Fall practice continues for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team. We continue a series of positional previews, working our way from the perceived weakest to strongest units that will be published every few days. Next up is the team’s tight ends and fullbacks that may be fine simply replicating last season’s efforts in 2018. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach: Vince Okruch (3rd season)
Key players lost: Myles Nash
Key players returning: Jerome Washington (RSr.), Max Anthony (RJr.), Nakia Griffin-Stewart (RJr.), Travis Vokolek (So.)
Newcomers: Jalen Jordan (Fr. - early enrollee)
Question 1: Can they be even more productive?
The tight end group was required to take on a big role in the passing game in 2017. They along with fullback Max Anthony totaled 1⁄3 of the team’s entire reception total. It would be difficult to expect them to handle that percentage of the load again, although 45 receptions could be matched, especially if the wide receivers can stretch the defense and allow more completions on intermediate routes. Anthony is a reliable target on check downs in addition to being a solid blocker. Unfortunately word is that Max is injured right now with no timetable for a return.
On the blocking front, they will miss Myles Nash. Nash played both ways and was the primary blocking tight end and backup fullback at times. Improvements by everyone else in the group should be able to offset it if Anthony returns to full strength. Washington and Griffin-Stewart both have the frames to be good blockers and demonstrated willingness to do their part last year. They will have to do more as Travis Vokolek may be ready to be a solid receiver, but is still getting stronger. They are all consummate team players and some of the most valuable players on the entire roster.
Question 2: Can they make more plays in short yardage?
If there was one weakness for the group it was in short yardage situations. With Rutgers beleaguered passing attack, opponents sent everyone to the line in short third down situations and near the goal line. Partially due to the team’s strength at running back and run focus, most of the time a pile of bodies determined if a ball carrier like Gus Edwards or Josh Hicks head reached the line to gain. Anthony is a solid lead blocker, but not a road grader, so there is some room for improvement in getting more push on blocks. Coach Okruch, who also handles special teams, seems to be very good at teaching young guys how to block.
More importantly, play action slants, curls, and leak outs could make opponents play third and short as well as goal line situations more conservatively. Of the group, each member should be able to bring a skill to the table that offensive coordinator John McNulty can take advantage of. Washington knows how to get open and has incredible strength even when defenders are draped all over him, so well placed balls form the quarterback are almost guaranteed catches. Vokolek showed in spring an ability to stretch out and win jump balls making him potentially open even when he’s covered. Griffin-Stewart is surprisingly agile and fast for a his size and is the biggest threat to gain yards after the catch. McNulty got a lot of mileage from his TEs and FBs the first time around and may have an even more talented group this time. They should be able to get more than two touchdowns this year.
Question 3: What’s new?
Not much, and that’s a good thing. Myles Nash may be gone but he is replaced in the room by true freshman Jalen Jordan who could carve out a role after enrolling early out of IMG. It will be interesting to see if any additional walk-ons appear on the roster, especially at fullback. Otherwise the team is relying on Griffin-Stewart as the H-back with Anthony on the mend. The staff hinted at occasionally using a true pro set, possibly using Jon Hilliman, Trey Sneed, or even Elijah Barnwell in the fullback role a bit to keep defenses off balance. That may be more important now as 2017 backup fullback Jim Brady is not listed on the current roster.
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
Washington impresses NFL scouts by making even more spectacular plays and duplicating or exceeding his team-leading 28 catches for 282 yards. Griffin-Stewart becomes a valuable contributor and runs away from a few linebackers. Vokolek wins jump balls in the endzone.
Without Nash, Washington’s additional blocking responsibilities lead to him getting more banged up. Vokolek is overhyped. Griffin-Stewart still doesn’t put it all together. Anthony can’t get healthy.
The tight end group does more of the same but contributes a few more touchdowns. Vokolek shows flashes but isn’t ready to be an All-American. Washington is the same as 2017, giving himself a shot at the next level. Griffin-Stewart makes a few catches, especially when Johnathan Lewis is in there. Jordan ends up taking a redshirt because the team has enough other talent and he is only needed in the event of injury.
Players listed on the current roster
#44 Max Anthony (6’0”, 240 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Anthony is the only fullback currently listed on the roster, although he was backed up last year by Jim Brady. Max is a walk-on who was happier than anyone when Jerry Kill brought the fullback/H-back position to the offense in 2017. He is as reliable as a fullback can be.
#86 Nakia Griffin-Stewart (6’5” 255 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Griffin-Stewart was one of the best players in the 2015 recruiting class and really impressed in the 2017 spring game. He had a minor role in the offense last fall, but got less time than Nash as the team preferred blocking primarily. We’ve been waiting for NGS to break out and other than Johnathan Lewis’s first career touchdown pass, he hasn’t yet. If he can make some receptions, yards after the catch should follow. His blocking will be key.
#88 Jerome Washington (6’4” 258 lbs.) Senior
Washington is the real deal, the best tight end at Rutgers since Tyler Kroft as a receiver and possibly a better blocker at the college level. He led the team in catches and yards despite three quarterbacks throwing the ball. Unless he completely disappoints in 2018, he’ll be in an NFL training camp in 2019.
#89 Travis Vokolek (6’6” 235 lbs.) Sophomore
Vokolek has gotten more praise than possibly any other member of the team in spring. Fans want to see him just so they can get back to the reality that he is not the second coming of Marco Battaglia, and go on with their lives. If nothing else, Travis will get some red zone targets and build from there. He can stretch his body outside the reach of defenders.
#83 Jalen Jordan (6’5”, 210 lbs.)
Jordan enrolled early out of IMG alongside his high school teammate Art Sitkowski. Jalen has a huge catch radius and will begin mostly as a flexed tight end, so it doesn’t really matter if you consider that a wide receiver or tight end. He should be able to contribute in the red zone right away, especially as the staff will try everyone above 6’3” to figure out a way to score in the red zone.
#87 Jonathan Pimentel (6’3”, 220 lbs.), #41 Brandon Myers (6’1”, 221 lbs.),
Pimentel joins the program from Manalapan with freshman eligibility. Myers is a recent addition from Bridgewater.
Long term outlook: This group is set in 2018 and also lined up well in 2019 even though Washington will graduate and likely move on to the NFL. If Washington’s nagging injuries get more severe, the rest of the group should still be serviceable as a Big Ten group. The team should have until 2020 to get a replacement fullback, perhaps another walk-on. Coach Okruch made huge strides with this group as blockers and should be able to continue with the next set of personnel as the group is projected to lose one guy each year allowing constant re-injection. If McNulty sticks around, a few more NFL careers should be launched as they were during his first stint.
Previous positional reviews: