It’s fair to say that the 2019 football season is the most important in Chris Ash’s coaching career. Two decades of moving up the ranks and establishing himself as a successful defensive coordinator earned him the opportunity to run his own program. Entering his fourth year at the helm of Rutgers, Ash is coaching for the right to further that opportunity past this season.
After a 7-29 record through his first three seasons, he is certainly under pressure to produce a season in which “significant improvement” occurs. While a sizeable portion of the Rutgers fan base remains skeptical that this season will be much better, what’s more important are the steps that Ash has taken to be the architect of that positive change. Perception heading into the season is far less important than the reality that this team produces this fall.
For what it’s worth, Ash boasted confidence at Monday’s game week press conference. He said, “I think we made the most improvement during training camp in all three phases that we’ve made since I’ve been here, and kind of the fewest distractions, if you want to talk about injuries and things like that.” Note: While Rutgers is still relatively healthy, this comment was made before tight end Johnathan Lewis reportedly suffered a serious injury on Monday.
Ash came to Rutgers with bravado, boasting that he would build a “first-class program”, one in which would make the top New Jersey recruits and high school coaches proud of their home state team. He said he wanted to build a team that demonstrated “relentless effort, tremendous enthusiasm, and plays for each other”. In Ash’s tenure, we’ve only witnessed flashes of this type of play in the middle of his second season, with the high point being a come from behind victory over Maryland, which brought Rutgers to 3-3 in Big Ten play and 4-5 overall after the first weekend of November 2017. Sadly, Rutgers has gone 1-14 since that game and the only enthusiasm coming from it’s home stadium since has been the angst and displeasure of the fan base.
With any first time head coach, there is a certain learning on the job process that occurs. Ash made several mistakes early on, with the biggest probably being the original coaching staff he assembled. Only Vince Okruch remains, who has turned out to be a solid addition, as special teams has steadily improved under his direction. However, the inexperience of the original offensive staff has played a major role in the ineptitude that Rutgers has had offensively throughout the Ash era.
He has changed offensive philosophies throughout his tenure, beginning with a straight spread system, morphing more into a pro-style system, with reports out of camp this month describing it more of a melting pot of styles developed to get the most out of the current personnel, but essentially back to a spread. In a way, this is a credit to Ash, as he has shown a willingness and ability to adapt to change in certain areas since he took the job at Rutgers. The downside is a lack of conviction and identity that comes with sticking with a system and hence, player development has been a struggle as well, particularly with the most important position on the team.
Entering this fourth crucial season, Ash oversaw yet another quarterback competition, but this time chose not to name the starter before the opening game. On Monday, he explained, “we know what we are doing at quarterback. We have a plan. We know who will start. We know who will play. We are not going to make a public announcement about that plan and who that will be, and hopefully everyone respects that.”
While Ash also stated that keeping it a secret gave them a competitive advantage, in addition he further limited the media access this week and is not allowing players to speak with the media. This is the opposite approach of this week’s opponent, UMass, as first year head coach Walt Bell held open practices to the media the entire preseason and announced his starting quarterback this week.
Of course, Ash is completely within his right to implement these media restrictions, but in my opinion it’s the opposite of what you should do after a 1-11 season. People like to complain that the media doesn’t deserve to have as much access as they desire, but my point in all of this is it only tempers the enthusiasm and support of the fan base, due to the lack of coverage. More access this preseason wasn’t going to make believers out of most doubters of the program, but in this day and age, part of the head coach’s job is to actively promote the program and connect with fans. This isn’t just about not announcing who will start at quarterback, as connecting with fans has been somewhat of an issue throughout Ash’s tenure. It’s part of the reason there is a lack of faith by some that he can ultimately turn it around. At this point, it seems clear he has resigned himself to the fact that winning is the only cure to garner true fan support and he is probably right.
After incumbent starter Artur Sitkowski received the first team reps the first half of fall camp, Texas Tech grad transfer McLane Carter made enough plays the past two weeks after learning the playbook that a true battle emerged. With both QB’s likely to play this season, Rutgers desperately needs to improve offensively after being one of the worst in the country every season under Ash, ranking 127th, 121st, and 127th in total offense the past three years.
In addition to who is under center, key questions this team must successfully answer include finding capable receivers who can make plays, getting production from a paper thin tight end group and most importantly, getting the offensive line to play at a high enough level under first year coach Pete Rossamondo that they significantly improve with pass protection and bolster the run game by consistently creating holes to run through.
While the defense has been solid at times during Ash’s tenure and been hurt by the inefficiency of the offense that it’s been routinely worn out late in games, this season is key for the unit to take a step forward. The personnel is made up almost entirely of Ash’s recruits and while there is certainly talent, there are depth concerns along the defensive line and inexperience in the secondary. Ash has praised the talent and depth within the linebacking core, but this group must truly become the strength of the defense for it to make major progress this season.
Ash is considered a good guy and tireless worker, has shown an ability to adapt at times and has inspired more facility upgrades in his tenure than have occurred in several decades before his arrival. He deserves a lot of credit for creating positive change with facilities and making the program operate in more of a Big Ten level off the field with things like nutrition, than before. Ash has also invested in the personal and professional development of players in a positive way and when disciplinary actions have been warranted, he has acted swiftly.
The issue now is that year four needs to be the season Ash shows signs of being a good head coach. He has proven to be a conservative leader on game days in the past, but hopefully Ash shows more of a willingness to take chances this season. I talked about the need for everyone in the program to show increased urgency this season and it needs to start with the head coach. He has seemed to display this sentiment in the offseason and in training camp, utilizing multiple team building activities and motivational speakers to get the most out of his players. Whatever soul searching he and the staff have done, it’s clear they have made an effort to connect with this team to generate better results. Whether it produces major progress this season remains to be seen.
Under his mentor Jay Niemann, the Rutgers defense lacked an aggressiveness and fire that was somewhat improved at the end of last season when Ash stepped in to take the lead. Ash made a change and hired Andy Buh who came from Maryland and is a hugely important part of this team needing to take major steps forward in 2019.
While Ash had to pick Rutgers up off the mat after the Kyle Flood era left the integrity of the program in shambles, from a win-loss perspective, things have only gotten worse. Dealing with probation that included recruiting limitations certainly haven’t helped his plight. Either did the credit card scandal that left last season’s team without eight scholarship players, all on defense. Injuries to key players haven’t either, the most notable being Janarion Grant and Blessuan Austin among others. At the end of the day, adversity occurs within every college football program and the only difference at Rutgers is having to deal with it in arguably the hardest division in the sport.
There are many factors that will determine the fate of the 2019 Rutgers football team. Preparation for this season began soon after last year’s 1-11 disaster and the plans Chris Ash decided on and has implemented this offseason are key for how this team responds this fall. How his roster, made up almost entirely of his own recruits, perform this year will ultimately determine the fate of this season’s team. Can he inspire them to greater heights? If Ash can find answers that have been missing in year’s past and inspires this team to outproduce expectations by a significant margin, then he will deserve a ton of credit. If Rutgers can finally shows signs of becoming a good football team this season, or even getting close to being one, the development of it’s head coach will be a major reason why.