Student Appreciation Day highlights Rutgers' 11th practice of spring
The Rutgers football team gathered at the Rutgers Indoor Practicing and Conditioning Facility on Saturday morning for spring practice number 11, but unlike the 10 practices before it, it had a few extra guests.
The Scarlet Knights continued their preparations for the spring game scheduled a week later with roughly 250 students huddled on the sidelines watching as part of the first annual Student Appreciation Day.
The students in attendance created an environment the Knights can expect to see at the spring game at High Point Solutions Stadium April 23. Students stretched with the team during warm ups, surrounded junior placekicker David Bonagura as he went 6-for-6 throughout the three-hour practice and competed in 40-yard dash and field goal kicking competitions to round out the day.
The day offered students a chance to see what a typical practice is like, said James Surico, vice president of Rutgers Riot Squad, the school’s official student fan group.
“I think it’s great. I think it’s a really necessary step that we need here,” Surico, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore, said. “Bridging the gap between students and athletes and coaches and staff and really just bringing a new culture and vibe over to Rutgers is a real important thing here.”
Players and coaches alike appreciated the event as much as the students did, noting the environment they were able to bring with them to the practice field.
“I love it. This is just unbelievable, getting the band in here, it’s a game-like experience, so they’ve already basically played their first game,” said running backs coach Zak Kuhr. “Just to get them that experience, just having the fans and the excitement. They were shy at first but then they got used to it. I liked it a lot.”
Once the Knights adjusted to the few extra attendants, they resumed the grind of fixing their old habits from last season in order to adjust to the play style being implemented by head coach Chris Ash and his staff.
Two days after Ash said the quarterback competition was back to square one, junior Chris Laviano took a majority of the first team reps at the position. Beside him, juniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks took the majority of the snaps at running back with the first team.
Martin, who led all Rutgers running backs in yards last season with 763, was one of the earliest supporters of the spread offense coming to the Banks.
“The spread offense, you just watch games around the country and you see teams and you see the running lanes that a lot of running backs get to run through, and with this offense, this is a running backs dream,” Martin said. “Like I said, it’s so many more lanes, you could create opportunities for yourself, you could catch out of the backfield, they line us up out wide, stuff like that. We just get used a lot, and we’re enjoying it.”
Having played in the pro-style during his first two years in Piscataway, Martin and his fellow running backs are working on removing instincts they’ve developed in order to function in the spread.
“You just gotta be more patient, a little bit, and you gotta make sure your body is square because last year, we was running at a lot of angles, our footwork was real different,” Martin said. “So now, right before we get the ball, we’re making sure our shoulders are square so we could see all the reads, because in this offense, there’s a lot of holes, so you gotta make sure you (can) see everything.”
In addition to the changes being made in the style of play, which Kuhr said will be split “about half and half” in terms of running zone read and power run plays, the staff is looking to change the way reps are managed among the backfield corps.
Former head football coach Kyle Flood was known to be dedicated to a systematic rotation of running backs, constantly changing who was receiving the handoff from the quarterback regardless of who had momentum or who was having a rough day.
Fans will likely not see that next season as Kuhr said he's a “big fan of whoever has the hot hand is going to keep rolling."
With three practices and a spring game scrimmage remaining until they split off for four months before training camp in August, the Knights hope to soak up as much as possible as they adapt to the Ash era.
“It’s completely different. You’re back there, your footwork changes, your first few steps are way different,” Kuhr said. “That’s why it’s a little raw right now, a little unpolished, but as we get more reps and as the spring goes on to finish, hopefully we get a real, good development of the system.”