The air of optimism cascading through New Brunswick from the banks of the Raritan earlier this autumn has begun to fade. After taking care of business at home against Temple and Delaware, and winning a tough one against Syracuse on the road, the Scarlett Knights have come crashing back to earth through the first four contests of their Big Ten schedule. Losses to Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Northwestern have proven to be harsh reminders that Rutgers is still in the early stages of a massive rebuild.
At the beginning of the season, coming off an unexpected three win total in 2020 against all Big Ten competition, some including myself could contemplate nothing but “bowl or bust”. That was not an entirely realistic or rational position, but with so many returning upperclassmen, it seemed plausible. While veteran players like Aaron Cruikshank, Bo Melton, and Isaih Pacheco have given their all on the field this season and have found some meaningful success, a 3-4 record is going to make it hard getting to a bowl this year.
That leaves us with a burning question: What role will this season play in the rebuilding process? Building a cultural foundation is important. Much of that work has already begun. Last season showed the program, recruits, and the world that Rutgers could once again be competitive under Coach Greg Schiano. This season, while taking another step forward in the win column might have advanced that objective even further, strides can be made without it.
Rutgers has quite the cache of young athletes waiting to take the reigns next season and beyond. Some of those young men, like freshman Kyle Monangai, have made early impacts. Monangai has been one of the Scarlet Knights’ feature backs, playing in all 7 games, and rushing 34 times. The young man from Don Bosco prep has gotten valuable gameday reps and has injected positive energy into the huddle. Jamier Wright-Collins, another impressive running back from Paterson, has also had his number called and has looked the part.
The offensive line, struggling without starters Reggie Sutton and Raiqwon O’Neal due to injury, has had to turn to young players, including freshman Troy Rainey and Hollin Pierce. As Aaron Breitman recently pointed out, it isn’t ideal to have to thrust such young offensive lineman into such critical roles so early, but I believe it will help add valuable experience to the future construction of what the Knights have in the trenches.
2021 Frank Burns award recipient Robert Longerbeam has recorded 12 tackles this season, 9 of them solo. He also has 5 passes defended and a forced fumble. Fellow defensive back, highly touted true freshman, Alijah Clark from Camden, has recorded an interception and 6 tackles thus far in his young career. Linebacker Tyreem Powell, another true freshman, has recovered a fumble and has made an impact with 4 tackles. Watching these young men play has been exciting, and has boded well for the future of the program.
This is not to take anything away from the upperclassmen on the team, but Greg Schiano and his staff have brought two years worth of players into the program that fit their vision. While many of the game changers mentioned above have made their debut on defense, there are also explosive offensive players waiting for the opportunity to make their mark. East Orange standout Al-Shadee Salaam seems to have all the makings of an explosive playmaker. And, perhaps the most anticipated of them all, quarterback Gavin Wimsatt. My colleague Art Stein wrote earlier this week that it may be time to get him on the field, at least for less intimidating contests against Illinois, Indiana, and Maryland. To be clear, Art’s suggestion was not that Wimsatt start, but at least that he see some game action. I agree.
That goes for quarterbacks in general. Noah Vedral by all accounts is a great leader, a hard-worker, and is careful with the football. But backups Evan Simon and Cole Snyder have looked able to run the offense in the spring game and in the limited reps they’ve gotten in games. Whether Wimsatt is ready to take the reigns next season or not, there will need to be other seasoned and capable quarterbacks on the roster. Wimsatt could need another year. After all, he was in high school at the start of the season. He could also (prayerfully not) sustain an injury which would require Simon or Snyder to see significant time in future seasons. They should see significant action now. One or both of them should get the chance to start.
Handing the proverbial baton to younger players on the field will not be without its drawbacks of course. It is going to mean that veteran players, who have given their all to the program through hard times, including the early stages of this rebuild, are going to lose snaps. Youthful mistakes are also to be expected. However, its worth noting that 14 first or second year players have already played in the past few games. That’s around 30% of active players on gameday. Perhaps the staff has already started the youth movement, even if gradually and with a healthy dose of special teams work, which is one of the best ways to work them in. And the mistakes, I’d rather live with them this year if it means stronger seasons to come.
The rebuilding of a college football program is more like a transition. It is never a blank slate, but the gradual change of culture, the interspersed turnover of a roster, and the installation of new philosophies. In terms of that second aspect, we’ve gotten glimpses of it with Monangai, Longerbeam, Powell and the offensive line, but it's time to double down. Many of the young players in the program developed a sense of comradery and purpose throughout the duration of their recruitments and in the early going of their careers. They bought into a common philosophy and goal together, and they are eager to get on the field and start to leave their mark on the program. And if this is going to happen, there is no better time than the current bye week to do it. The staff can take their time in identifying younger players who have shown readiness for game action. Those players can be worked into the game plan, even if just for certain packages and plays.
Seeing a youth movement the second half of this season will not only impact the mentality of those already on the roster, but will signal to incoming recruits that early playing time is a possibility and a selling-point. Some of those recruits have already bought in and are excited about the task at hand. New Jersey’s top ranked prospect and Rutgers class of 2022 commit Jacob Allen told Rutgers Wire that “Rome wasn’t built in a day...I’m still 100%. I haven’t talked to another coach since I committed...I think all the line commits coming in, I think we’re all going to be expected to do something when we get there.”
Rome won’t be built next season either, but it has to start somewhere. The younger players on this roster should get a head start on next year and beyond. The only way to do that, is to get more of them on the field, gaining valuable experience and learning how to play together. The program is soon to be in their hands. The situation might be different if the Knights were on course to vastly exceed expectations this season. But instead, the program seems right on schedule.
The outlook has to change from winning now, to getting the most out of each game in terms of benefitting the program going forward, and that calls for a youth movement.
The future is now.