The Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team’s spring activities have been cancelled just like all other NCAA spring athletic events. With the hope that fall football happens, even if it is delayed or there’s a limited summer training camp, we will proceed with our traditional spring position reviews. With the current worldwide global health crisis, we are living day to day, but hopefully both Rutgers Football and the world at large have brighter days ahead.
This series reviews the state of each positional group based on the best information we have today. In the absence of spring practice, naturally less intelligence is available than it has been in previous campaigns. Also, with the new transfer portal, eligibility questions are best guess and we won’t assume anyone who has already entered the transfer portal will return. The team’s official website does not currently have a 2020 roster posted.
We continue by switching to the offensive side of the ball with the Tight Ends and Fullbacks.
Position coach(es): Nunzio Campanile (Third Season)
Key players lost: Kyle Penniston (graduation)
Key players returning: Johnathan Lewis (RJr.), Matt Alaimo (RSo.), Jonathan Pimentel (RSo.), Cooper Heisey (RFr.), Brandon Myers (RSo.)
Newcomers: Victor Konopka (early enrollee), Shawn Collins (signed LOI)
What they did well in 2019: Be team players.
The list of healthy scholarships players at either Tight End or Fullback on the Rutgers Football team last year was very short, as in one player. Matt Alaimo who returned home to New Jersey after a year at UCLA was granted immediate eligibility and played in every game. The only other scholarship Tight End on the roster was Johnathan Lewis, a converted quarterback who started to play some tight end in 2018. Unfortunately, Lewis was lost for the year with an Achilles injury just days before the 2019 season opener when he was expected to start.
Offensive coordinators John McNulty and later Nunzio Campanile did what they could to extract as much as possible from the rest of the group, though it was not prioritized in the pass game at all. So from that season opening win over Umass a true Freshman, Cooper Heisey, a high school quarterback, was playing snaps. Heisey was joined by fellow walk-ons Brandon Myers and Jonathan Pimentel in doing whetever was needed for the team, primarily contributing on special teams. Of the three, Myers is the only one who played significant snaps on offense when he lined up at fullback, tight end, and what is considered more of an H-back role. Switching offenses midseason was likely more difficult for him than any other player considering quarterback Johnny Langan ran the exact same offense under Campanile in high school. Myers, from nearby Bridgewater-Raritan, is in the mold of the traditional fullback that has succeeded at Rutgers so many times in the past.
Needs Improvement: Production.
A fullback did not receive a single rushing attempt for the Scarlet Knights in 2019. If you treat hybrid WR/TE Daevon Robinson’s production as that of a wide receiver (which it mostly was anyway), the only Tight End or Fullback to catch a single pass was Alaimo. He hauled in six passes for 60 yards on the entire year as the team’s starting Tight End.
In today’s version of college football, this is simply not good enough, much like we need the defensive line to actually get sacks. Without production, the opposition does not need to devote any resources to planning during the week. As a former defensive player, during our film sessions if we knew a specific player or position group was not getting the ball we simply ignored it and focused on everybody else. If we got burned once in a game, so be it because the trade-off gain from focusing elsewhere in preparation time was worth it.
Alaimo proved to be reliable when the ball was thrown his way and got open more than I expected he would prior to the season, so he should be in line for more looks. Lewis, when he played quarterback, could plow over defenders, so even if it’s on inside runs as an H-back, this wrinkle simply has to be added. Myers did not carry the ball much in high school, but he did catch 33 passes and 10 touchdowns as a senior, so there is potential there as well for him to catch an occasional pass and surprise a defense.
Changes expected in 2020
The tight ends are led by the one holdover from the previous coaching staff: Nunzio Campanile. Campanile coached running backs when he joined the Scarlet Knights in 2018, but switched to tight ends in 2019. Of course he added interim head coach, offensive coordinator, and playcalling duties to his role for most of the year so it’s not surprising that the tight ends may have been a little bit neglected due to time constraints after that. The best news is that there will be some consistency in at least one position group with Nunzio returning to coach the entire same contingent. The only loss being graduate transfer tight end Kyle Penniston who missed the entire season due to injury. Campanile learned some lessons with his other roles and hopefully can bring those back to this group.
New offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson was somewhat of a coup when he returned to New Jersey after just one year at Oklahoma State. Without spring practice, we don’t know exactly what Gleeson has in mind with the Scarlet Knight offense in 2020, but at Oklahoma State they used a position called a “Cowboy Back” that began in 2015 and Gleeson continued to use during his one season in Stillwater. The Cowboy Back is a lot like a traditional H-back, but at times also is expected to be all the way out as a flexed tight end, a Swiss Army Knife of sorts. Oklahoma State used four different Cowboy Backs in 2019, two of which had five receptions in a single game. If Gleeson feels he can patch together a group that can fulfill this role, expect him to leverage it in a similar way on the banks.
Way too early predictions
It’s going to have to be a committee approach to get bodies on the field that have skills to offer once again, but with Alaimo and Johnathan Lewis, they are two Big Ten quality athletes to serve as building blocks. Alaimo still needs to put on more weight as an inline blocker, but with the receiving skills to line up flexed or even as a wide receiver at times, he can add a dimension that Rutgers didn’t really even attempt to use in 2019. Lewis has more experience being as close to the ball as possible, so I expect his impact will come as a motioning tight end who can sneak a few carries (the RU version of a traditional fullback dive play) and will leak out as a check down option to get his feet wet as a pass catcher at the college level. Myers looks like the best option if Rutgers needs a more traditional lead blocking fullback and I expect Gleeson to be more creative than any offensive coordinator since Ralph Friedgen in Piscataway, so Brandon should haul in a few passes, too. Most teams these days don’t have scholarship fullbacks and Myers has a chance to be as impactful as other Big Ten players in similar roles.
Rutgers doesn’t have the offensive line to blow people out of the water in short yardage sets, so it makes sense to add in an extra offensive lineman at the tight end or even fullback position in those situations. We could see Reggie Sutton or the next guy in the same role as that extra pure blocker with a more open-minded staff. For pure novelty and excitement factor, perhaps even a defensive guy like redshirt freshman Devin Baldwin could get a look in short yardage as a blocker.
Above Average. I don’t know what RU will call this position moving forward, but what I do know is that having a strong tight end room is one of the easiest ways to re-build a program. The example OTB readers may be tired of me citing is Jim Harbaugh’s rebuild at Stanford when they were churning out multiple NFL tight ends each year. It’s hard to find players who run 4.4 and can defeat press coverage, it’s much easier to find tall, well-rounded athletes who can morph into effective tight ends over a career. Rutgers added two of these in the 2020 recruiting class, Victor Konopka and Shawn Collins, to go along with a group that has no seniors this season. So by 2021, this should be one of the strongest units on the team and with so many high school football players in a small area, Rutgers should be able to fill the ranks with more than capable walk-ons who could morph into starters at this position down the line.
Previously covered groups