it back up after those guys broke after the spring game. I’ve seen them a bunch over the summer, depending on what they are doing over there (at Rutgers), as the last thing I want to do is have them throw six to seven days a week and have their arms dead for camp, that’s not my job. It’s about getting that extra session in, whether its cleaning up their throwing sequence, clean up their footwork, repping a certain route that they want to run or a certain concept of their offense that they want to practice and get their timing down that maybe they didn’t do that well with.”
As for the structure of their workouts, Racioppi prefers to put players in small groups and has a clear reason for doing so. “When you do stuff like this, I like to put them all together. Davis Webb can be there and talk about what Eli Manning does on a three step drop or quick gain drop to the right, with his footwork. He is there telling Art and Johnathan that. They can cross-train each other, which is exactly what I want, not just me talking every two seconds. There is a lot of communication between all levels of guys. You have those high school kids and they (Art & Lewis) went through the whole recruiting experience. It’s pretty neat to see the conversations that go on.”
It’s a unique environment and one that Racioppi feels has given younger quarterbacks like Sitkowski and Lewis more perspective on the game of football and life. “Very rarely am I one on one with them”, said Racioppi. “I usually have two to four guys to get them in that professional environment. I had Luis Perez there, who I trained this year for the NFL Draft and is now with the Rams. He didn’t play high school football. He could end up being a 30 for 30 documentary in a couple of years, that’s how crazy his story is. Having a guy like him around Art and Johnathan to talk about what he learned and what he was able to pick up in really just three years of college football. Now he is in camp with a team, that’s how talented he is.”
The benefit for Sitkowski and Lewis is being able to have access to a player that they can learn from his experience and understand what has made him successful. “Having a guy like Perez around those two guys gives them an opportunity for them to pull from him.” Racioppi continued, “Not just a footwork thing, not what type of ball to throw, but things like where your eyes should be on a certain read. Maybe you are looking off the SAM linebacker a little bit longer to free this (passing) window. The thing about Davis is that he is so talented physically, but he is unbelievable mentally. He is so good at manipulating the defenses, understanding defenses, and the concepts that are on offense. That’s next level stuff. Having your head a certain direction with your eyes facing another way. Defenses don’t see your eyes most of the time, they just see your helmet. Different stuff to manipulate a defender. That’s what you want.”
Racioppi not only put in a lot of work with Sitkowski and Lewis on the field, but in the classroom as well. He elaborated about the additional work they put in. “I’ll do film stuff and board stuff with them. We’ll watch video of them, I’ll have someone film them because a lot of times if you are doing to videotaping, you are missing stuff as a coach. I’d take a look at it later on but now if I tape them, I’ll just do a couple of throws. I’m more hands on, that’s just the way I coach”, said Racioppi. “We’ll do a lot of board stuff. I believe in getting them in the classroom and with the white board. I won’t have guys from different programs around each other when doing that work so they aren’t sharing that information. If I’m doing board work with Rutgers guys, they’re the only one’s I’m doing it with. They are young guys (Art & Lewis). I have this whole curriculum I do with combine guys. Start from A gap, B gap, C gap, to defensive line techniques, to coverage’s, to concepts to you name it. I start with high school level stuff knowledge wise and work all the way up to stuff that I’ve gotten from guys like the Eli and Peyton Manning’s of the world. Next level stuff.”
Racioppi said that both young quarterbacks from Rutgers have come a long way with their understanding of the game since they began working together. “I remember starting with Art and John, it was very basic their knowledge of football. I can say spending the winter with them and then them spending the spring with coach McNulty, their knowledge of football is three times what is was before.”
In terms of mechanics, Racioppi went into detail on his philosophy. “The way I structure it is fine tuning their throwing sequence. We want to be balanced, rotational throwers. Getting balance in our base, getting our shoulder closed when we step, staying balanced, using our hips as a power source. Not using their shoulder or the weight transfer to their feet, which a lot of guys will make those mistakes and do that. We are really just fine tuning that right now with repetitions. Footwork. Understanding different drops with different routes, to the middle, to the right, to the left. How to turn at the top and always make straight, balanced throws.
The real positive in his coaching is that Racioppi doesn’t only teach his own philosophy and techniques, but he incorporates aspects of the offense that his students run with their respective programs. Racioppi explained, “With them going through spring practice, I got to see exactly the routes they are going to throw over and over again as Rutgers base plays. Obviously you have your base stuff and then your game plan stuff week to week. With their base stuff, we can’t miss on that.”
In regard to Racioppi’s take on both quarterbacks, he had this to say about their development. “For them, they are a little bit different in their skill sets. At the same time, they are both young. They are both kind of a ball of clay right now.”
Specifically on Sitkowski: “Art is a big drop back kid, but he can move a little bit. We did a lot of footwork stuff, had him moving off platform a little bit, which he is going to have to do this year. People think he is this big drop back statue kind of kid. He can move and has really good feet.”
On Lewis: “Johnathan is so comfortable getting out of the pocket. His game is getting out of the pocket and throwing the ball on the run, whether it is naked’s, or boot’s or scramble situations and throwing play action deep stuff. He throws the ball 65, 70 yards effortlessly with the snap of the wrist. It’s beautiful to watch. We worked on getting him more comfortable with the drop back game, which wasn’t stuff he was asked to do a bunch between high school and last year. It was all shotgun based stuff and now is really the first time in his career he’s gone under center. For example, having to sell a play action inside zone to the left and snap his head around to find the safeties.”
In regard to expectations for both players this season, Racioppi preaches patience for fans. “People forget that. They see their talent and just think they can be thrown in any offense. It just takes time, that’s all. Talking about experience, whether it’s Art or Johnathan, its going to be experience that they need. It’s going to be dealing with a good series, an average series. A great game, a good game, maybe a bad game. I just think people have to be patient with these two guys.”
One major positive about quarterbacks that the experienced trainer and former pro emphasized was their desire to learn. “They want to soak up everything you can give them information wise”, commented Racioppi. “Stuff that a Davis Webb or a Luis Perez can give them. Even the other quarterbacks in the group they are working in. Kenny Pickett playing at Pitt last season as a freshman and everything he went through. He didn’t play in the beginning, everyone thought he was the best quarterback and then came in at the end and beat an undefeated Miami team in his first college start as a true freshman. Him and Art talked about that pressure. Now Kenny is going in this season as a true sophomore and supposed to be a savior of Pitt football. That’s a lot of pressure on a 19, 20 year old kid. You deal with pressure, you deal with social media, there is a lot of stuff you have to deal with now that we didn’t have to playing 20 years ago.”
In regard to the starting quarterback competition at Rutgers that Sitkowski and Lewis will be battling head to head for, along with Gio Rescigno, Racioppi has seen them support each other all offseason. “I would say they were together 70-80% of the time that I worked with them. They get along great, they are what you want. They cheer for each other, they are pushing each other, but they want to beat each other out. That’s a healthy room.”
He continued, “Everyone is trying to compete and do the best they can but at the same time they are happy if the other guy makes a great throw and aren’t rooting against them. They are making each other better, which is only going to make Rutgers football better and at the end of the day, that’s what we all want. It’s fun for me because I’m not winning or losing games. They come to me to become better quarterbacks. There isn’t the stress and pressure of getting them ready to play Ohio State this Saturday. It’s a different environment for me. We can just focus on just getting them better physically and mentally at the quarterback position.”
Racioppi is not only high on the futures of Sitkowski and Lewis, but the program overall. “Both are great kids and I love my time with them. Both give you the feeling, if I play for Rutgers, I want to play for that guy. They are hard workers, good teammates. There is some really good young talent at Rutgers. You can tell coach Ash’s recruiting classes are bringing in pretty talented kids.”
As for their progress this offseason, Racioppi is effusive in his praise of both quarterbacks. “They are young and five times as good as they were when I first met them in December and January. We were laughing the other day, we were looking at videos of when they were first started training with me, look at your body now compared to then. Just even fundamentally. It’s a tribute to them because they both work their tail off, they both love it. They both love football, so they’re enjoyable to be around. I love my time with them.”
With training camp getting underway on Friday, all eyes will be focused on the quarterback competition at Rutgers. Thanks to Racioppi, Artur Sitkowski and Johnathan Lewis will step onto the field well prepared for the challenge ahead. Regardless of who wins the starting quarterback job for the season opener, the work and preparation that both signal callers have put in together this offseason will benefit that group quite a bit. Along with the rapport they’ve established with one another and the talent they both have, along with the respected and gutty Rescigno in the same room, Rutgers enters the 2018 fall training camp as well positioned at the quarterback spot in some time.
Here are recent highlights of Lewis and Sitkowski getting in some last minute work with Racioppi ahead of the start of camp.
6’3 240 Rutgers QB Johnathan Lewis working Pocket Movement and Scramble catching Angle/Speed of Wr on Out or Corner. Athletic ability and Arm Strength are legit. @TEST_Football @teamjlew @Twain_G_357 @RFootball @bigten #rutgers #qb #qbtraining pic.twitter.com/Z662QZZvms— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) July 30, 2018
Rutgers QB Johnathan Lewis working Play Action snapping head and setting quick Base Throwing 15 yd Post vs Cov 4 putting Ball on hash on time. One of best deep ball throwers in America. @TEST_Football @teamjlew @Twain_G_357 #rutgersfootball #qb #ru pic.twitter.com/BoAP65njPx— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) July 29, 2018
Rutgers QB Johnathan Lewis working Play Action snapping head and getting to a quick Base Throwing 20 yd Speed Cut Dig with anticipation, accuracy and velocity getting ball up and over Nickel. @TEST_Football @teamjlew @Twain_G_357 #rutgers #qb #qbtraining pic.twitter.com/z4gawaxlfS— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) July 29, 2018
Rutgers QB Johnathan Lewis working 5 Step and Reset Throwing 15 yd Sail Route with anticipation, accuracy and 2 ball with velocity over Flat defender. @TEST_Football @teamjlew @Twain_G_357 #rutgers #qb #qbtraining pic.twitter.com/Vy8MILxX6g— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) July 29, 2018
Rutgers QB Art Sitkowski working Gun Play Action with 3 and Reset playing Curl/Flat Throwing 16 yd Curl to talented Rutgers WR Jalen Jordan. Rutgers TE Jerome Washington also put a ton of great work in today. @TEST_Football @artursitkowski4 @JalenSpeedyWR @Jwash44_ #rutgers pic.twitter.com/Ug73dSLSnE— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) July 25, 2018
Rutgers QB Art Sitkowski working Dovetail from top of drop to make a straight, balanced throw to Left. Eyes, front shoulder are married with crossover (break foot) step for alignment and balance. We never want to swing to throws. @TEST_Football @artursitkowski4 #qb #qbtraining pic.twitter.com/wOyE3pk0J5— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) July 26, 2018
Rutgers QB Art Sitkowski working Play Action snapping head, getting balanced Base set to throw Deep Over Route to hardworking Rutgers WR Mo Jabbie in a weak side Flood Concept. @TEST_Football @artursitkowski4 @m6jabbie #rutgers pic.twitter.com/oEQ0BNO9eS— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) July 26, 2018
Rutgers QB Art Sitkowski working Play Action and Climbing pocket in balanced base throwing 15 yd Sail Route to Rutgers TE Jerome Washington as 2 in Progression. Jerome is one of the most talented TEs in college football this year. @TEST_Football @artursitkowski4 @Jwash44_ #ru pic.twitter.com/qXgRSnNEde— Tony Racioppi (@Tonyrazz03) July 26, 2018
Thanks to Tony Racioppi for his time and providing such great insight for Rutgers fans on the development of both quarterbacks.