Rutgers keys in on local recruits for now, future
When University President Robert L. Barchi and Athletic Director Pat Hobbs hired Chris Ash as the head football coach at Rutgers and introduced him at a press conference on Dec. 7, it might have been difficult to pinpoint any cons or deficiencies with the move.
On the heels of a rocky end to Kyle Flood's four years at the helm in Piscataway, Ash entered at the time as a defensive-minded, 41-year-old coach beaming with energy and charisma on a mission to shift the culture of a program that needed a facelift following a tumultuous season on and off the field.
But the one glaring question that eventually came up correlated back to his lack of ties to New Jersey, the home state that serves as a breeding ground for some of the top high school football talent in the entire country.
Ash was splitting his time between finishing out his co-defensive coordinator gig at Ohio State and settling in on the Banks at the head coaching opportunity he said he always dreamed of. But as National Signing Day on Wednesday is fast approaching, he has a unique problem on his hands.
As the Buckeyes ended their season with a win in the Fiesta Bowl over Notre Dame and Ash came to Piscataway for good, he hired the remainder of his full-time coaching staff and went to work on hitting the recruiting trail for a strong finish.
But Ash acknowledged the uphill battle ahead, noting the struggle for his staff getting involved so late in the game.
"It's just a little bit more challenging because typically you're recruiting guys anywhere from one to two years and you have a very strong relationship with them," he said. "We don't have that luxury right now. We're trying to build relationships with guys in three or four weeks before Signing Day. That's difficult to do."
To this point, the results have been up and down.
Rutgers first took a hit with the decommitments of its top two recruits as four-star defensive back Patrice Rene (Alexandria, Virginia) flipped to North Carolina and Elite 11 quarterback Anthony Russo (Warminster, Pennsylvania) fled for Temple following the switch of the Knights' offense to a power spread.
While Rutgers picked up three commitments over the past weekend with recruits taking their official visits, it also lost a trio. Three-star tight end Korab Idrizi (Oradell, New Jersey) announced his pledge to the Knights on Jan. 24, but the Bergen Catholic product flipped to Boston College just five days later.
Rutgers received two more commitments from a pair of offensive tackles in three-star prospects Sam Howson (Sparta, New Jersey) and Mike Lonsdorf (Somerville, New Jersey), but lost one in three-star recruit Elijah Johnson (Hyattsville, Maryland).
Then, another longtime hard commitment, three-star wide receiver Isaiah Wright (West Hartford, Connecticut), flipped to Temple on Monday.
But not all has gone wrong for the Knights.
Offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer locked up the late recruitment of three-star quarterback Tylin Oden (Spring Hill, Tennessee) to give Rutgers' new offense a dual-threat that could potentially run the new scheme when he arrives in June.
Two more big weapons also came in the form of three-star athlete K.J. Gray (Jersey City, New Jersey) and Ross Taylor-Douglas (Avon, Ohio), a former four-star running back and defensive back recruit out of high school, who comes to the Banks as a graduate transfer with two years of immediate eligibility remaining.
Before all of that unfolded, Ash pointed out that those types of relationships would be an area of focus as he got going on recruiting.
On top of hosting high school football coaches from around the state at the Hale Center for a meeting of the New Jersey Football Coaches Association on Jan. 4, Ash hired longtime former Hillsborough and South Brunswick head coach Rick Mantz in a new position as director of high school relations.
"It's a challenge at this point in the game because we are late," Ash said. "It doesn't matter if it's right now in the middle of January or the middle of August, we are going to try to be creative and do things differently to try to build relationships and connections with recruits regardless of where they're from or what position they play."
But as much as the Knights may have taken a hit with the late transition from Flood to Ash before Signing Day, it hasn't stopped the first-year head coach from hitting the ground running, working toward signees for the class of 2016 and beyond.
Perhaps even more important has been the initiative taken to keep New Jersey home, a concept Rutgers hasn't been able to quite figure out — at least not consistently — just yet.
For now, the Knights have four recruits locked in as early enrollees with locally-grown three-star linebackers Elorm Lumor (Piscataway, New Jersey) and Solomon Manning (Colonia, New Jersey) staying in Middlesex County.
"This whole area of the United States, New York, New Jersey, where we're at, we have a lot of players in this area that are within our reach from a geographical perspective. Not everybody in the country obviously has that luxury," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "Our job obviously is to go get the best players we can that fit the profile of what Coach Ash wants for our program. We're in a place from a population base where we have a good chance to do that."
In total, Rutgers enters Signing Day with 15 future Knights ready to take their talents to Piscataway.
But even past now, Ash and his crew have even dipped into the pool of younger local talent, offering class of 2018 prospect Shelton Applewhite (Wayne, New Jersey) of DePaul Catholic, among the other handful of scholarships recently extended.
All of it ultimately comes full circle as an initiative taken by Ash to lay the foundation for recruiting Rutgers' backyard, one coined by Zak Kuhr as #FenceTheGarden, a hashtag the new wide receivers coach coined on Twitter shortly after he was hired.
Kuhr didn't shy away from his intentions on the movement, but he reiterated one key sentiment that serves as a filter for what the Knights look for potential targets.
"We're gonna try to keep the best talent in the state, but only if they fit with our alignment and culture of what we want to get done," he said. "So they could be the No. 1 player in the state from wherever in Jersey and they can be the No. 1 player in the country for all that matters and if he doesn't fit in the character category with us, then we're gonna move on."
Ash, who has said from the day he accepted the job that his primary goal is to change the culture of the program and that the success will follow from there, has clearly been able to shed that ideology off on the assistants that aid his overall recruitment.
"Now, if he does (fit), then, yeah, let's go get him," Kuhr said. "But it definitely has to be a fit for our culture and what we're looking for in our recruitments."