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State of Rutgers Football: Passing Attack

Team needs a go to guy badly and must execute perfectly until then.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Indiana
Lewis (#11) is at the forefront of discussions at a different position in just two months.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The Scarlet-White game marked an end to spring football last Saturday, April 13. With a tad over four months to go before the opening kickoff of the first game against Umass, so much can change.

There’s been plenty written about the spring game individually, but a competent passing attack requires good blocking, quarterback play, and receiver production. After re-watching the film of the spring game, here are some thoughts about each component to it.

Pass protection affection?

It all begins up front and as expected Rutgers trotted out four of the starting five that solidified their spots about a week or two into spring practice: Raiqwon O’Neal, Zach Venesky, Mike Maietti, Nick Krimin, with Matt Rosso in for Kamaal Seymour. The group wasn’t overpowering in the run game, even against a second string defense that has no proven talent at defensive tackle, but built enough of a wall for quarterbacks to get sufficient time to make plays.

For example #1, take the third play of the game, a run-pass option where the entire offensive line blocks down to their left, nothing fancy. This is an easy completion with a well thrown ball, but in a real game a Big Ten starting safety will not be giving as much cushion because he will have better recovery speed AND trust his outside cornerback not to need as much help. But the offensive line did their part.

The entire line blocks down and it’s a simple read for the quarterback on the linebacker.

As a result, they don’t need to play straight pass protection, but accomplish the same goal. If the play remains a run because the linebacker stays on the slot receiver, and the quarterback hands the ball off, the right tackle (Rosso in this case) can ride his man to either side if the running back elects to cut back. Then it’s on the running back to read the play well and fill the open lane. Smartly, that’s exactly what happened on the subsequent play, when the stretch left got a few yards.

No one really had an answer for Tijuan Mason. He was creating all kinds of havoc against the starters, second unit, and mixtures of the two. Mike Lonsdorf playing left tackle controlled Mason after Tijuan got his first run very late in the second half, but shortly thereafter was a terror. All it took was a slight miscommunication and Mason was all over the backfield right after he should have been easily corralled in the photo below:

Mason at left defensive end, was initially controlled by three people but less than a second later was all over Sitkowski

And here’s Mason forcing a throw with Sitkowski under duress just one second on the clock later.

Notice the clock is at 1:03 and Mason is now right in the QB’s face.

For the second stringers, the lateral movement was not nearly as good as the starters. For example, Sam Vretman, Owen Bowles, and Jamaal Beaty are great in a phone booth, but not nearly as mobile as Mike Maietti and Zach Venesky on those RPO or screen plays. When Mike Lonsdorf is at guard, he can get out a little more, but I do think he’s better at tackle and not that much of a drop off from O’Neal at this point. Sam Howson is a serviceable backup center with less upside than Bowles, but a higher floor especially in pass protection.

Despite struggling some during the first week of spring, Omari Cooper showed an ability to handle his one on one matchups out on an island, which was encouraging. A blitz from the starting defense late in the first quarter had Cooper ride Mike Tverdov way off to the outside, giving Cole Snyder plenty of time to slide the opposite way and get the ball out. Cooper looks smaller than a lot of the other guys, so it will be interesting to see what happens with him.

Also of note is the role backs and receivers play in ensuring the quarterback and receivers have time to complete their duties. Isaih Pacheco (a quarterback in high school) was said to have been behind Raheem Blackshear, Jon Hilliman, and even Trey Sneed as third down back in 2018 because of his inexperience in pass protection as a running back. Pacheco looked improved as a blocker, late safety valve, and in the screen game. Charles Snorweah despite giving up a lot of size, had a nice blitz pickup on Tyreek Maddox-Williams early in the game. This is huge because defensive players in a read and react mode need to wait just a little longer to come after the QB.

Pass protection is aided significantly by a quarterback with good pocket presence and receivers who can get open quickly ...

Friday Morning Quarterback

The quarterback position review was just last week, so we’ll focus on what difference the spring game made to those thoughts.

Art Sitkowski deserves praise for starting out perfect 5-5 on the opening drive which went for a touchdown. First play got Blackshear in motion for an easy completion. Note easy “completion”, but those passes have to be perfect for the receiver (back in this case) to be able to quickly haul the ball in and head north-south. Then on the second play, a good presnap read and perfectly timed throw to Mo Jabbie was replicated twice more. It finished with a timing route that did take some time to develop with Melton, but the ball was almost perfectly thrown to achieve it’s desired result: a touchdown. An awesome Big Ten DB might be able to jump the route, but not every DB will be able to. The rest of the game was much of the same, and Art was WAY better on the intermediate timing routes. If the defense gives you a completion on first or second just take it and move on thereby establishing a rhythm. If they jammed at the line and didn’t blitz, Sitkowski showed an ability to make sideline second level throws with proper technique, the type you hear about that a QB can “make all the throws.”

On the deep ones though, his idea of pocket presence is too much just moving backwards like we would do in Madden ‘04 and the negative momentum prevents accurate deep balls. Art’s interception at first glance looked like a carbon copy of several during his freshman campaign. Another play after failing to escape pressure in the pocket, Art hung Jabbie out to dry even after the play was blown dead. More on that in a subsequent post, but it highlighted much of what he did wrong as a freshman, although he did try and go through his progressions first.

Overall, I thought Art showed strides in his game from a year ago and is on pace to what the normal rate for a Power Five drop back passer to be. And remember many of those other guys started all four years of high school, so this isn’t bad. Rutgers was just so bad last year, Art took a lot of the flak.

Johnny Langan was almost exactly as advertised. I put almost zero stock in quarterbacks wearing red jerseys during spring getting big runs because the defense still isn’t going all out on them. Trust me, you don’t pop a quarterback in practice, EVER. That said, despite an unorthodox throwing angle, he can sidearm the ball after buying some time in the pocket. He’s not that accurate on the run, but uses his legs to get enough distance to then stop and throw a catchable ball. When his feet are stationary, he can fling the ball quickly even off his back foot which allows for some yards after the catch some of the time while also possessing the size and toughness to take a big hit. That said even when his feet are stationary, he is not perfectly accurate like on a missed deep throw to a wide open Johnathan Lewis.

Johnny didn’t wow me, but I am also willing to admit that even though he does not throw the ball as well as Art, there’s still circumstances where a mobile quarterback is simply more effective. He is faster than the guys chasing him and knows how to use it. More on that in my upcoming article on Langan, who was better in the second half for what it’s worth.

The Cole Snyder comparisons to Chas Dodd need to stop, expect an article on that soon. Snyder demonstrated an excellent feel for the game with pocket presence that only comes from playing a lot of sport. Notice I didn’t write: “football”. He was helped out by a one handed grab from Snorweah on his first screen, but hung in there knowing the defensive line would be in the backfield quickly. On the next play, the ball looked thrown to the right spot but I think Prince Taylor had a poor route. Taylor then didn’t help himself after sitting down against a zone when Snyder made the right read and hit him right in the chest on the very next play. He felt the blitz a few times and though backpedaled initially like Art, usually then slid away from the pressure to get a little extra time to find someone. Also underrated is Snyder’s excellent ball fakes after handing the ball off, tricking spectators and cameramen that he still had the football a few times. He’s ahead of schedule, heck he led a mix of second and third stringers on a methodical drive for a touchdown against the starters in his very first series when none of his perimeter receivers could even get off press coverage!

In the second half, Snyder was more to blame for their first incompletion when Prince could do nothing on the play. Then Snyder regrouped, finding Paul Woods for a TD on the next play where the ball wasn’t perfectly thrown as he was influenced by his fullback getting shoved into him, but Cole made sure his receiver had a chance at it and the type of route made it super difficult for the DB (Jelani Garvin, not a starter) who was following Woods to be able to pick up the ball.

You can see Woods turn at the ten yard line, causing the DB to stop also.

Then Woods accelerates toward the goal line catching the ball around between the one yard line and the goal line. These are the type of “50-50 balls” that when executed well skew toward the offense, but RU hasn’t taken advantage since at minimum Andre Patton in 2016. Two drives, two TDs, wow.

Then Woods identifies the ball, accelerates to the goal line, leaving Garvin to jump helplessly.

Redshirt freshman Austin Albericci is the third stringer if Langan is not eligible, doing enough for the staff to move fellow walk-on Cooper Heisey to Tight End. Now we know that Tight End depth is more of a concern, but still Austin has enough upside to continue to help with depth in the quarterback room despite his lack of size. In another two or three years, it’s not implausible that he could be pressed into game action under some circumstance. He looked as good as Jack Coan did for Wisconsin against RU’s starting defense last year.

Though Art seemed to get a little worse as the game wore on, Langan improved while Snyder was consistently pretty good. Don’t worry if you want more thoughts on the QBs, you won’t have to wait long.

Receiver Production Stock Watch

The receiver review wasn’t too long ago, either. For reference click here.

Stock Up

Mo Jabbie was pressed into service earlier in his career than he should have under normal Power Five circumstances, but Rutgers has been so desperate the last two years for receivers who could contribute anything, he even started a few games. He was the team’s go to guy on the opening drive out of the slot accounting for three receptions. Yes there was a little more space than a normal Big Ten game, but his routes were crisp allowing the ball to come out on time and allow Mo to get a few yards after the catch. As we have said time and again, you don’t have to be an amazing athlete, look at Northwestern’s Flynn Nagel.

In the slot if Jabbie can’t get enough space against Big Ten DBs, Eddie Lewis simply has to be the guy. No one else right now has the quickness to get open in a short area or get yards after the catch when short of the sticks. On the second drive of the game, Lewis had a tougher task to do what Jabbie did. For example on his first snap, starting safety Tim Barrow was only providing 6.5 yards of cushion against Eddie compared to the 10 that Mo saw on his first catch. Then when the ball was thrown by Langan, Eddie had to completely stop to catch it, preventing any extra yards. The second play was identical to the one that produced Jabbie’s second reception where Eddie had to adjust his route to come back and field the ball rather than catch in stride while also reaching down to ensure he wrapped it up. Again this allowed Barrow to bring him down quickly. When recognizing a blitz, Eddie made a nice cut to green space giving plenty of room for a Snyder completion.

Paul Woods may be the next best option, but is completely unproven. He wasn’t able to do much against the starting defense as a slot guy with Langan, but when split wide with Snyder made a few nice plays. In the second half he was open for a split second deep, but Langan took too long to get rid of the ball and then threw a 50-50 ball that required Woods to stop entirely and leap against DB Jarrett Paul. After that, Paul made the TD catch from Snyder. Woods has potential and might be starting at flanker opposite Robinson or Melton at split end.

Against the starting defense Zihir Lacewell showed an ability to get open a bit against Damon Hayes press coverage, possibly the only person who really defeated press coverage in the contest. Langan was not able to take enough advantage, though Johnny may have been told not to go there with the ball. I feel even better about my prediction of Lacewell as a breakout candidate.

With Travis Vokolek injured (and now likely transferring), tight ends were not heavily targeted early on in the contest. As the offense developed more of a rhythm, Johnathan Lewis looked like a guy who is fighting for a spot in the two-deep on any Power Five roster. Despite the added weight, I recall a camera shot of Lewis jogging back to the huddle from the waist up where you could barely tell his legs were moving. This indicates two things, first that he is a very fluid athlete even at his size AND the lack of excess body movements makes it more difficult for DBs to predict his next movements. Lewis was able to get open at the second level even when the defense only rushed four on multiple occasions.

Brandon Myers dropped a well thrown ball from Langan at one point and should be used more when the team needs a fullback. Matt Alaimo, Jonathan Pimentel, and Cooper Heisey were ok, but nothing close to what the team had last year: Jerome Washington, Vokolek, and Nakia Griffin-Stewart. They could be serviceable but don’t add any dimension to the offense. Pimentel did a nice job by getting open downfield after Langan bought some time and hauling in a pass on a low throw. At the very least the tight ends should be block first, release second with reliable enough hands to achieve short gains.

Stock Even

On the outside, by default, this is probably good for Stanley King and Isaiah Washington once they arrive on campus. Bo Melton did some decent shielding on the first touchdown and showed his short area quickness. He is always open for at least a split second when coming out of his breaks, and when the ball is there he’s fine. That said he’s not able to get wide open or pull counter moves with any sustainability yet. With a great QB, especially if he was more of a motioned slot guy, Bo would rack up yardage and is the logical flanker in heavier sets when he should also be schemed open a bit.

Shameen Jones showcased an improved repertoire against press coverage. He slipped through a few times with minimal contact utilizing a mix of fakes, stiff arms, and good torso movement. When defenses don’t press, his routes are good enough to be open at his break like Melton. This is what we saw on Shameen’s high school film, and should be enough to help him reach another step of development at some point. That being said, he doesn’t look like a Big Ten caliber starter which he was by default last year.

The Vokolek of 2019 in terms of hype for a guy who played sparingly as a freshman is Daevon Robinson. Perhaps the defense was keying on him, but it would have been nice to see a little more production. Compared to last year, he’s up, but Daevon Robinson didn’t do much to make us feel all the spring attention was correct. He ran a stop and go when the sideline fade pattern was thrown by Sitkowski at the beginning of the second quarter which didn’t look good as offensive coordinator John McNulty immediately called him out on it. Robinson was the only receiver who looked better when Johnny Langan was slinging it to him, though.

I forgot Everett Wormley was on the team at times. Like Jabbie, he was not ready in 2017 and that probably didn’t help him in 2018. He and Lacewell both looked quite trim in their upper body, but thick in the lower half. Wormley showed more burst than the last two years and wasn’t helped by a poorly thrown ball that he hauled in, but didn’t have enough time to turn into a big gain. Later in that drive even though Everett fell at the goal line, he probably wasn’t going for paydirt anyway with a flat route against good coverage.

Hunter Hayek is injured, and some other guys flashed in the slot so he will need to battle upon his return. Jalen Jordan and Monterio Hunt also didn’t play.

Stock Down

Tyler Hayek. Even before his frustration penalty that got him sent to the sidelines, Tyler was not overly impressive. In his defense on that play, Langan’s ball was not thrown high enough for Tyler to use his height advantage on DB Rani Abdulaziz. Despite Hayek’s height and long arms, he doesn’t use them well enough to get that little separation and then out gallop the defensive back like Andrew Turzilli did in his one year on the banks. The light bulb is just waiting to go off and if the defense doesn’t press him, I think he could get open deep fairly easily. If no other deep threat emerges, I’d like to see them put him in motion or in the back of a bunch formation allowing for that free release and a shot at a deep ball.

Other than Tyler it’s hard for anyone else’s stock to be down because there really is nowhere to go but up for the nation’s worst passing attack in 2018.

Biggest needs heading into summer camp

  1. Get Matt Alaimo and Johnny Langan eligible. With four non graduating seniors from the 2018 two-deep not with the program, the net talent flow needs to at least reach equilibrium. Now that Vokolek is likely a goner, the entire fan base (me included) will go absolutely bonkers if Travis gets eligibility for 2019 granted before Alaimo, Langan, or even Drew Singleton. Don’t hold your breath. I’m not saying Langan and Alaimo will be starters, but they will get reps for sure in the fall.
  2. Cole Snyder continuing to go the extra mile. Snyder always seems to be getting extra reps after practice which puts the rest of the offense to shape up or ship out. The great quarterbacks in pro and college history have always demanded a lot from their teammates (Bart Starr, Tom Brady, Troy Aikman come to mind in this regard), but that only works if the QB is the hardest worker among them. Not only that, he needs to know everyone else’s responsibility on every single play. That extra work in the classroom and after practice has no substitute for the timing on routes it can help establish, timing that was non-existent at Rutgers the last four years.
  3. Identify a go to receiver without building the offense around him. Rutgers learned this lesson in 2015 when Carroo was hurt and 2016 when Grant went down. Then again in 2017 when Grant was day-to-day every week. Vokolek was the most logical centerpiece here, but someone else needs to be that guy in 2019. Whoever that is should be shielded in the slot to get a free release and draw two defenders, most likely Eddie Lewis or Bo Melton at this time.
  4. Catch, catch, catch. If everything goes right but the ball is dropped, nothing else mattered. Receivers, particularly wideouts need to catch every reasonable target for RU to start to get out of the doldrums with their passing attack, subsequently offense overall, and Power Five cellar. For the most part they did this in the spring game.

The Skinny

Rutgers needs to execute running back screens, bubble screens, and short routes the defense is giving them with incredible precision to improve their offense. Without a deep threat or go to guy, the Scarlet Knights need to avoid negative plays and move the chains. Upon further review and I know it was against second stringers for a team that was 1-11 last year, there was marked improvement from all components required of a competent passing game. The Scarlet air attack won’t be potent barring something crazy good fortune in the next four months, but at least decent enough to capitalize on other team’s mistakes and require opponents to play press man coverage. If opponents just sit in zone or don’t press, RU will get yardage and points.