Over two weeks into training camp and less than two weeks until the 2018 season opener, Rutgers football has yet to name a starting quarterback. Head coach Chris Ash has been clear on the process in choosing a starter throughout the spring and summer, stating the competition between fifth-year senior Gio Rescigno, sophomore Johnathan Lewis and freshman Artur Sitkowski would go well into training camp. He indicated on Saturday after the second scrimmage of camp, which took place during Fan Appreciation Day, that a decision needs to be made soon. Ash said the following to the media:
“It’s kind of been the plan to get to this point. We’ll sit down here after this scrimmage, have some conversations and see where we’re at. There’s no set date to say this guy or that guy is our starting quarterback. We’ll do it when we’re comfortable with it and feel like someone has been consistent and taken ownership of the football team. But we have to have some serious conversations. We have to do it fairly soon. We’re not going to wait until actual game week to do it.”
You can watch his full press conference with the media here.
Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media published stats from Saturday’s scrimmage, which also included situational plays and a two-minute drill. Here are how the quarterbacks performed statistically:
Sitkowski: 7-for-16, 1 INT, 125 yards, 2 TD
Rescigno: 5-11, 0 INT, 42 yards, 1 TD
Lewis: 3-3, 0 INT, 98 yards, 2 TD
Full disclosure: Sitkowski threw a second interception during a situational play that was not counted in the scrimmage statistics.
While people may jump to conclusions based on the raw stats, which the message boards predictably have, perspective is needed. First off, the reps were allocated based off what the coaches have seen from all three quarterbacks so far in training camp. An obvious sign that Sitkowski should be considered the favorite to start the season opener is the fact that he took the most reps and made the most pass attempts. Going down the line, Gio took the second most reps and pass attempts. They were the only two quarterbacks to take reps with the first team offense. While Lewis threw for two touchdowns on just three attempts, he also took far less snaps and didn’t get a chance in the two minute drill, unlike Gio and Sitkowski. That makes it likely the coaches see him as the third quarterback on the depth chart.
In reading the tea leaves, this starting quarterback battle is clearly down a two man race. It truly is a competition between youth and experience. In one corner, you have the grizzled but flawed veteran versus the more talented but inexperienced rookie. It’s a tale as old as time and for Rutgers football, the decision should be simple: start the quarterback with the most upside.
While expectations vary between fans for this season, we can all agree that Rutgers is not competing for a Big Ten title in 2018. Because of that fact alone, it makes sense to start Sitkowski. He clearly has the most talent and highest ceiling based on his potential. With four years of eligibility to go along with the ideal size and arm strength of a prototypical drop back quarterback best suited for a pro-style offense, I don’t even think it’s a difficult decision.
Gio is the sentimental choice, but he isn’t the right one. Don’t get me wrong, he is one of my favorite Rutgers players in recent memory. He has been the true definition of a gritty, selfless leader who admirably helped lead the program to three conference victories last season. It has not been an easy ride for Gio, who has had to deal with a new offensive coordinator every year of his Rutgers career. His teammates think so highly of him, he was elected one of six captains on Friday. Ash said in his presser that Gio and linebacker Deonte Roberts garnered the most votes by far. However, Rescigno has consistently proven his skills are limited as far as a Big Ten level quarterback is concerned. He can be reckless running the football and when he is less than 100% physically, he is even more ineffective in the passing game. Simply put, Rescigno lacks big play ability and severely hurts the chances of Rutgers to mount any tangible comeback when falling behind in a game.
Offensive coordinator John McNulty has harped on three things in training camp, in regard to what his points of emphasis are when choosing a quarterback: ability to make adjustments at the line based on what the defense is showing; ability to convert on third downs; and ability to make the big play down the field. On the face of it, Gio would have the edge on the first point at the moment over Sitkowski simply because he has more game experience. With third downs, Gio has struggled in the past, as has the entire offense the last two seasons, while Artur hasn’t had a chance yet. In regard to big play potential, Sitkowski has a clear advantage over Gio in that area.
Even if Gio has held a slight edge in outperforming Sitkowski during training camp so far, which we don’t know if he has, that’s not enough of a reason to start him over the true freshman. While I’ve seen the argument that Gio deserves a chance to show what he can do with the new offense, it only proves true if McNulty believes he can execute the game plan that he wants to implement on a weekly basis.
While it’s certainly not the same situation, Rutgers once had a young quarterback struggle in 2012 with a talented, veteran defense. That player, Gary Nova, took his lumps and even was benched at the end of the following season. However, Nova blossomed his senior year under Ralph Friedgen and led Rutgers to an 8-5 record. While some might think that’s an argument for Gio to start, I think it signals the opposite. Let Sitkowski learn on the job now to reap the full benefits of his potential later in his career. An inexperienced Sitkowski still has a higher ceiling than Gio has for this season, based on talent and fit for the pro-style offense.
Don’t misinterpret Sitkowski as the second coming of Joe Montana, or even Mike Teel. As a true freshman, he will have plenty of ups and downs. He was interception prone in his high school career. However, he has the potential to lead McNulty’s offense better than anyone else on the roster. Expecting anything more than something like 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 2,500 passing yards and a 60% completion percentage is likely unrealistic thinking. Even those stats may be a stretch for Sitkowski debuting in the Big Ten East this season. However, whatever he can produce will most likely be an upgrade over the quarterback production Rutgers has gotten in the three seasons since Nova has been gone.
Sitkowski also has the ability to rally the program towards the future in a way Gio cannot, simply because he has so much time left to play. It would help recruiting as well to point towards a true freshman leading the offense and hopefully help land prospects who want to play with him. He certainly won’t be a finished product, but he has the talent to show flashes of what the future will be like playing with him.
That’s why Sitkowski got so many reps in Saturday’s scrimmage. Fans shouldn’t be discouraged because he made mistakes. Rather, the entire point of him getting so much action in the scrimmage was for him to have an opportunity to learn from any mistakes he made. Sitkowski needs work and needs time to gain experience. Better to make mistakes in the scrimmage and have time to improve than evenly split reps and give him less opportunity to do so. Also note that he faced a first team Rutgers defense that has a chance to be one of the best in the Big Ten this season. It’s great preparation for him to be facing them every single day in practice.
The early part of the schedule is also conducive to working in a true freshman and get him ready for what is a brutal November. If you start Gio and decide a change needs to happen mid-season, it would be too late to get his replacement, whether Sitkowski or Lewis, truly ready for the Big Ten elite.
For all of those reasons I’ve mentioned, I think the decision to start Sitkowski is an easy one. Having Gio as the backup is ideal. He has experience and would be ready to step in at any time, whether Art went down with an injury or struggled so much that a change was needed. Having Gio as a captain also enables him to have a big impact on Sitkowski and can help guide him the entire season, proving he is the ultimate team player.
Rutgers isn’t competing for championships. It’s year three of the rebuild and Ash has the full support of athletic director Pat Hobbs. Everyone hopes Rutgers can win six games and advance to a bowl game this season. However, if they don’t, it doesn’t mean the future won’t be better. The talent base of this program continues to improve and many young players will see the field this season. They need a player among them to believe in, as do the fans. Someone to point to that signals the future is bright. That player is Artur Sitkowski. Accept that he will struggle at times, but that he also offers the best chance for the Rutgers offense to be what McNulty and Ash hope it can be, a winning one.