In head coach Chris Ash’s postgame press conference to conclude spring practice on Saturday, there was a surprise announcement about an important role ahead of next season. No, it wasn’t about starting quarterback. Ash did say he was pleased with the progress that Artur Sitkowski made this spring and newcomers Johnny Langan and Cole Snyder improved their decision making at the end of camp. However, he said there would be no decision until fall camp, despite the fact that Sitkowski is the returning starter and only signal caller with any experience. The big news from Saturday is that Ash had the players vote for team captains this past week instead of waiting until fall training camp. Ash stated two main reasons for the change.
“I just wanted the leadership of the team be set for the summer. A lot of times when we vote for captains in the fall, there are some new players in the room that haven’t been around and necessarily know who the leaders are”, Ash stated. He continued, “sometimes their vote becomes a popularity vote. It can sway who becomes captain. I wanted guys who have been here the whole offseason and all of spring to impact who the captains were. It’s more about having leadership set for offseason workouts. We haven’t done that here, I have done it at other places. I felt like for our team right now our needs, it was something we needed to do differently and thats why we did it.”
For a team coming off an 1-11 season, it seems like a smart move to set captains ahead of the summer and to give those players named the authority to push their teammates this offseason. Ash gave a vote of confidence in the group, saying “I think we have outstanding leadership. I think we have four great captains that will provide tremendous leadership for this group.”
The players selected were Zach Venesky and Raheem Blackshear on offense, as well as Tyshon Fogg and Tyreek Maddox-Williams on defense. While all four players are strong in character and each should have a big impact on the field this fall, it does highlight how young and inexperienced this team is.
While Venesky is a redshirt senior, he has only played in nine games throughout his career. He did start at left guard the last five games of last season and has obviously earned the respect of his teammates. It’s crucial that the offensive line show improvement this season for Rutgers to have success, so it’s great that a player within that unit was identified as a leader by teammates.
Blackshear became the first Rutgers player to lead the team in rushing and receiving last season in over three decades. He was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection by the coaches last fall, as well as being named an Academic All-Big Ten selection as well. The junior will continue to be a big part of the offense next season.
Fogg is a former 4-star recruit that has played in 18 games over the past two seasons, but has yet to earn a start. This was mostly due to the fact he played behind two veteran players in Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts at linebacker. It’s no secret that Rutgers needs the junior to step up in a big way this coming season and his leadership will be just as important as his own performance.
Maddox-Williams is the most experienced of the group, bringing 18 starts with him as he enters his fourth season with the program. After starting six games at SAM linebacker as a true freshman, he missed the entire next season due to injury. However, Maddox-Williams started every game last season and has been named an Academic All-Big Ten selection each of the past two years.
With only Venesky entering his last season of eligibility, the player leadership of the program is mostly set for multiple seasons moving forward. For a team that is still coming together in many ways, this seems like it can only help. More importantly, Ash was very high on how this team has approached the offseason. He highlighted the team as having “a great attitude, great chemistry, being hard working, and very coachable.” He said it gives them a chance to improve and to become the best team they can be.
Ash continued, “I just like the way this group works, They’ve worked extremely hard this offseason. We changed the way we did some things this spring and no one complained. They just went and worked. They’ve attacked everything we’ve asked them to do. If you do those things consistently, you have a chance to improve. The true test is when you play games. I’m not going to sit her and proclaim anything about our football team after 15 spring practices. We have a lot of work to do in summer and training camp. I like the direction we are going and I like the way these guys show up to work everyday.”
As for how much improvement Rutgers can make this fall, Ash stated he didn’t feel they were far away from making a significant step forward. “No not at all. If you look at the way we played at the end of last season, we were really competitive and a few plays away from winning a few games”, Ash said. He continued, “we played our best football at the end of the season. We need to build on that. It’s not just about competing, it’s figuring out how to win some games. Making plays that you need to in order to win. We need to focus better, be more disciplined, able to execute more consistently and if we can do those things, we’ll have a chance to win games.”
And with that, every Rutgers fan hopes this team can do just that this coming fall. For now, the next few months are crucial for the players to continue to develop and prepare for the challenge ahead. Having captains set going into Ash’s most critical summer of his tenure can only help.
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