We are almost three months away from the start of the new Rutgers football season. That fact warrants many emotions among the fan base right now. Some are hopeful, some feel the exact opposite, and some are even reticent about the season ahead. It’s been a busy offseason for head coach Chris Ash, who enters his fourth season in charge of the program clearly on the hot seat.
With spring camp long complete and summer workouts soon to begin, the hope is that the Rutgers football team has formed a solid enough base to build off of in a positive way when fall training camp begins in August. After fielding a roster that just 72% of its players had one year or less of experience entering last season, Ash desperately needs a good amount of those returning players to contribute at a high level next season. After last season’s 1-11 campaign and a 7-29 record overall since taking over the program, significantly better results are needed in 2019 for his tenure to be considered anything but a failure.
The biggest question leading up the start of fall camp is whether all of the offseason activity that has occurred so far will lead to improved results in the coming fall?
The 2019 recruiting class that was signed was solid in a sense, as it came after a 1 win campaign. There are several intriguing prospects who have the potential to outperform their individual recruiting rankings during their careers. However, this group overall must overachieve on it’s class ranking in the next few years, which was last in the Big Ten and 64th in the 247 Sports composite, or it will be more of the same for Rutgers football in the near future.
Ash brought in several new coaches, most notably replacing former defensive coordinator Jay Niemann with Andy Buh, who held the same role at Maryland. In addition, Kolby Smith (running backs), Jay Valai (cornerbacks), and Pete Rossomando (offensive line) all step into the biggest roles of their respective coaching careers. Can they mesh with the rest of the staff and more importantly, can the staff as a whole develop its own players?
The program added a trio of transfers with multi-year eligibility in Drew Singleton, Matt Alaimo, and Johnny Langan. Singleton and Alaimo were recently ruled eligible for next season, while Langan’s case remains undecided. Ash was also able to add two potential impact grad transfers in former Texas Tech QB McLane Carter and former Wisconsin tight end Kyle Penniston. Will any of them make a significant impact next season remains to be seen.
There were also several players to transfer out, most notably two former starters in lineman Jonah Jackson (Ohio State) and tight end Travis Vokolek (undecided). Depth suffered on the offensive side with the additional transfers of tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart (PITT), fullback Max Anthony (SUNY-Albany), and running back Charles Snorweah (undecided). For a team looking to make considerable progress next season, having 25% of your senior class transfer out certainly leaves a void with leadership and experience.
Spring camp is a time that players can develop without the pressure of game week and the coaching staff can experiment with players in different positions. It’s hard to really know how much progress was made in March and April until we see the product on the field in the fall.
So many questions remain about this team entering the 2019 season.
Will the offense and improve enough to be a competent unit that can win Big Ten games? Who will lead the offense at quarterback, which is a battle most likely between returning yet embattled starter, Artur Sitkowski, and Carter, a disciple of Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid system. Can either of them move the chains and produce points on a consistent basis?
While many players on the offensive side of the ball return from last season, it’s fair to wonder if that’s a good thing considering how inept the offense has been. The wide receiver position has been a riddle unable to be solved in Ash’ tenure, but everyone of a 15 person group returns. Can any of them step up as reliable contributors this fall? The most reliable target in the passing game the past two seasons, Jerome Washington, graduated, and the most intriguing, Vokolek, is looking for a new destination closer to his Missouri home.
The offensive line lost multi-year starters in Tariq Cole and Jackson. Will a new unit be able to provide a consistent push to generate an effective run game? Rutgers seemingly has two legitimate backs in Raheem Blackshear and Isaiah Pacheco, but they need room to run.
As many questions there are on offense, the defense certainly seems farther ahead once again. The linebacking core seems to be deeper and the secondary should be the strength of the defense once again. However, frontline talent and depth on the defensive line is still a major concern.
Justin Davidovicz and Adam Korsak bring stability on special teams, as both had good seasons in 2018. Rutgers been solid on special teams the past two seasons, so remaining steady in that area is a must for progress overall to occur in 2019. Neither side of the ball is strong enough to overcome disadvantages created by the special teams unit.
It’s no secret that the upcoming season is critical for the program and head coach Chris Ash. From a fan perspective, the overwhelming theme of this spring was apathy. Only hundreds of fans attended the season ticket holder open practice and just a few thousand appeared for the Scarlet-White game this past spring. How many season ticket holders remain heading into the 2019 season remains unknown, but the optimistic view can only be that it won’t be as low as feared. The problem with that is more than just with football. For as thought out as athletic director Pat Hobbs’ five year strategic vision might be, an overall negative perception of Rutgers across the Big Ten and financial problems for the department will not get better if the losing continues.
The odds of Ash righting the ship of his tenure as head coach of Rutgers football are against him. Not many power five coaches have recovered from chronic losing in the first few seasons of their regime. There are rare exceptions, like Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, who went 24-40-2 in his first six seasons before finishing 214-81 in his final 23 years coaching the Hokies. Gary Barnett began his career at Northwestern going 9-23-1 in his first three seasons, before leading the Wildcats to a 10-2 record and its first ever Rose Bowl his fourth season. He wasn’t able to sustain success, but he did engineer one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history. David Cutliffe went just 22-40 in his first five seasons at Duke, but has gone 53-37 in the seven seasons since. Bill Snyder started 18-26 in his first four seasons at Kansas State before leading the Wildcats to 10 or more wins nine different times over his last 24 campaigns.
While it’s certainly possible Ash could shock many and turn Rutgers around long term, the reality of having to do it in the Big Ten East, arguably the toughest division in college football, makes it all the more unlikely.
Nothing would make me happier than Chris Ash succeeding at Rutgers, because it would mean the program was turned it around quicker than it can be realistically projected to do right now. If the Scarlet Knights can show significant improvement and muster 5 wins next season, I’d be first in line to praise the job he did to get them to that point. Ash has proven the ability to adapt at times when needed, has helped push the program into modern times with its facilities, is a solid defensive coach, and has held players accountable throughout his tenure. However, he has lost far too many games for most fans to project enough confidence and belief that the 2019 season will be any different.
Our own David Anderson cited signs of improvement during the Scarlet-White game and even claimed it was as well-rounded a roster as Rutgers has had in the last 5 years. You have to give Ash credit for adding the transfer players he has after a 1 win campaign. He also did as well as could be expected under those circumstances when adding to the coaching staff this offseason. Several players who redshirted last season or who saw limited action as freshmen could develop into impact players this fall. Add all of these factors up and the only question that matters is this: Will it be enough to produce a season that results in a significant step forward for the program? As fans, we’ll have all summer to ponder that question and hopefully the answer in late November is a resounding yes.