Fall practice continues for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team. We continue a series of positional previews, published every few days. Next up is the team’s tight ends and fullbacks that have completely turned over. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach: Nunzio Campanile (1st with Tight Ends, 2nd season overall)
Key players lost: Jerome Washington (NFL), Max Anthony (Grad transfer), Nakia Griffin-Stewart (Grad Transfer), Travis Vokolek (Transfer)
Key players returning: Johnathan Lewis (RSo.), Brandon Myers (RFr.), Jonathan Pimentel (RFr.)
Newcomers: Kyle Penniston (RSr.), Matt Alaimo (RFr.)
Question 1: Who’s here now?
The entire tight end / fullback room has turned over from this day one year ago. The first change was former back-up quarterback Johnathan Lewis moving over during last season followed by Matt Alaimo announcing his intentions to return from UCLA closer to home. Jerome Washington was out of eligibility after two injury plagued seasons that still showed enough for him to be signed by the Arizona Cardinals.
Despite the loss of Washington, things looked pretty good heading into the off-season before multi-year starting fullback Max Anthony (Albany) and two-deep Tight End Nakia Griffin-Stewart (Pitt) elected to head elsewhere as graduate transfers. The two well-rounded, versatile players are huge losses because of their ability to block, catch, and line-up all over the formation. Then at the end of spring ball, the team took its biggest blow when rising star and starting Tight End Travis Vokolek (16 catches, 184 yards, 2 TD), entered the transfer portal. Vokolek ended up much closer to his home at Big Ten rival Nebraska, but Coach Ash and Nunzio Campanile scrambled quickly to ensure Wisconsin starter Kyle Penniston join the fold as a graduate transfer.
Question 2: What are their roles?
Though not in spring practice, Penniston by far is the most experienced member of the group with 21 starts, 16 receptions, 176 yards, and four touchdowns. These stats seem quite low, but remember how run-heavy the offense is in Madison. That in mind, Penniston’s adjustment to another pro-style offense should not be very steep so he should be in the two-deep right away as a reliable target. He has a lean body, but mixes it up really well against Big Ten edge rushers at the line of scrimmage.
Johnathan Lewis in limited action has never caught a college pass, but has the physical gifts and knowledge of the playbook to be a contributor right away with long term-star potential at the position. Matt Alaimo was declared eligible for this year and has a Big Ten skillset. Lewis and Alaimo will battle for reps as blocking tight ends with a chance to leak out for a pass. Hopefully with some early success they can build on, they will expand their involvement over the course of the season.
Fullback is a position that often relies heavily on walk-ons, including the departed Anthony. Brandon Myers draws the initial fullback assignments, though offensive coordinator John McNulty could experiment with two tailback sets as well. Jonathan Pimentel is a walk-on Tight End who is the most logical candidate for backup fullback duty because it will also be his second full season with McNulty’s playbook. Cooper Heisey is a big body, PWO quarterback who recently moved to TE that probably needs some time to contribute.
Question 3: Can they be more productive ?
It’s asking a lot, but is possible. The biggest reason Washington, Vokolek, and Griffin-Stewart did not put up better stats was the overall lack of offense. Defenses loaded the box with no downfield passing threat requiring throws be made into tight windows. They weren’t an tight end production dipped from the previous year even though it was the same personnel. Coach Vince Okruch was a great blocking teacher, but also had to focus on the special teams. Campanile is coaching this group for the first time, but experience with the offense last year is still a boost.
This season even with the lack of experience for everyone not named Penniston, if the offense can simply be competent, the Tight Ends will put up better stats. The second year in the playbook should improve timing routes as will McNulty’s stance that Rutgers doesn’t have the horses to run a lot of heavy sets. So even if we see less tight ends on the field, we could get more production. For all the love bestowed on Travis Vokolek, he never really got it going outside of his big game against Illinois. Good quarterback play will help develop this group.
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
Alaimo is a rugged third down converter, Lewis is NGS but gets the ball thrown to him, and Penniston shows the rest of the team how it’s done blocking and catching.
The team makes the same amount of catches, but is less capable blocking. This forces RU to abandon most use of tight ends.
Everyone contributes in some way, but no one is a star. Penniston is the most targeted Scarlet Knight on third downs.
Players listed on the current roster
#3 Matt Alaimo (6’4”, 237 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Alaimo came back from California to his home state and was granted immediate eligibility. He has the look of an old school Big Ten Tight End who will be a solid player in a competent offense. Does he have star potential? Jury is out.
#11 Johnathan Lewis (6’3” 249 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Lewis accepted the move to tight end last year to get on the field after riding the bench as the third string quarterback. He looks like a monster at this point and we know he can run with the ball, but can he catch it?
#35 Jonathan Pimentel (6’3” 228 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Pimentel is one of those guys every program needs, especially ones that need to rely on underrecruited players. As we have seen with a similar guy in Matt Flanagan in the past, he could carve out a role.
#45 Brandon Myers (6’1”, 230 lbs.), Redshirt Freshman
Myers is a local from Bridgewater who draws fullback duty. If he could be as good as max Anthony right away, that would be a huge plus for an offense that needs all the help it can get.
#49 Kyle Penniston (6’4” 243 lbs.) Redshirt Senior
Penniston was a starter or at minimum on the two-deep for the perennial Big Ten West power Badgers. His highlights are excellent, so if he got the ball more should be able to accumulate stats. The most important thing is his route running to get open for critical conversions on third down and move the chains. Without him, this group would be all unknown commodities.
#48 Ryan Cassidy (6’3”, 220 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore, #86 Cooper Heisey (6’4”, 235 lbs.) Freshman, #42 Jake Malaney (6’4”, 210 lbs.) Freshman
Long term outlook: Average at worst. Tight End ranks are often filled out by converted running backs, receivers, and walk-on’s. Rutgers has several of those along with Lewis and Alaimo that possess plenty of eligibility left. The key here is finding a quarterback who can develop some rapport with at least some of the group. The 2020 recruiting class already has a tight end committed to replace Penniston.
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