The current Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team takes a break from practice with pro day Friday. At OTB, we never take breaks and continue with our spring football coverage.
This series reviews the state of each positional group in spring practice that runs throughout March into April and concludes with the spring game on April 13.
We continue by switching to the offensive side of the ball with the Tight Ends and Fullbacks.
Position coach(es): Nunzio Campanile
Key players lost: Jerome Washington, Max Anthony, Nakia Griffin-Stewart
Key players returning: Travis Vokolek (Jr.), Johnathan Lewis (RSo.), Brandon Myers (RFr.), Jonathan Pimentel (RFr.)
Newcomers: Matt Alaimo (RFr. transfer from UCLA)
What they did well in 2018: Hit the seam route.
This group was pretty average across the board for most of the season in both blocking and receiving. That being said when they did make catches it went for good yardage. Jerome Washington (11 catches, 202 yards) was limited due to injury and though he did not lead the team in receiving like he had in 2017, his 18.4 yards per catch is ridiculous for a tight end. Early in the season I recall an amazing third and 18 conversion he secured.
Travis Vokolek (16 catches, 184 yards) as the backup was eventually forced into starting duty. Vokolek never developed into the red zone threat everyone hoped or the reliable check down option for RU QBs, but Travis did score two touchdowns. His TD down the seam against Michigan State should be a sign of things to come.
Needs Improvement: Scoring points.
Nakia Griffin-Stewart (2 catches, 10 yards) never really became the big play threat we hoped to see and has elected to move on for his 5th year in addition to Washington’s graduation. Neither hauled in a touchdown in 2018. Vokolek was lauded as a guy who could simply box out defenders in the red zone or just to secure first downs, but he really didn’t succeed (other than tweet below). Was that on him or the quarterbacks? Probably both. Since the tight ends were so non-threatening, once Washington went down true freshman offensive tackle Reggie Sutton was used as a 6th offensive lineman. Rutgers tried to power the ball in short yardage but didn’t have the horses up front to be successful there either.
Until one of the Rutgers wide receivers can be a reliable possession guy or touchdown maker, it is dependent on the tight ends to go up and get a few balls. At the highest levels of football, tight ends are a matchup problem for most defenses and RU needs every edge they can get. With a second year in offensive coordinator John McNulty’s system, this is as good a chance as any in the past decade.
Pretty much we need to see this more often:
Changes expected in 2019
Nunzio Campanile moves over from running backs coach to replace Vince Okruch who switched to the defensive side. Campanile handles a group in heavy transition. He loses Washington and Griffin-Stewart while Vokolek is in a non-contact jersey this spring. So Rutgers currently has converted quarterback Johnathan Lewis working with walk-ons Jonathan Pimentel and Brandon Myers. Matt Alaimo was a high three-star prospect out of St. Joseph’s (Montvale) and returns to the Garden State after a year at UCLA, but his eligibility for 2019 has not yet been granted and might not at all until 2020.
McNulty will simply have to use two tailback sets in 2019. In fact with Max Anthony electing to move on for his 5th year and Myers now listed as a tight end, there are no fullbacks listed on the current roster. Isaih Pacheco surely has the size to be a blocking back at times, but most fans surely would prefer he totes the rock as much as possible. McNulty acknowledged in his press conference that without Rutgers possessing big hulking tight ends, they will opt for more spreading out the defense to try and hit big run plays. The logic there is sound and the plus is that Rutgers has more diverse skillsets on offense than quite some time, so hopefully he can carve out niches for a lot of players that they outgrow over the course of the season.
Way too early predictions
With Vokolek sidelined during spring practice, J. Lewis should emerge as the front runner to start despite playing tight end for the first time in 2018. We know Johnathan can run with the ball and has decent hands, so if he can catch should at least be a serviceable member of the two-deep. Alaimo is listed at the same weight as Lewis, and flashed catching ability on short patterns in high school that should translate to the Big Ten.
It’s going to have to be a by committee approach to get bodies on the field that have skills to offer. As a flexed tight end, expect Daevon Robinson, Jalen Jordan, or possibly Zihir Lacewell filling that spot. Sutton is pretty athletic for a 6th lineman so until Alaimo is ready to be the true blocking tight end, that should be ok. In formations that need a fullback, I’d like to see an extra lineman in there at times also (love to see Devin Baldwin or Rayyan Buell), but Myers should be able to do a passable job in that role. Walk-ons at fullback are normal and even at Tight End Pimentel could shock many with production. When Rutgers had Matt Flanagan and Charles Scharff at the top of the depth chart in 2015 people panicked, but that worked out fine with Flanagan reaching the NFL last year with the Redskins.
This group is thin right now, but if Vokolek is healthy and Alaimo eligible, tight end will definitely not be what is holding Rutgers’s offense back in 2019. If anything, it has the potential to develop two NFL players in Vokolek and Johnathan Lewis that are prime time in 2020. A faster development curve would be gravy.
Previously covered groups