In a loss to Michigan State on Saturday that Rutgers allowed four touchdowns of 63 yards or more, got called for six holding penalties and scored 13 points for the third straight Big Ten contest, there were some positives. One notable highlight was that several freshman players made a positive impact in the game.
Out of 50 players that played in Saturday’s game, there were 14 that either are classified as a true freshman or redshirt freshman. It was an even split with seven on offense with Hollin Pierce, Troy Rainey, Jamier Wright-Collins, Kyle Monangai, Gus Zilinskas, Jessie Parson III, and Victor Konopka. On defense, the seven freshmen were Robert Longerbeam, Alijah Clark, Tyreem Powell, Desmond Igbinosun, Austin Dean, Kyonte Hamilton and Aaron Lewis.
Longerbeam was tied for fifth on the team with 5 tackles and he also had one pass break up. Lewis had 4 tackles, including 0.5 for a loss. Igbinosun had 3 tackles.
Other stats for freshmen included Parson III having a 31 yard kickoff return and was targeted once in the passing game. Monangai had 1 catch for 1 yard as well as 4 carries for 16 yards. Konopka was targeted once in the passing game but did not make a catch.
Most notably, the two takeaways for the Rutgers defense involved a freshman.
In the second quarter, Olakunle Fatukasi forced a fumble and Tyreem Powell was able to recover the ball. It was a huge play as the Rutgers offense took over on the Michigan State 13 yard line. Although the offense failed to score a touchdown, settling for a 29 yard field goal, it was a huge play from Powell to come up with it.
Later in the game, former 4-star defensive back Alijah Clark grabbed the first interception of his collegiate career off of a deflection. It came with Rutgers struggling and needing the defense to make a play midway into the fourth quarter. The pick gave Rutgers the ball on their own 44 yard line and they were knocking on the footsteps of entering the red zone before Noah Vedral had a fumble recovered Michigan State.
Head coach Greg Schiano was asked about the impact the freshmen made this game, including Clark, Hamilton and Igbinosun. “Those are some of the guys I’m talking about,” said Schiano. “Now, Christian [Izien] got banged up. So in goes Des. I thought he did a good job, right? I think when you have opportunities, those guys have been getting more work in practice, as you know. As they get better and better, they earn the trust of the coaching staff. Robert Longerbeam has been playing a lot. Robert has worked his way into being a guy that can play for us. It’s good, we’re developing some depth as we go.”
While building depth and developing players this season is important, it’s even more so for the future when you consider the potential reality of next season. Entering week six against Michigan State, the only freshmen listed on the two deep on defense were Longerbeam, Powell, and Lewis. Considering the starters are comprised of seven seniors and four juniors, it’s encouraging that Clark, Igbinosun and Hamilton also saw real action in this game.
On special teams, true freshman Zach Taylor is listed as the backup long snapper on the two deep behind his brother Billy.
Shifting to offense, there are six seniors and four juniors starting. The lone exception is freshman Troy Rainey, who took over the job for Reggie Sutton after his season ending injury, who is a junior. There are four other freshmen on offense included in the two deep for Michigan State. They include quarterback Evan Simon, who is listed as a toss up with Cole Snyder for the backup spot, but he has played behind him all season. The other three are all on the offensive line with Bryan Felter, Guz Zilinskas, and Hollin Pierce, who has actually started multiple games this season.
It’s been an adventure with the offensive line this season and Schiano touched on the need for continuing to develop the players for now and the future.
“You don’t mix and match because it’s all good, right? We’re mixing and matching to try to find a combination that can get the job done,” said Schiano. “When you have guys that are of like ability, perform similarly in practice and games, you play them both. You hope that someone is going to take off and go.”
Schiano commented further on the offensive line and mentioned that Pierce has made strides for this team so far. He said, “l think Hollin Pierce is becoming more and more of a consistent guy. He’s playing darn near every play. We need more guys to just develop. We need to coach them to develop them. They’re not going to develop on their own. I think Coach Aurich is doing a great job developing. You all want it to happen faster, all of us. But it’s not an easy position to learn, to become an expert at. We just have to keep working at it.”
Injuries are piling up for Rutgers and if they want to continue to be competitive in Big Ten play and even challenge for a bowl game, some of the younger players are likely going to need to step up for this team. Getting younger players involved like they were Saturday against No. 11 Michigan State is imperative for the future. Several of them will be relied on in bigger roles next season with expected roster attrition and getting them experience now is huge. There should be little doubt that Schiano doesn’t want to go into next season with a majority of players on the two deep with limited or no experience.
Remember, this is only year two of the rebuild. Rutgers is 3-3 and although the last three weeks have been disappointing, the losses came against teams all set to be ranked in the top 10 nationally next week. The program’s progress on the field hasn’t been linear this season, but they’ve been competitive with every team but Ohio State. The 2022 recruiting class is still ranked in the top 20 nationally ao more help is on the way soon. Elevating Rutgers into a winning Big Ten program is going to take time. Player development has never been more important this season and beyond than it is right now.