Rutgers is entering a pivotal season as Chris Ash begins his third year as head coach. Members of his first full-year recruiting class (2017) are now either true sophomores or redshirt freshman.
It’s common for there to be a lot of initial roster turnover when a coaching change takes place and Rutgers has been no exception. The current roster features only 22 scholarship upperclassmen (13 seniors and 9 juniors).
Rutgers released their two-deep depth chart on Monday and the amount of contributors from the sophomore class is what really jumps out to me, especially at the offensive skill positions. Rutgers will be starting a freshman QB (Artur Sitkowski), a sophomore running back (Raheem Blackshear), and three receivers who are either true sophomores or redshirt freshman (Bo Melton, Hunter Hayek and Shameen Jones - all members of the 2017 recruiting class).
Hey, a Rutgers depth chart! pic.twitter.com/auOOq9J7aP— Keith Sargeant (@KSargeantNJ) August 27, 2018
The offensive two-deep breaks out like this, where the sophomore class represents 50% of all players listed.
The youth movement is most apparent at wide receiver, where Rutgers has 10 scholarship players - all are all underclassmen.
The defense tells a different story at first glance. There is a ton of experience between the 7 senior starters, many of who have started for multiple years. However, of the remaining 4 starters, 3 are sophomores and 8 of the 11 players on the second team are either Sophomores or Redshirt freshman.
Special teams is no exception: the kicker, punter, kick returner, punt returner, and longsnapper? You guessed it - sophomores.
What this means for 2018:
Rutgers isn’t winning the Big Ten this year, but fans are looking for signs of progress. After winning 2 games in 2016 and 4 in 2017, a 6-win season and a bowl game would be a big step, but an attainable one. In order to get there, it will require breakout seasons from players like Melton, Blackshear and Travis Vokolek on offense.
On defense, Rutgers expects above average production from the secondary and seasoned linebackers like Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts. But for Rutgers to win those 50/50 games against Maryland or Indiana, they’ll need players like sophomore DE Elorm Lumor to create a pass rush and sophomore DT Julius Turner to stop the run.
Simply put - if the sophomore class exceeds expectations, Rutgers will be in good position to go to a bowl game. If they struggle and are unable to contribute in a meaningful way, Rutgers could be looking at another long season.
What this means for beyond:
When college football programs go through a rebuilding phase, year five is often where the results show up the most in the win-loss column. At that point, the entire roster has been recruited and developed under the current coaching staff.
The differences between the 2016 recruiting class (during the transition from Flood to Ash) and 2017 (Ash’s first full year) are substantial. Not only did Ash land more highly ranked players, but he has done a good job so far at retaining those (of course, with exception to the four members of the 2017 class who were implicated in the credit card fraud situation).
Furthermore, from the 2016 class, only one player currently on the roster is expected to graduate before the 2020 season (Damon Hayes). The other nine players on the roster from that class all redshirted and will be seniors during the 2020 season.
On the contrary, the 2018 class saw ten true freshman earn enough playing time to burn their redshirt last year. The result is that the 2020 Rutgers roster should be a massive upperclassmen class, many who could be three-year-starters by 2020.
Progress in year three will impact years to come
If the sophomore class proves to be successful, it will create a ripple effect that should impact the entire Rutgers program. Being successful in college football really comes down to how well a program recruits and how well a program develops players.
On that first note, the 2017 class was ranked 42nd overall and included several four star players. To continue to landing top in-state talent like Bo Melton or Artur Sitkowski, Ash needs to demonstrate that Rutgers is a place where players of their skill level will succeed. The current recruiting class is ranked an underwhelming 65th in the nation (13th in the B1G) and I believe that showing progress this year will have a significant long-term impact on the perception of Rutgers (to current recruits and to fans).
On the other hand, Ash has been quoted as calling Rutgers a “developmental program”. In order to be successful in the Big Ten, Rutgers also needs to be able to develop players who were not as highly recruited into productive players. A great example of this is TE Travis Vokolek, who has received a lot of offseason buzz as a potential breakout player. Programs like Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State have been able to compete with schools like Ohio State and Michigan because they’ve excelled on the developmental side. If players like Vokolek become successful Big Ten players, it will go a long way in demonstrating the type of program being built at Rutgers.