Head coach Chris Ash spoke to the media on Wednesday, the day players officially reported to training camp before taking the practice field for the first time this season on Thursday. Ash gave updates on the roster, insight on things he did differently with the program this offseason, as well as areas that he is most excited about, as well as areas the team must improve on the most. Here are four takeaways from his season opening presser.
Roster In Much Better Shape Depth Wise Vs. Last Season
In regard to actual news coming out of Wednesday’s press conference, it was mostly Ash discussing roster updates. The two biggest updates were that Boston College transfer Johnny Langan was not ruled eligible to play this season by the NCAA and that Michigan graduate transfer Ron Johnson hasn’t joined the team yet.
In regard to Langan, Ash confirmed that Rutgers is appealing the decision, but there is no timetable for a resolution. While it’s upsetting that Langan didn’t receive a waiver to play right away, especially since it seems like the norm across college football these days, it’s difficult to make a full assessment of the situation. No hardship reason has been announced and unless an appeal overturns the decision, Langan will have to sit out the season. In regard to quarterback depth, it certainly hurts. However, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that Langan would have necessarily challenged for the starting spot and it’s entirely possible he would have even fallen to the #4 QB on the roster behind Artur Sitkowski, McLane Carter, and Cole Snyder, regardless of their order. Langan will certainly have a chance to help this program in the future, but he was unlikely to make much of a difference this season regardless, having taken no prior snaps under center at the college level. Now he can focus on learning the offensive system and getting better in practice this season.
In regard to Johnson, obviously Rutgers is counting on him to make an impact this season. On his status, Ash said “ He will hopefully be joining our team at some point in training camp, but he had some academic things to complete and paperwork that has to be finalized on Michigan’s end, as well as our end, before he can actually jump into training camp. Hopefully that will all get cleared up relatively soon and he’ll be here.” To be clear, Johnson is graduating Michigan in three years and it seems like paperwork to finalize that process is still being completed. Hopefully, Johnson is able to join the program by mid-August at the latest, as Rutgers desperately needs him to be a factor along the defensive line this season.
Other roster changes announced included Zamir Mickens being moved to a medical scholarship, ending his playing days at Rutgers, as well as class of 2019 signee Rayyan Buell no longer being the program.
As far as injuries, Ash said there are “a handful of guys that will be limited or miss some practice time early in training camp due to either post-season surgeries that they had, post spring or something that may have happened over the summer. We have a handful of guys that are probably in that category. The good thing is we don’t have anybody right now that has a long-term injury that should force them to miss any games or any playing time once we kickoff.”
With all of the personnel updates, the biggest takeaway for me is the roster is in far better shape at the start of this year’s training camp versus last season from a depth perspective. Entering camp a year ago, the roster was short eight scholarship players due to the credit card scandal. There were also injury concerns with key players like Tariq Cole and Blessuan Austin. At the the start of this training camp, Rutgers is in good shape with the roster. This will benefit the level of competition and improve the odds that the development that Ash and the coaching staff need to produce during the next month in preparing for the season can actually occur.
Ash Showing Urgency & Ability To Adapt
Obviously entering his fourth season with a 7-29 overall record at Rutgers, Ash should show urgency as camp begins, but it was a positive to see him have confidence in speaking about the adjustments he made this offseason within the program. He wasn’t wishy washy speaking about decisions, some of them hard one’s, that he has made. He said he was probably most excited about the schematic changes made with both the offensive and defensive lines. Ash emphasized those changes will put the players in a better position to succeed. This is an interesting statement and makes watching the development of both lines during training camp even more compelling.
He also gave some insight on things he did to help improve the culture and chemistry within the program, as well as physical changes the players have made. Whether any of this leads to significantly better results on the field on Saturdays remains to be seen, but it does reinforce something I think Ash has done well of since he arrived. He has certainly made plenty of mistakes during his first tenure as a head coach, but he has shown a willingness to adapt and tweak his approach in some areas at times. This is a positive that hopefully does help the program produce a major turnaround this fall. Ash’s ability to improve as a head coach is just as important as improvements the offense and defense make as well. Here are a few points Ash made about reaching the players and things they did to improve:
“Off-season, we made some adjustments to our off-season, our spring practices to allow us to have more player development, leadership development and culture development this off-season. We had Navy seals come in. We did a team retreat. We did other things with guest speakers that I really am fired up about that I think has helped us move forward both as individuals and as a team. And then just the physical transformation. We played a lot of young players that probably weren’t ready but that’s what the roster was and when I look at some of those guys right now, some guys have put on 15, 20, 25 pounds from last season. They look much bigger, stronger and more prepared to go out and compete in a league like this. So those are just some of the major things that I think we have been able to adjust, adapt, change, whatever you call it, coming out of 2018, as we head into 2019.”
It’s Art Sitkowski’s Job To Lose At QB
Let me first say that I do believe that Texas Tech transfer McLane Carter will have an opportunity to win the starting quarterback position. However, Ash has been consistent in stating that Sitkowski is entering camp as the no. 1 QB. It makes perfect sense that Ash and the staff would prefer that Sitkowski emerge as the best option. I believe he does have the highest ceiling of any of the signal callers on the roster from a raw tools and talent standpoint. In addition, the staff essentially sacrificed a big part of last season to invest in his development, so for him to lose the job this season to Carter, who is in his last year of eligibility, Rutgers would putting their eggs in one basket and with the knowledge of having to go back to the drawing board the following season. Ash emphasized taking care of the football and limiting turnovers as the biggest area needed to improve on this season. If Sitkowski can showcase better decision making and limit mistakes that result in turnovers during training camp, I think he has a very good chance to win the starting job. Of course, he would need that to carry over into the season to maintain starting status. We will delve into Sitkowski and his development soon, but here is what Ash said about the position battle as of today:
“I know the quarterback is another conversation piece. Coming out of spring I had mentioned that Art is No. 1 on the depth chart and that has not changed going into training camp. We have Carter that came in as a transfer from Texas Tech and Cole Snyder is an early enrollee, will compete for the quarterback, but Art is the No. 1 quarterback headed into training camp. I know you’ll ask about a timeline. There isn’t one. When we feel comfortable with whoever -- if it’s Art, it’s Art; and if it’s one of the other guys; if it’s one of the other guys, and there’s a lot of things, but mostly protecting the football and being consistent and can be a leader for the offense. I’m excited about the room overall and the way that those guys have come together. They push each other, challenge each other and it’s made each guy better this summer.”
Defense Must Take A Step Forward
Ash was predictably optimistic about the defense heading into training camp. He said he was “most excited about the depth that we have on defense on all positions. We have more depth on the defensive side of the ball than we have in the last couple of years, especially last year. Defensive line wise, hopefully by the end of training camp we are going to be able to go three deep at most positions and it’s going to allow us to rotate guys and keep them more fresh throughout the game and course of the season. We have not been able to do that in the past, especially last year when the season started.”
The depth at defensive line is the most important for any position group perhaps on the entire team, as Rutgers has struggled even before Ash’ arrival in matching the ability of most Big Ten teams to rotate multiple players up front with the same talent and number of options. If Ash is correct that they end up having the ability to rotate about 10 players on the defensive line and they can produce as a unit, it would be a major development this season. Rutgers was abysmal against the run last season and it will only change if the defensive line is greatly improved.
The linebacking core has been a weak spot since Ash arrived and he seemed optimistic the unit enters camp as a strength. He said, “Linebacker, one of our strong effort positions on the football team right now. We have worked hard to build that unit up and create depth at all positions. I think that we have that necessary depth to again be able to rotate and be able to fight through injuries that occur and just have competitive spirit for opportunities to play.”
Rutgers lost a lot of experience within the secondary, but Ash was very high on the current group, saying, “DB’s, we lost some good ones but I think we have good ones back and we have players that really shined in spring ball. I’m excited to see them in training camp. You know, young guys, Avery, not necessarily a young guy but a guy we were counting on playing a big role for us last year not only on defense but special teams. Jarrett Paul was a freshman last year and he played safety. Christian (Izien), coming out of a redshirt, Malik Dixon, we moved back to safety. Those are all players we think have a really bright future and are excited about moving forward.”
Every head coach is positive when speaking during the opening press conference of training camp. Even so, the fact is as much as the offense needs to improve this season, the defense needs to make the leap from solid at times like they were towards the end of last year to becoming a consistent and steady unit that limits big plays and is the strength of the team. If they can do that under Ash and new defensive coordinator Andy Buh, Rutgers will be able to maximize improvement this season based on whatever progress the offense can make in John McNulty’s second year running it.
You can watch Ash’ full 30 minute press conference here: