Rutgers Football’s spring game postgame press conference was covered here, but let’s check back in with specifically what we were watching for.
Who is getting reps on the defensive line?
The number one guy who flashed on the defensive line was Tijaun Mason. Even playing against the starting offensive line, they had a lot of trouble blocking him. It looked like more of a zone blocking scheme in pass protection at times, where the offensive line built a wall (more on that later), but anytime it was one on one with Mason he was tough to contain. Even on plays he didn’t get to the backfield, he dictated how the protection had to react. With all the talk about Mike Tverdov, Elorm Lumor, and CJ Onyechi anchoring the defensive end spots, Mason probably has the highest upside and was quite encouraging. Onyechi also had a good day, so the defensive end spot could be among the best on the team.
The interior was tougher to discern primarily because the high camera angles don’t always allow clear visibility into the trenches. Three guys seemed to be in the middle of a lot of action: Brendan Bordner, Jaohne Duggan, and walk-on Freddie Recio. Bordner seemed to be close to the ball most of the time and sometimes looked great, while other times showed his inexperience. Running more 30 fronts is perfect for him at this point and Bordner is a big X-factor with this group. Duggan got a lot of run with the starters and didn’t show enough to make Julius Turner (injured) nervous about his starting job on the sidelines. Duggan surely deserves a spot if the line rotates nine or ten, but like Turner needs to be counted on only in short bursts. Recio has an opportunity to get snaps on the interior after a solid showing. To many fans he was largely an unknown coming into the game, but even against the starting offensive line, he held his ground quite well. Defensive tackle is a place walk-ons can contribute and it sure would be nice if Recio can even be a rotational player.
What is the game plan for the back seven of the defense?
At linebacker, new defensive coordinator Andy Buh did rotate several players with the first team including newly named captains Tyshon Fogg and Tyreek Maddox-Williams. It appeared initially one of them was to blame for a missed tackle on Charles Snorweah’s long run, but upon further review that was not the case. Regardless, I don’t think Fogg or Maddox-Williams played particularly well. Perhaps it has something to do with Buh running the defense because Drew Singleton and Rashawn Battle didn’t impress me much either. The most impressive linebacker was Olakunle Fatukasi (game high six tackles) who pushed for more time himself and likely by default Nihym Anderson. Deion Jennings also moved around very well.
In the defensive backfield, Christian Izien showed some ballhawking skills and even if he’s not a starter will get plenty of run as a nickelback. Tim Barrow was ok at first glance, but I didn’t even notice Malik Dixon, which was discouraging. The corners not named Damon Hayes or Avery Young were tough to assess on my first watch, but will have more on them later.
The back seven of the defense which should be the team’s strength was not in this contest. That’s ok though because a lot of new faces need reps and time to develop chemistry.
When RU attempts a pass, is there protection?
Despite the rushing stats, pass protection may have been better than the run blocking in this game. Other than containing Mason which proved challenging, the offensive line held up pretty well other than a few complete jailbreaks. By that I mean, three or more rushers came free which indicates either a perfect defensive playcall or a team wide failure by QB and center to call the correct protection.
The biggest reason for the offensive line looking better than expected was not the fact they bulldozed in the run game, in fact the starting offensive line got stuffed on mutliple runs for a goal line stand by the backups. Instead, the defensive rush was kept at bay by a lot of quick completed passes on intermediate routes, flare outs, or pure screens. And as Rutgers offense gained first downs, the defense lost a step.
Overall do I think this offensive line will be great? No. But did they show me enough that if the RU passing attack is competent, the offensive line won’t hold it back.
Where do the quarterbacks go with the ball?
The plan was very simple for the quarterbacks, look to hit intermediate timing routes. For Art Sitkowski (216 yards) if that wasn’t open he should check down immediately or in a rare instance look to throw a deep 50-50 ball. For Johnny Langan and Cole Snyder, it meant scramble or at least move around in the pocket to allow receivers to get open on a scramble drill. More on the quarterback situation later in the week including Sitkowski’s interception.
Individually, Mo Jabbie (6 catches, 65 yards) was quite reliable. Jabbie did have one drop, though he barely had time to get out of his break against good coverage and still almost made the play. Bo Melton and Eddie Lewis did enough to maintain their spots while Johnathan Lewis (3 catches, 38 yards) really looked like he’s ready to be a two-deep tight end. Johnathan got himself open downfield at least twice but both balls were poorly thrown, one by Langan and the other maybe by Sitkowski.
Personally, this was exactly what I wanted to see from the passing game. Last year the deep balls were all well and good in the spring game but did not translate to the fall. Establishing rhythm in the intermediate game is critical to moving the ball consistently in college football today by getting easy yards on first down or converting those third and mediums.
Why should we have hope this summer?
The number one reason to take away is that the team showed more speed than the past few years. Charles Snorweah was a big reason for that, as the former High School track star was lightning at times. Charles has always been stuck on the depth chart behind talented players, but none of them possessed the incredible straight line speed he has. As Rutgers tries to get faster players on the field he could have a role. He carried the ball 11 times for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Most of those runs were boom or bust as he was stopped for no gain at least three times near the goal line, but also added some long ones including the 75 yard touchdown. With his explosiveness when one guy misses a tackle and he gets outside, a big gainer is guaranteed.
Raheem Blackshear showed as much hop in his step as he had probably since the season opener in 2018. Raheem had some nice games last year, leading the team in rushing and receiving, but looked a lot faster Saturday than in quite some time. Part of it was the players he was lining up against, but don’t assume he can’t maintain it.
Eddie Lewis remains the biggest X-factor for this offense. Last spring game he could get open at will. Last fall he could get a step on his man almost at will, but committed a few drops and received some bad balls from his quarterbacks. For the offense to move the ball down the field, they need a reliable check down option and Eddie is the best fit for that right now.
On the defensive side, even though the back seven was not at their best, the team showed some speed. Drew Singleton didn’t wow like many hoped, but he is bigger than we thought and showed a little of what made him NJ’s number one recruit coming out of Paramus Catholic. Christian Izien is the fastest safety RU had had in a while perhaps, and the defensive ends, especially Mason had some good burst. Deion Jennings (six tackles, INT) looked great against the pass, but poor against the run early in the game then totally stepped up near the goal line. Jennings is a converted safety at linebacker who despite putting on muscle still has some speed. He could be a valuable piece moving forward.
Should we expect a bowl game in 2019? Probably not, but this team looked more solid top to bottom than it has probably in five years.