Rutgers had their second practice of the week, 7th overall of the spring on Thursday, and Head Coach Chris Ash met with the media afterward.
Here’s my five biggest takeaways from listening to the press conference. As per past disclaimers, I am acknowledging in advance that because coaches try to avoid bulletin board or scouting material for opponents, much of the media commentary is likely excessive assessment. I may be overanalyzing or taking a leap in the conclusions per just a few small phrases from the Coach. Watch the full Chris Ash in the embedded video below.
1. “I think our o-line in the run game is making some strides.”
The question was a follow up to a point Ash made about how certain positions that needed to show improvement have. He first mentioned the offensive line improving in the run game, but needing to “clean some things up in pass protection and be more consistent there.” A follow up question about what left tackle is looking like resulted in Ash having positive things to say about Raiqwon O’Neal and Mike Lonsdorf.
Dave’s take: Emphasis on the offensive line is very logical for this team. It’s a given they need to get better in run blocking, especially when it’s entirely plausible that the four best offensive players on the field in 2019 are running backs. In the offensive line review I indicated run blocking and third down pass protection are equally the 1a and 1b areas for improvement, but it’s no surprise the run blocking is more of the focus right now. The way this offensive line is built, two guys project as better run blockers than pass blockers (Zach Venesky and Kamaal Seymour). With those being the two 5th year seniors it makes sense to ride their leadership in the second year of the same offensive system.
Everyone should be improving with practice and reps, especially the offensive line so O’Neal and Lonsdorf getting better should be a given. Keyword: should. And of course in reality the team needs that progress badly to improve overall.
2. “The ball’s not going to be thrown to all of them. If they want the ball thrown to them, they have to separate themselves.”
The original question from James Kratch was simply about how many players are competing at wide receiver. Coach followed by saying they aren’t in a place to say a certain subset of guys have separated themselves, but he likes the way they are working. However, a later question came as to why Daevon Robinson was moved to receiver and Ash indicated, “It’s his natural position.” Then pivoted to how Robinson “is probably the most consistent guy out here” and then ended with, “because of his size and length he’s doing a real good job outside.”
Dave’s take: For the group as a whole, the attitude is surely correct that individual members of the receiver group need to leave no doubt with the coaching staff that they have earned playing time by distancing themselves from the pack. What we don’t know is if the messaging to the team is that less guys will play rather than more, to try and motivate them. The bluntness about wanting “the ball thrown to them” is good to hear because this group doesn’t need coddling, they need to man up in 2019.
Specific to Robinson, this was rather interesting to dissect and therefore could mean a lot of different things. First off, Daevon was projected as an athlete, often more likely as a defensive end by some recruiting sources. That being said, I think Ash meant on the offensive side, Robinson is better as a receiver than a tight end especially after Ash joked about Daevon’s blocking. It’s not a surprise that Robinson is the most consistent guy in the group considering he seemed to be in the right place at the right time on his routes last year even as a true freshman. But if Robinson is the most consistent, yet no one has separated themselves, is that really, really bad at this point?
The biggest takeaway was probably the final point about his size and length. We have heard for Ash’s entire tenure about length at the cornerback spot, but receiver playing time has been more determined by speed and quickness. In fact in 2017 we heard about how much the staff liked the times (presumably quickness and speed drills) more than the previous year. Well Andre Patton and Carlton Agudosi went to the NFL that year, while the Rutgers receivers have been terrible the last two years since. So perhaps the staff is learning how to utilize big guys better which comes at the right time as Isaiah Washington and Stanley King are poised to arrive soon.
3. “He’s got the physical tools, but he’s got a lot to learn, he’s got to master a lot of things.”
Keith Sargeant asked about how much better Raheem Blackshear can be after impacting the offense in a variety of ways and showing huge growth from his first to second year on the banks. Ash responded, “We are asking a lot of him. He’s going to be playing multiple positions for us. It’s more of a mental thing than a physical thing. And that’s probably where he has to grow the most. Truly understanding all the things we are asking him to do.” Ash continued that he has talent to help Rutgers score points but they need to put him in positions to do that if the offense is going to improve.
Dave’s take: Wow, this was one of the juiciest spring quotes in quite some time. To start, I initially thought Ash may have been calling out Blackshear in the media as a motivational tactic which is very out of character for the coach. Then although possible, it seemed more that Ash was making an indication that a lot is on Raheem’s plate because he has talent. Maybe even it was a reverse call out that other guys haven’t been doing enough, so Blackshear is required to take on a heavier load.
Specific to Blackshear’s role, I think the staff knows Pacheco should be their bell cow for years to come. As a result, they absolutely should try to do what Kent State did to RU in 2012 (painful memory I know), where Dri Archer was lining up all over the place and wreaking havoc. I don’t think Raheem is as dynamic as Archer, but I do think Pacheco will be better than Trayion Durham who had over 1,000 yards that season in the MAC. So Blackshear needs to understand slot duty, receiver, and running back spots which requires a lot of time and effort no matter how studious a player is to truly “master.” We saw how much Ty Johnson of Maryland did out of this spot first hand, even against Big Ten competition.
The other reason Rutgers needs Raheem to do this is so he can set an example for likely Aaron Young or Kay’Ron Adams to be able to play the same spot. In 2016, RU had all their eggs in the Janarion Grant basket, so when he went down they were doomed. Hopefully this rover role is built into the offense with an understudy for posterity that allows more playmakers on the field.
4. “What we’ve seen so far from [Art] this spring, he going to do that.”
Ash was asked about his two young quarterbacks and offered to begin that Art Sitkowski needs to jump from year one to two like Blackshear was able to do. Then Ash reverted into the coach-speak that the game is slowing down for Sitkowski, he has more confidence, is more comfortable, etc. Lastly on Art individually, “There’s a ton of things he needs to get better at.” After that Ash gave typical answers about the younger guys learning and pushing each other.
Dave’s take: Ash mentioned how Art is showing more leadership as well, which may be the biggest point right there. One thing that was not harped on enough is how difficult it must have been for Sitkowski to be viewed as a team leader in 2018 when his backup was two-year starter and team captain Gio Rescigno. With Gio gone, it opens a leadership void that Skitkowski needs to fill and could unite the locker room at the beginning of the year. Anyone who has played football knows, if the team doesn’t have confidence in the QB, the little things all seem to go wrong and then snowball into big ones.
Naturally if Art does sell his teammates in spring and summer, he has to play better in fall or it’s all for naught. So the game slowing down and him being more confident is equally important in him simply getting better and improving per Ash’s comments on the number of areas he needs to. With the eligibility status of transfer Johnny Langan uncertain, Art really has to even though Ash indicated if a grad transfer QB might become available, the Rutgers staff would discuss it.
5. “Seeing a bunch of guys who play really, really hard and are trying to be physical.”
Rutgers is hosting a Saturday “open” practice for season ticket holders and Keith Sargeant asked what fans should expect from the event.
Dave’s take: Normally in spring or fall, coaches try to reduce contact in scrimmages to prevent injuries. The fact is that Rutgers needs to take some risks at the expense of giving their team some contact that opponents may not be, to try and close the gap. The team does not have any superstars and at most positions the gap between starter and backup is rather small, so it’s probably he right choice. Personally I think the lack of contact both in football (baseball falls into the same category) and by doing less other physically demanding activities outside of the sport itself actually contribute to more injuries anyway. So let them push themselves.
Ash also used the word “spirited” earlier in his answer, and it seemed like he slowed his speech to ensure he slipped that specific word in. He knows the team looked defeated at times during last season’s losing streak, but when they played with more effort and heart even against better competition the product on the field was vastly improved. For him to keep his job and the team to have any hope of winning games, they need to have more energy and effort than opponents which is easier said than done.
Let us know your thoughts on these takeaways, especially the segment about Raheem Blackshear, or anything you think should have been in the top five from yesterday’s press conference.