by: Steve Tichenor
Another Spring Football Game is upon us which means it’s time to renew season tickets, which of course I did. It’s never a question in my mind. Rutgers did have a rough go last year in Chris Ash’s first season but Spring introduces a new season and a clean slate.
For this upcoming season I’ll once again temper my expectations and just hope for gradual improvement. Here’s my early look at the 2017 season as Spring camp wraps up.
Offense- As bad as it gets. How else can you describe Rutgers offense last season? The only threat for RU, Janarion Grant, went down against Iowa in the 4th game and there went any hope for RU’s offense. That group, under Drew Mehringer, simply could not move the ball. Too make matters worse, all the three and outs compromised the defense, who were out on the field way too long.
The good news? It can’t get any worse. Incoming offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is just what the doctor ordered. He has had success as a head coach at the Big 10 level and will do a better job of figuring out a way to get the best out of the talent on the roster. However, he’s got a lot of work ahead of him.
Ahmir Mitchell’s injury was a huge blow to an already thin group at wide receiver. Someone from that group will have to emerge this spring. Perhaps it will be Ahmir’s brother Damon who transferred from Arkansas. Help will come when 4 star recruit Bo Melton arrives in the summer. He’ll get a chance to step right in.
The quarterback position is still up in the air. Gio Rescigno did show ability at times last year but who knows if he can be consistent. Zach Allen just hurt his knee and may be lost for an extended period. Walk on Troy Anthony is anyone’s guess. Come summer, incoming recruit Jonathan Lewis will bring size and speed along with a strong arm. It’s possible Lewis can make an immediate impact. What Kill does have in the backfield is solid, experienced running backs in Robert Martin and Josh Hicks. It will be interesting to see how Kill uses Miami senior transfer Gus Edwards with that group.
The offensive line, which struggled last year will improve under Kill’s watch. He’ll call the right plays for the players that he has and let’s hope he slows things down. 4 star recruit Micak Clark could see action right away on the O line. With an improved running game, pass protection and a healthy Janarion Grant, Rutgers should start moving the ball again. There is a lot we don’t know, but as I said from the beginning, it can’t get any worse. Kill should be able to sure up this offense and make it at least respectable. But with so many questions, especially with the skill positions, it remains a huge concern heading into the upcoming season.
Defense- There are a lot of questions with this unit as well but if the offense can actually move the ball, these guys can get a breather. I felt for the defense last year because they were on the field nearly the entire game.
The strength of this year’s team is the secondary. They have experience and legitimate Big 10 talent in cornerbacks Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton. The defensive line and linebackers are a work in progress. It will be interesting to see who emerges from this group this spring. DE Kemoko Turay is finally healthy and has turned some heads. It would be great to see some pressure on the quarterback this year which was non existent last season. 4 star recruit Tyshon Fogg will add much needed depth at the linebacker position when he arrives in August. He will likely see action right away. Defensive Coordinator, Jay Niemann has some talent to work with, and the defense could be the strength of this team but they need a balanced attack to do so. This season Niemann will be counting on the offense staying on the field for at least a few series to give his crew a fighting chance.
Wins and Losses – Rutgers is not looking like a bowl team just yet but beating last year’s win total is a must. Remember, gradual improvement. What Ash needs this year is a more competitive team in the conference. It’s one thing to lose, but the string of blowout losses were demoralizing. I was with family and friends from Michigan on that brutal October night in Piscataway. I can’t sit through something like that again. And yes, I’ll be with family and friends at the Big House this October. Michigan won’t be as good and Rutgers shouldn’t be as bad. This game will at least be more competitive. Let’s hope!
4 or 5 wins would be a big step for the program. Take care of business at home against Morgan State, Eastern Michigan and Purdue. Win at Yankee Stadium against Maryland and steal a road win from Illinois or Indiana. That is a realistic outlook for this season.
There is a lot of time and plenty of stories will emerge after the Spring and into the summer. A lot of pressure is on Chris Ash entering his second year. Even though this is his first recruiting class he has to prove that he can coach the players on the roster whether they’re his or not. The addition of Jerry Kill will help. But as many RU faithful see it, after last season the only direction the program can go is up. Let’s hope so.