Rutgers begins hunt for Big Ten success at spring practice
After months of conditioning work and drills, the Rutgers football team took the field at the Indoor Practice and Conditioning Facility, also known as the bubble, for the first day of Spring practice Thursday.
The Scarlet Knights performed contact drills for the first time since Ash officially took the job Dec. 7 and the coaching staff was able to get a closer look at the personnel at their disposal.
“It was fun to finally get the guys out on the field and run around and put on helmets, throw and catch and try to make some tackles and things like that,” said head football coach Chris Ash. “A lot of these players just want to be coached and go extremely hard ... They’re a great team to coach. A lot of fun.”
While getting his first glance at what his players could do inside the four lines, it wasn’t a one-handed grab from senior wide receiver Janarion Grant or a deep bomb from junior quarterback Hayden Rettig that Ash was most impressed with.
“The attitude and the effort. That’s what we’ve been preaching,” Ash said of what stuck out to. “We knew there were going to be mistakes, there were going to be some good plays, going to be some bad plays ... but at the end of the day, we were more concerned about their attitude and their effort and if they were willing to be coached, and I could say that we could check those boxes after Day 1.”
The biggest question heading into the spring is the status of the linebacker unit, which saw all three of its starters either graduate (Kaiwan Lewis and Quentin Gause) or leave early to enter the NFL Draft (Steve Longa) following the 2015 season.
The inexperience at the position is the highest among the team, but Ash has already seen some big strides in the short time he’s been at Rutgers.
“We got a long way to go, but those guys have made a lot of improvement from the last couple of months in terms of changing their body, getting bigger, getting faster,” Ash said. “If you look at all the positions on the football team, that’s the one that has the least amount of experience, and we just got to work extremely hard and coach them every single day to get them as good as they could be.”
All 10 position groups are open for competition, but one contest grabs the fans attention more than the rest.
Junior quarterbacks Rettig and Chris Laviano will be duking it out for the starting spot, along with classmate Giovanni Rescigno, for the second consecutive spring.
The competition ran until the last possible second last year, with former head coach Kyle Flood splitting the quarterbacks’ reps into the first game of the season against Norfolk State, where Rettig played the first half while Laviano came in for the second.
Ash and his offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer bring the power spread offense with them to the Banks as they look to change the traditional pro-style offense run at Rutgers during the Flood era.
Laviano is the most experienced of the three, starting 11 of Rutgers' 12 games last season. But with a new offense and coaching staff, the competition is wide open.
“There’s no pecking order right now … it’s an open competition just like all positions are right now,” Ash said. “Does Laviano probably have a leg up on the other guys because he’s played? Probably, but does that mean he’s annointed the starter or he’s gonna be the first guy? No.”
Ash left his options open for the timing of naming the starter. If one of the three quarterbacks separates themselves from the pack during the spring, he may be named starter before the summer, he said. If not, the competition could run through training camp in August.
While the quarterback scenario is a familiar scene in Piscataway, there were multiple changes made since Ash arrived.
After Flood and his predescessor Greg Schiano used “CHOP” as their mantra, Ash is switching it up to “THE HUNT.” A banner with the two words hung at the end of the bubble during practice, reminding everyone why they’re there.
“That banner out in the indoor (bubble) is just a symbol to remind them every single day of what we're trying to accomplish here,” Ash said. “We're basically chasing the other teams in the Big Ten. We can't make any secret about that. To chase them, we gotta go hunt every single day. That's the theme of the offseason, that's the theme of the team right now."