Rutgers football begins Spring Practice Friday and the 15 practices extend a little over a month before concluding with the April 13 “Spring Game.” The team needs every second of it to improve if it hopes to show dramatic improvement on the field in the fall.
Here’s our five questions, plus a bonus for what to be watching for over the next five weeks.
Who is Art Sitkowski in 2019?
The number one question as it has been since training camp 2013 is around the most important position on the field. Offensive coordinator John McNulty elected to start his early enrollee, four star recruit as a true freshman. Sitkowski was solid in an opening game win over Texas State, but it was an adventure after that. Art definitely has the tools and resiliency to become a good Big Ten quarterback, but other than a few two minute drills with defenses backpedaling, he showed little in conference play to give a warm and fuzzy.
If the sophomore signal caller does not show dramatic improvement, where does the team go from there? Rutgers loses primary backup Giovanni Rescigno as well as Jalen Chatman, so they have been forced to move Johnathan Lewis back from tight end and hope Johnny Langan gets a waiver to play immediately after transferring from Boston College. The safest option may be early enrollee Cole Snyder who has the build of Chas Dodd, but a completely different style of play.
To make matters worse, the quarterbacks may have even less time to pass than he did in 2018 ...
What is the approach to protecting him?
Captain Jonah Jackson (a two year starter on the offensive line) elected to move on for his 5th year of eligibility as did the team’s best blockers at tight end and fullback (Nakia Griffin-Stewart and Max Anthony). Left tackle Tariq Cole is out of eligibility after starting the last three years. So Rutgers needs to replace the best four blockers at their positions in 2019.
New offensive line coach Pete Rossomando has two true returning starters as building blocks. Kamaal Seymour has started for two and a half years at right tackle, but may be out of position. Mike Maietti is not your typical Big Ten center, but is more than serviceable in that role. The other three spots are wide open. Omari Cooper was brought in as a JUCO which usually means to play right away and could shift Seymour inside. Raiqwon O’Neal had a Big Ten body enrolling early last year but struggled when forced into action at left tackle for an injured Tariq Cole. A big step from O’Neal developing into a starting caliber left tackle would be the best thing that could happen to this group. Mike Lonsdorf was the swing lineman and likely is the fallback option at left tackle or left guard. A host of other players have a chance to start if they can win position battles including: Zach Venesky, Nick Krimin, Sam Vretman, Sam Howson, Owen Bowles, Jamaal Beaty, Matt Rosso, and Reggie Sutton. Venesky, Krimin, and Vretman all made starts in 2018 and with added strength could surprise.
McNulty employed a lot of pre-snap motions early in the season but abandoned most of them due to ineffectiveness as the season went on. He experimented with multi-back sets to capitalize on the deepest position group on the team, running back, and a big key here is if Isaih Pacheco can improve in pass protection. Walk-on Brandon Myers is the only fullback on the roster and with the tight end position rather thin, RU is hoping big Matt Alaimo will be granted eligibility after transferring from UCLA. If not, we may see more Reggie Sutton as a 6th offensive lineman in there at tight end. The backs and receivers will be key to bail out an experienced line at times.
When will someone establish himself as a go to receiver?
Lester Erb moved from running backs coach to wide receivers last year. Nunzio Campanile moves from running backs to tight ends this spring. From one of their position groups, someone needs to step up as the go to receiver.
In 2018 the security blanket was expected to be Tight End Jerome Washington, but he battled injuries more and more as the season progressed. Travis Vokolek was lauded by the coaching staff and had his moments, but did not establish himself as a #1 Tight End, nevermind as a go to receiver in 2018. Alaimo if eligible is more of a check down threat in the passing game, probably releasing late after initially blocking. Johnathan Lewis and Daevon Robinson showed some athletic ability despite TE not being their recruited positions.
At wide receiver, the season was a disappointment for opening day starters Bo Melton, Shameen Jones, and Hunter Hayek. To get more shiftiness on the field, Eddie Lewis, got many reps in the slot, always seeming to be able to get a step on his defender. Sometimes though, Eddie dropped critical third down balls that should have moved the chains. There are eleven returning scholarship wideouts plus three recruits, who can simply be the reliable possession guy? That alone would allow the offense to take steps forward in every other area.
Where will returning starters Damon Hayes and Tyreek Maddox-Williams end up?
At linebacker, the first domino will be when the team will find out if Michigan transfer and former #1 recruit in New Jersey Drew Singleton will be granted immediate eligibility. Singleton was the most talented player on the entire coming out of high school that is currently on the Rutgers roster. He was in the mix to start at Michigan last year. The sooner the better obviously because Tyreek Maddox-Williams has exclusively played on the strong-side in his career out of necessity and may be more suited to the middle. Tyson Fogg flashed at all three positions and probably is best on the weak side. The depth behind them extends to all three spots: Olakunle Fatukasi (strong and weak-side), Rashawn Battle (middle), and Malik Dixon (hybrid safety). The incoming freshman class is pretty good, too, and linebacker is a spot where they could see action early on. New defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Andy Buh may draw a line in the sand at some point to simply give direction to the group who lost three year starters Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris.
Damon Hayes was the slot corner as a freshman, a starter in place of injured Bless Austin during the second half of 2017, and starting safety in 2018. Word around is that he may move back to cornerback to replace four-year starter Isaiah Wharton, where perplexingly Rutgers has not been able to develop players that didn’t enter the lineup right away as freshmen. If Hayes does return to corner, he would be opposite Avery Young who was abused in his first start after being thrown into the fire at Ohio State, but was probably the most consistent player on the defense the rest of the season. At safety, Rutgers needs to replace multi-year starters Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton so it falls to co-defensive coordinator Noah Joseph to find at least one of the other eleven defensive backs on the roster to start opening day. The incoming freshman have upside, but none are enrolling early.
How much growth is there on the defensive line?
Losing multi-year starters and possibly the highest upside members of the defense, Kevin Wilkins and Jon Bateky, is a huge blow. Corey Brown is in his second year with the defensive line and at least comes to the party with some experienced returnees despite the graduations. When healthy, Elorm Lumor made a huge leap to being a disruptive pass rusher. The only positive was that in his stead, Mike Tverdov emerged as the high motor, emotional leader of the line that his older brother was during his time on the banks. With the hopeful return of Tijaun Mason from injury as a situational pass rusher and CJ Onyechi from suspension, the team could be in decent shape at defensive end. All of them are a bit undersized, so Brown will need to do a lot of rotating fresh legs to hold up against the run.
The interior of the line boasts two returning rotational players, Julius Turner and Willington Previlon. Both were pretty good in limited action in 2017 but took a long time to take the next step under heavier workload in 2018. Previlon had some huge plays, particularly against Northwestern in the near upset of the B1G West champs and needs to be a leader as the only senior. Turner is good in bursts even as an undersized nose guard, but the team needs to spell him or the weight he gives up renders him ineffective. Redshirt sophomores Jaohne Duggan and Brandon Bordner plus three redshirt freshmen are all best suited for the strong-end spot but may be forced to play inside at times. With proper rest it could be ok, but in late game situations with the opponent trying to run out the clock, more beef inside will be needed. Walk-on Jason Griggs, and two guys who came over from the offense (Manny Taylor and Micah Clark) will try and prevent the results observed in the Northwestern and Wisconsin 4th quarters.
BONUS: Why should the fans believe in this team?
The special teams units return mostly intact, so that should prevent back breaking plays early in the game and if Rutgers is in a game late help them secure or even steal a victory. It also has served as a good springboard for linebackers and defensive linemen to get their feet wet before grabbing bigger roles. If Coach Okruch can get more contributions from wide receivers not named Mo Jabbie, the plethora of defensive backs not named Kessawn Abraham, and the true freshmen, the units could be elite.
Everyone associated with the Rutgers program knows they need to improve individually so the sense of urgency should be there. Virtually every college football team, every spring begins with a ton of question marks. What makes the sport so great is that the roster completely turns over every four years.
For the first time in a decade, the offensive coordinator returns for a second consecutive season. That in and of itself is mind boggling, so hopefully the familiarity even in spring will help RU build confidence in staple pass plays. Just adding a serviceable passing attack will have a trickle down effect throughout the team: running game more effective, offensive line easier to block, and keep defense resting on the sidelines.
Keep an eye out for more spring football coverage from OTB including our position reviews, linebackers having been the first published.
Enjoy the spring because like it is in nature, it’s a time for optimism and growth both on and off the field.
R @RFootball student-athletes doing amazing things! As the State University of New Jersey we take pride in giving back as often as possible!— Rutgers Leadership Dev. & Strategic Partnerships (@RULeadDev) March 4, 2019
How a group of Rutgers football players are mentoring students in Newark, Franklin and Piscataway https://t.co/7QQjVNCVo9