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Present and Future of the Rutgers Football Recruiting Class of 2018

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How much more growth can be expected from this group?

Rutgers v Ohio State
O’Neal deserved this touchdown.
Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Rutgers Football kicks off the 2021 regular season September 2 against Temple, so we hope to blend the past, present, and future in my biggest undertaking in a while to get geared up for the season. We continue with Chris Ash’s third recruiting class (first here, second here), the second he had a full year to convince to come to the banks. The 2018 Rutgers Football recruiting class was only ranked 56th nationally. Was that too high? Low? Both somehow? I expect plenty of constructive criticism on how I arrived at these values.

Tier 1

1. Isaih Pacheco - RB, Vineland South, Vineland, NJ

2018 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 17 National RB Ranking: 30 (RU ranking: 5th)

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

Pacheco has been the rock of the current roster (32 games, 22 starts), possibly even more than the members of the 2017 class. In the 2018 & 2019 lost seasons some fans admitted to tuning in weekly just to see Pacheco’s heart carry the load against all odds, knowing he might have one big home run to generate at least one highlight for the Scarlet Knights that day. He took over as the unquestioned lead back early in 2019 and has not relinquished it in putting up 1,795 yards with 13 touchdowns in his career so far. The criticism of his play in 2020 was that he was running too much east-west, but I think most of those comments came from people who don’t really understand how the zone blocking scheme is supposed to work nor how poorly Rutgers offensive line executed it at times. A big season from Pacheco will not just be a credit to him, but a testament to the improvement of the offense entirely.

2. Raiqwon O’Neal - OT, Conway, Conway, SC

2018 State (SC) Overall Ranking: 19 National OT Ranking: 88 (RU ranking: 7th)

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

O’Neal has to be in the top three no matter how you slice it, being the team’s starting left tackle for now his third season. On better Rutgers teams of yesteryear, he would have gotten more time to be ready, rather than being first significantly inserted during a failed comeback attempt against Buffalo as a true freshman. With the injuries he has only started 12 career games, but has been solid in the run game and usually passable in pass protection other than against the true conference elites. With his well documented work ethic, one healthy season and he will be on NFL radars.

3. Avery Young - CB, Coatesville, Coatesville, PA

2018 State (PA) Overall Ranking: 30 National CB Ranking: 124 (RU ranking: 13th)

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

Avery Young was first spotted during his baptism by fire courtesy of the Ohio State Buckeyes. After fans realized he was playing cornerback when he looked more like a linebacker, it was apparent he had a bright future. He took a step back in 2019 though more than anything as covered in previous film reviews, it was due to abysmal safety play behind him and the fact that he and Damon Hayes were often left completely on an island. In 2020, Rutgers fans lamented his penalty against Michigan but he was a reliable starter in all nine games, bringing his career total to 30 (yes starts). The media named him an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. Moving to safety in 2021, I have trust in the coaching staff to highlight Avery’s best skills in the new role. He can add to his 161 career tackles, 19 passes defended (one INT), three forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.

4. Adam Korsak - P, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia

2018 State (Intl) Overall Ranking: 5 National P Ranking: 10 (RU ranking: 22nd)

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

Korsak could be viewed as high as number one depending on how important you think punting is. For all three seasons he has been on the banks thus far, Korsak has been among the best punters in the Big Ten and the nation at large (four times on the Ray Guy award watch list, a semifinalist once). He already has the school record for longest punt. With the number of games he’ll end up playing and total punt attempts at Rutgers, he could end up setting almost every punting record in school history. His skills of dropping the ball inside the 20 are the best in the nation, 75 career to just five touchbacks, ZERO in 2020. He is an All-American candidate again.

5. Christian Izien - ATH, Erasmus Hall, Far Rockaway, NY

2018 State (NY) Overall Ranking: 18 National ATH Ranking: 117 (RU ranking: 15th)

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

Izien solely on his 2020 performance would be in the top two. He got into four games to preserve his redshirt as a freshman then was in a logjam at safety with Tim Barrow, Jarrett Paul, and Malik Dixon heading into the 2019 season. The end result was Izien being the most steady contributor and he started seven of his 12 games at strong safety (78 tackles, three pass break ups). Despite being undersized, he played way bigger than seemingly possible, starting all nine games in 2020, adding 66 tackles, eight passes defended, four interceptions, and three fumble recoveries. The team needs his energy and ability to generate turnovers or else the defense may take a step back in 2021.

6. Reggie Sutton - OT, Calvert Hall, Baltimore, MD

2018 State (MD) Overall Ranking: 24 National OT Ranking: 116 (RU ranking: 11th)

Seasons on the banks: 4, Starter: 2*, Two-deep: 3*

Sutton was undersized as a freshman, but did enough to force his way onto the field as a blocking tight end even starting one game. As a sophomore in 2019, he got into six games on the offensive line in an offense that accepted the trade-off of his lack of size for the additional agility. Finally up over 300 lbs., as a junior in 2020, he started all nine games, mostly at right tackle. He has the early advantage especially due to his pass blocking heading into 2021 as the team looks to take another step on offense.

7. Deion Jennings - CB, Timber Creek, Sicklerville, NJ

2018 State (Intl) Overall Ranking: 38 National CB Ranking: 172 (RU ranking: 20th)

Seasons on the banks: 4, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 3*

Jennings gets an edge over the next guy on our list because he is still on the team and has actually produced (60 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 1 INT, 3 passes defended) virtually every time he has seen the field. Problem is that he has been stuck in a logjam at linebacker (21 games, 4 starts). With the team struggling in coverage and a depleted, inexperienced secondary, it would have been logical to give their best cover linebacker more reps, right? Not as many reps as you would think because by trailing in so many games the last two years, Rutgers sold out to stop the run in personnel choices, daring opponents to throw. So Deion is a rare player who will actually get MORE reps if the team is winning because facing more obvious passing downs his skillset will be even more valuable. His athleticism and continued improvement has future Schiano success story written all over it, even if he has another year trying to steal reps from five seniors (Maddox-Williams, Fogg, Fatukasi, Battle, and Singleton) before exploding in 2022 albeit while competing against higher rated recruits.

Tier 2

8. Art Sitkowski - QB, IMG Academy, Old Bridge, NJ

2018 State (FL) Overall Ranking: 70 National 395 QB Ranking: 18 (RU ranking: 1st)

Seasons on the banks: 3, Starter: 1.5, Two-deep: 2

The most polarizing player at Rutgers in any sport in recent memory (an entire chapter could be written on his journey), Sitkowski by all accounts won the starting job as a true freshman. Despite leading the nation in interceptions, the coaching staff started him the first 11 games. After being passed on the depth chart by transfer McLane Carter in 2019, Sitkowski only needed a game and a half before being inserted into the lineup due to Carter’s career ending injuries. After Ash and McNulty were fired, Sitkowski sat out the remainder of the season. He returned in 2020 looking amazing on short throws in limited action initially, even starting the Purdue win and closing out the Maryland win. Ultimately though the staff’s lack of confidence in his downfield passing resulted in a hollow offensive performance (10-20 for 122 yards) in the season finale versus Nebraska when just the threat of an intermediate or deep aerial attack may have won that game. Entrenched behind Noah Vedral, getting chased by Evan Simon and Cole Snyder, and having to deal with the biggest hope at QB since himself in Gavin Wimsatt, Art transferred to Illinois where he gets a matchup with RU in 2021, still with three years of eligibility remaining.

9. Robin Jutwreten - WDE, Stockholm, Sweden

2018 State (Intl) Overall Ranking: 1 National WDE Ranking: 98 (RU ranking: 18th)

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

The Swedish pipeline that began with Sam Vretman continued with Jutwreten who impressed many with his prowess in the weight room immediately. Robin only played one game his first year, but it was the best game the defense played all year in a near upset of Big Ten West champion Northwestern. By 2019 he played in all 12 games and translated that strength to being a solid run defender (17 tackles, 2.5 for loss). Then as many of his classmates defected for the transfer portal, Jutwreten was the opening day starter in 2020, finishing on the two-deep (11 tackles, two sacks). Unfortunately per Coach Schiano a few weeks back, Robin had to medically retire and has joined the program as an assistant coach.

10. Eddie Lewis - WR, Mater Dei, New Monmouth, NJ

2018 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 22 National WR Ranking: 129 (RU ranking: 6th)

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

Originally a part of the 2017 Lewis took a post graduate year that worked out quite well. Once arriving in 2018 there is no doubt Eddie was the only receiver who could consistently get open, gaining 173 yards on 24 receptions as a slot receiver, the “most catches by a Rutgers true freshman since Mohamed Sanu in 2009”, according to the program. In only four 2019 games (one start), he added six catches, 36 yards, and a TD before entering the transfer portal. Playing for Butler at the JUCO level, it’s no surprise he was a star with 23 catches, 512 yards, and 4 TD in just six games, notably topping the century mark three times.

11. Jarrett Paul - CB, Paramus Catholic (NJ), Brooklyn, NY

2018 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 35 National CB Ranking: 128 (RU ranking: 14th)

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

Paul played in all 12 games as a true freshman then in 11 as a sophomore, starting eight. Unfortunately he became a scapegoat for the communication breakdowns that plagued the secondary in the final days of Ash and the poor tackling angles taken in the rest of the Andy Buh experience, though he did make 44 tackles. In an alternate universe, Jarrett would have been given ample time to be ready to play in the Power Five, especially in a more functional team environment. Now having transferred to Eastern Michigan, he will likely end up a starter there.

12. Malik Dixon - S, Eastern Arizona College, Tampa, FL

2018 POST Overall Ranking: 14 National S Ranking: 6 (RU ranking: 8th)

Seasons on the banks: 2, Starter: 0.5, Two-deep: 1

Malik was the physical athlete absolutely critical to the success of the Chris Ash defense at either strong safety or strong side linebacker, so they took a flier on him as a JUCO following his time at USF. He was involved in the credit card scandal in 2018, but returned to the lineup and started five games in 2019 at safety. After it became evident that he simply wasn’t agile enough to play safety, he got time as a linebacker and was a key rotational player during the dog days of the Nunzio Campanile head coaching era, putting up 31 tackles, three passes defended, and a forced fumble. After seemingly being out of eligibility following the 2019 season, he entered the transfer portal, so his future is uncertain.

13. Kessawn Abraham - ATH, Erasmus Hall, Brooklyn, NY

2018 State (NY) Overall Ranking: 19 National ATH Ranking: 119 (RU ranking: 16th)

Seasons on the banks: 4, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 1

Abraham was a bright spot in the lost 2018 season when he teamed with Korsak as a kamikaze punt gunner, tallying six tackles before eventually opponents decided to just fair catch the ball. With the 2019 season going sideways after four games, he was redshirted. Returning to special teams and as backup cornerback in 2020, he made his biggest impact on kickoff coverage, unable to hold off the true freshman corners on defense though. Kessawn (23 career games) is the type of player Schiano 1.0 and staff were able to develop into critical depth at defensive back by their 4th and 5th years, so he could make a bigger impact this season.

14. Jamree Kromah - SDE, CH Flowers, Glenarden, MD

2018 State (MD) Overall Ranking: 36 National SDE Ranking: 99 (RU ranking: 21st)

Seasons on the banks: 4, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 1

Jamree didn’t generate a lot of recruiting interest (his best other offers were Army and Navy), but upon signing people came out of the woodwork to peg him as the most underrated player in this Rutgers class. They turned out to be right. Kromah gets an edge over the names listed subsequently because he is still on the team and plays a more premium position. He’s the type of workmanlike player that is needed for a team to grind through a football season even if on the fringe of the two-deep when he looks to add to his totals of 11 career games, seven tackles (one for loss including a half sack).

15. Paul Woods - WR, Canisius, Buffalo, NY

2018 State (NY) Overall Ranking: 12 National WR Ranking: 176 (RU ranking: 9th)

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

Woods arrived at Rutgers from upstate New York so there was plenty of hope that he had been underrecruited. After not seeing the field his first year, he flashed (9 catches, 48 yards) in 11 games (one start) as a redshirt freshman after looking great in the spring game. In 2020 still stuck behind Bo Melton and dealing with injuries, he only played in five games registering five catches for 27 yards, failing to show a particular niche skill to get more reps. I always liked how Woods tracked the ball and he could excel after transferring to Rhode Island.

16. Daevon Robinson - ATH, Shawnee, Medford, NJ

2018 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 9 National ATH Ranking: 27 (RU ranking: 2nd)

Seasons on the banks: 2, Starter: 0.5, Two-deep: 1

Robinson was poached by Chris Ash after the Knights’ strong finish to the 2017 season in Big Ten play. This was partially as a result of the lack of consensus on Daevon’s best projected position which included linebacker, defensive end, wide receiver, and tight end. RU gave him an opportunity at tight end (12 games, 4 starts as a true freshman) then wide receiver as the season opening starter in 2019. He ended his time on the banks with 14 catches for 135 yards, honestly being open a lot more times than he was targeted. He is perhaps the biggest victim of the program’s utter passing ineptitude during his two seasons. Daevon was at Robert Morris, but re-entered the transfer portal after eight catches and 105 yards in three 2021 spring games.

17. Matt Rosso - OT, Pennsbury, Fairless Hills, PA

2018 State (PA) Overall Ranking: 34 National OT Ranking: 148 (RU ranking: 17th)

Seasons on the banks: 4, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 1

Rosso’s biggest on field impact was his eight games on the field goal protection unit as a redshirt freshman in 2019. He probably would have appeared in all 12, but the Scarlet Knights were shut out four times. Rosso needed to add weight so his timeline on offense was expected to be 2020 at the earliest (didn’t appear in a game) or more likely 2021. He’s the type of player that might grow into a starter like Howard Barbieri who had a similar body type and wasn’t a full-time starter until his 5th year yet still ended up on an NFL roster.

18. Matt Thomas - WDE, Midwood, Brooklyn, NY

2018 State (NY) Overall Ranking: 13 National WDE Ranking: 66 (RU ranking: 10th)

Seasons on the banks: 2, Starter: 0, Two-deep: 1

Thomas shocked everybody when he appeared on the two-deep as a freshman. He played in two games that year and three as a redshirt freshman. After a reported 2020 covid opt-out, Matt joined the transfer portal in January 2021 before getting scooped up quickly by Rhode Island, making a tackle in one game for the Rams.

19. Nihym Anderson- OLB, Vineland South, Vineland, NJ

2018 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 23 National OLB Ranking: 65 (RU ranking: 6th-7th)

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

Anderson is a special case, originally signing with Maryland before being granted a special waiver by the NCAA in light of the DJ Durkin “toxic culture.” It seemed like a coup for Rutgers a la the Julian Pinnix-Odrick scenario but didn’t pan out as well despite the high rankings out of high school. Nihym never found at niche at linebacker, defensive end, or running back, playing eight career games on special teams. He was not listed on the 2020 roster but it was not reported to be an opt-out nor has his name been listed in the transfer portal.

20. Jalen Jordan- WR, IMG Academy (FL), Philadelphia, PA

2018 State (FL) Overall Ranking: 100 National WR Ranking: 101 (RU ranking: 4th)

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

Jordan agreed to return up north and arrived early with high school teammate Sitkowski as Chris Ash’s staff acknowledged they needed more big body pass catchers. Having played at IMG, Jordan seemed super low risk with upside as a receiver or at worst a tight end with his 6’5” 230 lb. frame. He played in four games as a true freshman failing to record a reception, but did not get any action as a sophomore. He transferred to Maine, but did not play in any of the four games this delayed spring season.

21. Zihir Lacewell - WR, Tottenville, Staten Island, NY

2018 State (NY) Overall Ranking: 7 National WR Ranking: 96 (RU ranking: 3rd)

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

For a while, Lacewell was the top prospect committed to the class. He projected best at linebacker with his range and size, but word was that Rutgers promised (like Robinson) to give him a first opportunity at wide receiver whereas other schools would not. He played in four games as a true freshman (preserving his redshirt) racking up three tackles on special teams. After failing to break through the muddled WR puzzle in spring practice, by July 2019 he was in the transfer portal before landing at Garden Grove. It appears he will play at Butler in 2021 following Eddie Lewis.

22. Zamir Mickens - S, St. Peter’s Prep, East Orange, NJ

2018 State (NJ) Overall Ranking: 37 National S Ranking: 138 (RU ranking: 19th)

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

The original plan was for Zamir to grayshirt, but he ended up joining the Scarlet Knights as a true freshman when defensive backfield depth was pillaged by the credit scandal. Unfortunately due to injuries, Mickens retired due to injury in July 2019.

23. Jalen Chatman - QB, Narbonne, Harbor City, CA

2018 State (CA) Overall Ranking: 139 National DUAL Ranking: 32 (RU ranking: 12th)

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

Chatman was originally recruited in tandem with Sean Chambers (starting QB at Wyoming) as Rutgers was indecisive about their offensive scheme. After just one season and well below classmate Sitkowski on the depth chart, Jalen headed to Portland State. He played in four games in 2019, throwing one TD before re-entering the transfer portal.

Notable Walk-ons:

Brandon Myers - Starting fullback (when utilized) from Bridgewater has appeared in 19 career games so far. He plays the hybrid role as the key lead blocker as a motioning tight end for the goal-line package and is an important special teamer.

Jonathan Pimentel - Manalapan native moved from tight end to linebacker back to tight end and now is listed as a linebacker again. Has played 13 career games on special teams.

Austin Albericci - At one point the Closter product was the backup quarterback in spring practice before reinforcements arrived.

20/20 Hindsight:

1. The New Jersey 2018 high school class was not considered a strong one at the time, nor has it dramatically outplayed its rankings, so the RU staff was right to look elsewhere. To Coach Ash’s credit, several of those players were not yet discovered by major programs until after Rutgers made an offer. This class looked at one point like it was going to be as good or better than the 2017 group. Alas, the decommits in this class were a much bigger deal than of any other Scarlet Knight class in the last decade, after they flipped, ended up contributing majorly to other programs. By my count, six hindsight 2019 starters were doing so elsewhere: Trill Williams (Syracuse), Travis Jones (Uconn), Sean Chambers (Wyoming), Rachad Wildgoose (Wisconsin), Amad Anderson (Purdue), and perhaps most painful of all, Stevie Scott (Indiana) who luckily departed for the NFL this spring. Williams and Wildgoose are now in the NFL as defensive backs.

2. Two additional decommits who were considered tweener athlete types never found their niche at other schools, Jayden McDonald (Iowa) and Travon King (Temple).... they were not alone. Of the players RU did land, the 2nd (Robinson), 3rd (Lacewell), and 4th (Jordan) ranked players in the class were the unable to find a position, stick with it, and develop. Was it bad quarterback play? Was it bad receiver development? The individuals were to blame? It was all of the above and more, but you can’t have the 56th ranked recruiting class in the country and not get contributions from your top 4, which leads us to....

3. Art Sitkowski. Art Sitkowski. Art Sitkowski. The top ranked player in this class did not live up to the hype no matter how you slice it. Did the staff let him down? Yes, and they surely let him play before he was ready. In hindsight, it surely was a mistake to play a true freshman who split time as a high school senior with future true freshman Minnesota starter, Zack Annexstad. The first honest mid-term grade on Sitkowski and the class as a whole came at the end of last season, but again for a struggling program, the top four players had every opportunity to get on the field and none of them was a starter in beyond the midpoint of 2019 (other than Art as an injury replacement in 2020). Now, none of them are even with the program.

4. With all the negativity in points one through three above, there are six current starters plus another three who previously started before leaving the program. At best, there could only be two more future starters maximum, though if this class produces three or four NFL players, it was not a complete failure. Avery Young, Pacheco, and O’Neal all were thrown in the deep end as true freshmen and survived to tell about it, which continues to play dividends.

Current and future thoughts

Leading up to their signings, the 2017 season ended up being a semi-success on the field after a mid-season push that included three conference wins. However, the problems were threefold, the class did not get off to a strong start after how poorly the 2016 season ended (9 game losing streak), the Scarlet Knights were embarrassed by Eastern Michigan en route to a 1-4 start leading to the first wave of decommits, and then after the three wins in four contests, the team was blown out in the final three games in the days leading up to the newly created early signing period in December. Chris Ash was not a good enough closer to overcome all of the ups and downs. For a Power Five program, a class with this little impact in the current era has to be offset by major overachievement in the years preceding or following it to avoid significant problems.

This class is an interesting one because at the three year mark, we probably are already giving a close to final grade because so many players have already left the program while six became established starters. For significant rise to happen, Pacheco needs to become a Heisman contender, Rosso and Abraham need to become starters, and everyone in the two-deep (i.e. Jennings) must take a step up. It’s not impossible as the 2017 class previously showed in their 4th year, though time is running out. Even if those strides don’t happen, with the extra year of eligibility for everyone and Schiano’s success in the transfer portal, the quality over quantity of the 2018 class may turn out to be more than just a footnote in what continues to be an ahead of schedule rebuild.

NOTES:

For the recruiting information in this article, I chose 247 Sports composite rankings.