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Revisiting the Rutgers Football Recruiting Class of 2017

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The core of the team over the last three years came from this group.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Illinois at Rutgers
Fogg and O3 have been in on a lot of tackles together.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rutgers Football kicks off the 2021 regular season on September 2 against Temple. Leading into the preseason, we hope to blend the past, present, and future in my biggest undertaking in a while to get geared up for the season.

A funny thing happened on my way to the transfer portal.... while procrastinating from work at my real job, I found myself looking at updates on the destinations of those who departed the Rutgers Football program recently, subsequently attempting to recall what we thought about those players when they joined the Scarlet Knights. But why stop there?

Why not re-rank the positive impact of the student-athletes brought in during the last five recruiting classes? To aid in this unofficial calculation, fuzzy math on how many years a player started and was on the two-deep is included for reference. (I expect plenty of constructive criticism on how I arrived at these values.) This mini-series has a number of past incarnations, so if you’d like to ensure avoidance of revisionist history, check out the links at the bottom of this article.

We started the series last week in reviewing the 2016 recruiting class here. We continue with Chris Ash’s second recruiting class, which was the first group that he had a full year to convince to come to the banks. The 2017 Rutgers Football recruiting class was by every metric, the best for the Scarlet Knights since the class of 2012 at the time and has proven to be in hindsight.

Tier 1:

1. Tyshon Fogg - OLB, Calvert Hall, Towson, MD

2017 State (MD) Overall Ranking: 9 National OLB Ranking: 15 (RU ranking: 3rd)

Seasons on the banks: 5, Starter: 3*, Two-deep: 4*

Fogg was arguably the top recruit in this class and it was evident right away that he was definitely a player. Fogg got reps at all three spots though it seemed inevitable he would take over for Deonte Roberts in the middle. Tyshon was one of the team’s best two defensive players in 2019 (also a captain) every time he stepped on the field and provided a similar high level of play in 2020 when healthy. His coverage skills (only three career passes defended) will be what makes or breaks his chances to be an NFL player as he is expected to start again at MLB in 2021, while adding to career totals of 38 games, 19 starts, 240 tackles (12.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks), 1 INT, and a forced fumble. Fogg has been an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection each of the past two seasons.

2. Bo Melton - WR, Cedar Creek, Egg Harbor City, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 5 National WR Ranking: 37 (RU ranking: 2nd)

Seasons on the banks: 5, Starter: 3*, Two-deep: 4*

With 31 career starts and by far having been RU’s best playmaker on offense, some fans may say he should be first on this list. The Rutgers legacy completely dominated Illinois and Maryland last year, scoring twice in both games. He totaled eight touchdowns in a variety of ways; catches, runs, and returns. The only reason I have him number two is that he only had two career touchdowns prior to 2020 despite all the starts. Nearly half his receiving production (47 of his 109 catches and 638 of his 1393 receiving yards) came in 2020. He is the team’s most important player, possibly even more important to the team than QB Noah Vedral because no one else can come even close to replacing his production at his position. The 2020 team captain earned Honorable Mention All Big-Ten honors for his efforts by the coaches & media. With another performance like that he could end up getting drafted in 2022.

3. Olakunle Fatukasi - OLB, Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY

2017 State (NY) Overall Ranking: 5 National OLB Ranking: 58 (RU ranking: 6th)

Seasons on the banks: 5, Starter: 3*, Two-deep: 4*

Let me make your argument for you as to why O3 should be higher: he had the best 2020 season (First Team All-Big Ten) which matters because Rutgers was a legit team rather than the previous two years. However, I don’t think he has had the defensive career of Fogg or the on field game changing ability of Melton. In 44 career games (19 starts) Fatukasi has tallied 213 career tackles (17 TFL, 3.5 sacks), five passes defended, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries. He had a chance to be drafted in 2021 but everyone around the program is happy he has returned for his 5th year. The accolades have come this preseason after finishing 5th in preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year voting (including three first-place votes) as well as being named to watch lists for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Butkus Awards. If he delivers at such a high level this season he will probably move to #1 for the 2017 recruiting class.

4. Raheem Blackshear - RB, Archbishop Wood, Warminster, PA

2017 State (PA) Overall Ranking: 27 National WR Ranking: 211 (RU ranking: 14th)

Seasons on the banks: 2.5, Starter: 1.5*, Two-deep: 1.5*

I try to avoid the half year distinction, but all the regular followers of the program know why this is a special case. Blackshear was only a two-star recruit by some recruiting services, but emerged to get carries as a true freshman even with a very good running back room in 2017 that included two future NFL players (Gus Edwards & Robert Martin) and a former Bowl MVP (Josh Hicks). Deployed as a running back and slot receiver, he was the team’s best offensive player in 2018, leading the team in rushing and receiving. After Chris Ash and John McNulty were fired, Blackshear elected to preserve his redshirt status and opted-out of the remaining 2019 season before transferring to Virginia Tech.

5. Mike Tverdov - DE, Union, Union, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 29 National WDE Ranking: 79 (RU ranking: 15th)

Seasons on the banks: 5, Starter: 3*, Two-deep: 4*

Mike Tverdov followed his brother’s footsteps to the banks and by late in his redshirt freshman season though he was a starter, delivering the team’s only highlight against Maryland. Despite starting the next two years, that same passion didn’t return in game action until the second half of the 2020 season when he really started to turn it on, playing with reckless abandon. Now that the team has more depth at his position, we should see more performances like he had against Maryland and Nebraska when he tallied four sacks, including one that forced the Terrapins outside field goal range, effectively icing the victory. 33 career games, 21 starts, 114 tackles (18.5 TFL), 8.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two recoveries, and a blocked kick is an impressive stat line for a player who was clearly underrecruited and enters his third full season as a starter.

6. Shameen Jones - WR, Cardinal Hayes, Bronx, NY

2017 State (NY) Overall Ranking: 8 National WR Ranking: 151 (RU ranking: 10th)

Seasons on the banks: 5, Starter: 3*, Two-deep: 4*

Jones was a starter in 2018 and 2019, but not very impressive until 2020. His stats were even more skewed than the aforementioned Melton, as he added 34 of his 51 career receptions, 378 of his 548 yards, and three of his four career TD’s last season. His impact went far beyond the stats from his reshaping his body during quarantine, to his emotional moment after being flagged on the play that called back the TD that wasn’t against Indiana, then putting the team and multiple defenders on his back for repeated third down catches where he willed his way across the line to gain. He is the microcosm of the entire program’s seemingly overnight transformation and just like the team as a whole, he needs to take yet another step forward as a starter again in 2021.

7. C.J. Onyechi - OLB, West Orange, West Orange, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 31 National OLB Ranking: 102 (RU ranking: 16th)

Seasons on the banks: 4, Starter: 1*, Two-deep: 4*

Onyechi gets the nod over #8 on this list because he made a name for himself as an undersized true freshman defensive end by taking down Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley twice at or behind the line of scrimmage in the first half against Penn State. CJ also boasts seven career starts in 32 career games, adding 59 tackles (10TFL, 4 sacks). Onyechi is on track to be in the two-deep at defensive end again. Providing the same production he has in his career comes from being most effective in bursts as part of a deeper rotation on defense while remaining a key special teams contributor.

8. Brendon Bordner - DE, Hilliard Bradley, Hilliard, OH

2017 State (OH) Overall Ranking: 38 National SDE Ranking: 46 (RU ranking: 9th)

Seasons on the banks: 5, Starter: 1*, Two-deep: 3*

His offer list was long and began a strong trend of Rutgers getting players from the state of Ohio. Bordner was considered by many fans as a disappointment up until late in his redshirt sophomore season when he was a two-deep member of a run defense that simply never quit despite a long-lost season. After 23 tackles in 20 games at defensive line, he got a lot of buzz when he accepted a change to the offensive line prior to the 2020 season. Brendon became a hero in both the Purdue (left tackle) and Maryland (right tackle) wins when he was pressed into a starting role. There’s a chance he’s a full-time starter in 2021 on the offensive line, but even if not, expect him to be ready to step in once again when the need arises.

Tier 2

9. Travis Vokolek - TE, Kickapoo, Springfield, MO

2017 State (MO) Overall Ranking: 11 National TE Ranking: 104 (RU ranking: 23rd)

Seasons on the banks: 2, Starter: 1, Two-deep: 2

Vokolek arrived from so far away which ultimately was a main reason why he left the banks. It’s hard to blame him in the sense that he started 9 of his 19 career games but only tallied 17 catches for 198 yards and two TD despite being open plenty. Even when he wasn’t wide open, Travis had the jumping ability, hands, and catch radius to make contested catches. His departure was a huge blow to the offense before the 2019 season when he joined the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After sitting out due to transfer rules, he started four games in 2020.

10. Hunter Hayek - WR, Wayne Hills, Wayne, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 53 National WR Ranking: 390 (RU ranking: 24th)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 1, Two-deep: 3

Hunter once reached as high as 5th on this list, not bad for a two-star recruit based on his size alone. Officially he only is listed as having two career starts, but as the team’s primary slot receiver for parts of two seasons, I rounded up. Despite the snaps, more targets than he should have gotten including some on fade routes (they know he’s 5’9” right?), Hunter only managed 11 career receptions for 79 yards. That’s mostly a product of abysmal coaching, worse quarterback play, and being featured long before he was truly ready for the Big Ten. After a 2019 redshirt partially due to injury, he entered the transfer portal. He graduated from Rutgers and will continue his career at Stony Brook.

11. Tim Barrow, CB - Tottenville, Staten Island, NY

2017 State (NY) Overall Ranking: 6 National CB Ranking: 101 (RU ranking: 7th)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 0.5, Two-deep: 2

Barrow impressed me more as a receiver in high school but played defense at Rutgers due to the logjam at wideout. After redshirting as a true freshman he became a key special teams player with some action on defense in 2018. He was part of intense position battles at both safety spots that continued throughout the entire 2019 season. By the end of the year, he was clearly more of a game changer at that point in time than Christian Izien and Jarrett Paul, adding 43 tackles, six pass break-ups, and an amazing interception while starting four games. Probably the third best player to enter the transfer portal since the Schiano coaching staff took over (Maietti and Blackshear), Barrow joined Wagner but didn’t play a down last season.

12. Sam Vretman - OT, Cheshire Academy, Cheshire, CT

2017 State (CT) Overall Ranking: 6 National OT Ranking: 76 (RU ranking: 5th)

Seasons on the banks: 5, Starter: 0.5, Two-deep: 4*

Vretman came in as an early enrollee and was able to show some promise initially. Especially in his lateral movement to the point the staff kept him at tackle initially, rather than moving him inside to guard where he later ended up a part-time starter. Posting 22 career games including five starts isn’t bad for a guy from Sweden who was recruited on raw potential. He should be a member of the two-deep for a 4th season and possibly as a regular starter in 2021.

13. Johnathan Lewis - QB, St. Peter’s Prep, Jersey City, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 19 National QB Ranking: 16 (RU ranking: 4th)

Seasons on the banks: 4, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 2

Lewis was the face of the future of Rutgers quarterbacking even before Tylin Oden left. Johnathan was the quarterback Mehringer and Ash wanted with the recruiting rankings and offer list to back that up. As a runner he was a tank, but with multiple offenses and a lack of stability coaching wise, he ended up moving to tight end. He looked the part of a Big Ten tight end but sadly was injured right before the 2019 season was to begin when he was set to be the starter. In 2020 he returned, playing in five games mostly on special teams. Johnathan Lewis recently tweeted that he will play for South Dakota next season. He leaves Rutgers without ever catching a pass, finishing with 167 career passing yards, 111 rushing yards, and six total touchdowns.

14. Everett Wormley - WR, Burlington Twp, Burlington, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 36 National WR Ranking: 225 (RU ranking: 20th)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 0.5, Two-deep: 2

Wormley leapfrogged many higher ranked receivers into almost immediate playing time as a true freshman, starting four games. He didn’t parlay that into more production, registering 23 career games (only two more career starts) but tallying only five catches for 28 yards. With the pandemic he opted out of the 2020 season. Already a Rutgers graduate, he entered the transfer portal last December.

15. Jaohne Duggan - DL, Liberty, Bethlehem, PA

2017 State (PA) Overall Ranking: 24 National SDE Ranking: 67 (RU ranking: 13th)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 2

Duggan is a guy who earned an offer at Rutgers camp as by all accounts he was the best lineman there in early summer 2016. He surprised many by entering the two-deep despite being undersized as a redshirt freshman. He was a solid contributor the following season as a consistent backup for Julius Turner, even starting a game. Duggan finished his career with 12 tackles (one for loss) before transferring to Duquesne and then Edinboro.

16. Naijee Jones - CB, Timber Creek, Sicklerville, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 32 National CB Ranking: 165 (RU ranking: 18th)

Seasons on the banks: 4, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 2*

Coming from the Timber Creek pipeline, Jones was the first commit to this class if I recall correctly, but was not viewed as a big time prospect. He didn’t see any action as a freshman or sophomore but played in 11 games as a junior. He kept chopping and played in all nine games of 2020, starting three. This is exactly the type of player Schiano and staff had so much success with in their first go around, Naijee has a chance to really climb these rankings after his final season in 2021 where he is in the mix at safety.

17. Tijuan Mason - DE, Trezevant, Memphis, TN

2017 State (TN) Overall Ranking: 36 National WDE Ranking: 76 (RU ranking: 17th)

Mason was a roll of the dice. He could have been a Kemoko Turay clone or not. He ended up falling short of his potential, though was looking like a game wrecker in 2018 spring practice and the season opener before suffering a season ending injury. Like Lewis above you can’t discount the effect his injury had on his above average athleticism. All told he finished his RU career with six tackles (one for loss) in 16 career games (one start) plus a forced fumble. He entered the transfer portal in May once spring practice concluded.

18. Elijah Barnwell - RB, Piscataway, Piscataway, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 42 National APB Ranking: 34 (RU ranking: 17th)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 0

Elijah was a first team all- state player as a high school senior willing Piscataway to a Group Five championship. He redshirted in the crowded backfield of 2017, then made a personal sacrifice by moving to linebacker in 2018 to fill in the depth lost due to suspensions. After returning to running back in 2019, he showed toughness and gained 81 yards on the ground. After that season (having played 12 career games) he transferred to Maine, where he started three games last season.

19. Tyler Hayek - WR, Wayne, Wayne Hills, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 43 National S Ranking: 153 (RU ranking: 22nd)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 0

Tyler was the first Hayek twin to commit, not Hunter. With the crowded WR group in this class alone he moved over to safety. However, he was mostly used on special teams, playing in 18 games without ever recording any stats. A Rutgers graduate studying my field (cybersecurity), he could use a final year of eligibility somewhere else if he wanted.

20. Brendan DeVera - LB, Wayne Hills, Wayne, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 57 National OLB Ranking: 201 (RU ranking: 25th)

Seasons on the banks: 1, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 1

DeVera was just a two-star prospect because he played quarterback in high school. Rutgers brought him in to be an H-back, but his freshman year to get him on the field he became the backup middle linebacker quickly (ahead of Fatukasi and Fogg) playing in 11 games and making two tackles. Before the 2018 season, he was dismissed from the team before resurfacing at a few stops, including ASA and Memphis.

21. Micah Clark - OT, St. John Vianney, Holmdel, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 2 National OT Ranking: 16 (RU ranking: 1st)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 1

Clark was the consensus highest rated player in this class. He enrolled early and was a key recruiter to ensure the remainder of the class honored their commitments. For that alone he could be higher on this list. Disappointingly, he only played in 12 career games, mostly on special teams while listed at both offensive line and defensive line. He was no longer with the team as of April 2020, a few months after his brother entered the transfer portal. Speaking of....

Tier 3

22. Jamaal Beaty, OL - St. John Vianey, Holmdel, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 23 National OG Ranking: 50 (RU ranking: 8th)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 0

Beaty came along with his stepbrother Micah Clark as an early enrollee. He only played in one career game though despite being the 8th ranked player in this Rutgers class. After entering the transfer portal, it doesn’t appear he landed anywhere.

23. Owen Bowles - OL, Cedar Creek, Egg Harbor City, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall: 25 National OG Ranking: 56 (RU ranking: 11th)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 0

Once as high as #5 on this list during his freshman season, it was all downhill from there. Like Beaty, Bowles only played in one career game despite being on the two deep for a brief moment. He never officially entered the transfer portal as I am aware.

24. Eddie “Tank” Lopez - DB, Woodrow Wilson, Camden, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall: 26 National S Ranking: 88 (RU ranking: 12th)

Seasons on the banks: 1, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 0

“Tank” was almost identically ranked to Bowles upon his arrival in Piscataway. After redshirting as a true freshman, he was suspended before leaving the program without having ever played a game after being charged in the credit card scandal. I had heard he ended up playing elsewhere but haven’t been able to find it during my recent search.

25. Syhiem Simmons - LB, Carver (AL), Jersey City, NJ

2017 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 63 National ATH Ranking: 112 (RU ranking: 17th)

After spending his senior year of high school in Alabama to boost his stock rather than remaining in New Jersey, he came back and chose RU over six other power five schools. Simmons projected at running back, linebacker, or safety. We never got a glimpse though as he was suspended as part of the credit scandal previously touched upon. Before any of the players were reinstated, he elected to transfer. He played for New Mexico Highlands in 2019 and did quite well statistically from what I could find.

Notable Walk-ons:

Billy Taylor - All-American long snapper who unseated a three-time starter and scholarship player in Alan Lucy. He has played 45 career games with more expected in 2021 and has NFL potential.

Rani Abdulaziz - In 23 career games, he has made seven tackles. Will be a nice addition to another program at his next stop.

Ryan Cassidy - He potentially could have been the starter at long snapper had it not been for Taylor.

Parker Day - He has played 15 career games on special teams and can add to that total in 2021.

20/20 Hindsight:

1. Previous observation: Linebacker depth exploded with this group. When doing the scholarship update I described the freshman role in 2017 in more detail. The 2016 group had some great human beings, but most have some limitation that prevents them from being above average Big Ten starters. Everyone was back this year but the infusion of energy and upside helped to push the incumbents to their best seasons on the banks.

Update: This aged quite well. Fogg and Fatukasi turned into cornerstone Big Ten star level players while Onyechi ultimately found a home in the defensive end rotation. Two guys didn’t work out at LB but when you have enough lottery tickets, you an afford a couple misses.

2. Previous observation: Wide receivers have gotten plenty of chances, but not done much with them. In an otherwise horrible performance by the team overall, it was nice to see a few freshman make catches even in the first half against Indiana. The biggest need for Rutgers is obviously an improved passing attack so every little thing helps, continuity, more game experience, more practice reps, more chemistry with the quarterbacks, more playing time on special teams, etc. Someone needs to and should step up.

Update: This was spot on until 2020 when Melton and Jones were one of the more reliable starting outside receiver tandems in the league. So when all is said and done this class will get decent production at WR. However, it came in the form of huge volume intended to play in the Drew Mehringer Air-Raid that may have come at the expense of players from other positions who could have made more meaningful contributions.

3. Previous observation: Defensive backfield has been a let down. With a coaching staff most known for coaching defensive backs, it seemed logical that the depth issues created by 2015 attrition should have finally fallen off the map by 2017. A combination of recruiting and coaching should have been enough, yet the team ended up having to move several players from offense. The fact that a class with several athletes, WR/DB types had no true freshmen able to even provide depth at defensive back was discouraging. With so many upperclassmen returning in 2018, they may not get another chance until 2019.

Update: This turned out to be absolutely correct. One year of Barrow and one year of Naijee Jones as borderline starters for a previous staff loaded with DB gurus? As mentioned with the 2016 group, if either class as part of a two-year cycle came through in this area you could excuse the other. But two years combined without strong DB play? That more than anything is a microcosm of the Ash era.

4. Previous observation: Trench depth is the biggest wildcard and we won’t truly know for probably another three years. The numbers are there with four on each side of the ball. If just one guy can become an above average starter on each side of the ball plus another average starter from the group, plus depth provided by the others, that would be passable.

Update: Out of the gate, this fearsome foursome on the offensive side was what Rutgers needed to replenish the OL but for a plethora of reasons it did not work out. It’s disappointing that the higher regarded, more physically gifted guys in this group never could overtake the players from the previous class. Ultimately it took a converted defensive lineman overnight to become a much needed starter. On the defensive line though, it actually turned out for a passable grade with Tverdov becoming a legit multi-year starter. Also Bordner, Duggan, and Onyechi became two-deep guys on a decent run defense by their redshirt sophomore years even with Mason hampered by injury.

5. Previous observation: Should so many true freshman have played in 2017? This question warrants a much longer post than simply a few sentences here. My short answer is yes for two reasons. First, if early playing time was promised in recruiting, the staff has to follow through. Second, I do think the freshmen made an impact on special teams, units that were WAY better than a season ago. This staff can’t be thinking about 2021 right now, and if having Fatukasi on kickoff helped win the Maryland game, or Onyechi or Fogg etc, that one extra win was worth it.

Update: The answer was no before being ultimately being bailed out by the free year afforded by the covid pandemic. Also of note is that if the four game preserve redshirt rule had been in effect a year earlier, it could have helped tremendously with eligibility. Still though, unless a true freshman can truly beat out older players, he should not get major burn. See 2020 for case and point.

Final thoughts

Other wrinkles to keep in mind is that the Knights did eventually get more players back from a strong New Jersey high school class that began their careers at other Power Five schools including Drew Singleton and Zach Feagles. The number of decommits was actually quite low but the problem was that BOTH of them were immediate stars on their teams, and BOTH went elsewhere in the Big Ten to add insult to injury. I’m of course referring to Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa). In addition, Harrison Hand, Jon Lovett, and Rob Saulin ended up following Matt Rhule to Baylor (can’t blame them) but two turned out to be good college players (Hand reached the NFL) that could easily have ended up at Rutgers in a very minor alternate universe. That superclass would have looked an awful lot like what Rutgers is trending toward for 2022.

The class overall at the time was ranked 42nd nationally per 247 Sports, and that is probably spot on in terms of how good the class turned out to be. The games played, time on the two-deep, and starts are inflated because of how poor the team was around them. There was also a desire for the Ash staff to highlight the contribution of young players to recruits in the subsequent 2018 and 2019 cycles. The stat lines from 2020 are where a reasonable program would expect these players to be from a production standpoint, but there would be more guys from other recruiting classes to help manage the load. Even then the amount of future NFL players from this group is maybe three at most, which is not going to get it done, albeit it is an improvement from prior years. The problem is that to compete in the power five, specifically the Big Ten East, which is traditionally the second most difficult division in college football, this needs to be the minimum recruiting class you get every year to keep the ship afloat. Ultimately Ash and staff could not maintain this level of recruiting and only lasted two more years on the banks.

NOTES:

For the rankings in this article, I arbitrarily chose 247 Sports.

Nov 2017 update

2019 updates

2017 signing day headquarters