Rutgers' quarterback competition sees shake-up with new addition
When Zach Allen committed to the Rutgers football team in June, he was expected to assert himself in the quarterback battle between juniors Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig.
Before a single ball was snapped, thrown or dropped during training camp, he found himself already in the thick of it.
Allen was listed as a co-starter, along with Laviano, who started 11 of 12 games last season under former head coach Kyle Flood, in the first depth chart of the preseason. Naturally, he was pleased.
“There’s a lot of good quarterbacks on this roster and to be able to compete with all these guys is awesome,” Allen said. “We learn from each other, we do everything together, we hang out as a group. We know what has happened in the past and we know what needs to happen in the future and we’re all working towards that goal.”
Rettig was bumped down to the second string along with junior Giovanni Rescigno as a result, but he’s not deterred. With nothing set in stone and 28 practices to go, he set on his goal to be the starter.
“I just gotta work, that’s pretty much it. Anything could change and I just gotta keep working,” Rettig said. “I’m very confident (I could win the job).”
Not included in the depth chart was true freshman Tylin Oden. Called a “home run” by head coach Chris Ash on National Signing Day, the Columbia, Tennessee, native looked raw in his first college practice, with offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer saying it was “interesting.”
Expected by many to redshirt due to his 6-foot-5, 180 frame needing development and the depth of the position ahead of him, Ash was clear that no redshirts would be determined until the second week of training camp at the earliest.
“We’ll get through about two weeks of training camp (and) have a really good idea of the group of guys we think could help us win football games and the group who’s going to have to take a redshirt,” he said. “As we move forward, if guys start to flash, they’ll get more opportunities to show what they could do and Tylin’s no different than the other positions.”
Ash said the acquisition of Allen was “throwing a bomb in the (quarterback) room” at Big Ten Media Day, igniting a fire into a competition that didn’t have a clear winner after the spring.
Based on the early ordering, it appears Ash is trying to burn the wick a little faster.
The former TCU Horned Frog hadn’t thrown a pass in nearly two years prior to Monday’s practice, having transitioned to wide receiver in his sophomore year in Fort Worth.
He admitted to feeling some rust, but felt it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
“There’s always rust (on the first day of training camp),” Allen said. “Doesn’t matter if you’ve been playing quarterback for 10 years or in the NFL, first day is always going to be a little rusty. But I’m happy with what’s going on, I’m happy with my ability.”
Still, what he showed during conditioning and lifting was enough to convince the coaching staff he was worthy of being a co-starter out of the gate.
“Zach Allen is a very likeable kid, an intelligent football player. He’s a very, very hard worker,” Mehringer said. “He kind of exemplifies the characteristics you’re looking for and the intangibles for a quarterback. He’s got the leadership qualities, he’s got the work ethic, he’s got the intelligence, so I’m looking to see all that translate into production and execution on the football field.”
Coming into an already tight quarterback battle seems tricky from those watching from afar, an outsider being added to the mix possibly bringing tension along with him.
That hasn’t been the case for Allen, as he’s developed a friendship with his fellow quarterbacks and other teammates.
“Chris has been great to me. We hang out all the time and it make this process a lot easier,” Allen said. “If we butted heads then I wouldn’t have anyone to talk to, ask because he’s been in this offense longer than I have, so if I have questions, I could ask him. If he wants to bounce something off me, he could ask me and there’s no hard feelings either way. We both know it’s a great competition with all four of us so we’re going to go out there and give it our best every day and the best guy is gonna be the starter.”
Laviano echoed the sentiment of his new teammate, stressing there is no hard feeling between them.
“This program’s gotta do what’s best for the team. I took (the transfer) as I still have to compete with myself and do the best job possible,” he said. “Zach’s a good dude, he’s a good player and I’m excited to compete for him for the rest of camp ... There’s nothing personal between any of us. We’re all good teammates, good dudes and we’re just looking to compete throughout the rest of camp.”
Ash remained firm that the battle between Laviano and Rettig was even following the Scarlet and White spring game in April, but the opening depth chart of the summer shows Laviano has grown a slight edge.
A big reason for this was his development throughout the summer, both physically and mentally.
Riddled with controversies in his first year as a starter — including getting suspended for the first half of the season opener for using a fake ID at a bar and an Instagram post attacking fans after he was booed in the season finale against Maryland — Laviano said he felt more mature.
The transformation was evident in his leadership in the weight room over the offseason, but Ash wants to see it shown on the gridiron.
“What I saw in the summer, I didn’t necessarily see in the spring,” Ash said. “I thought he did a better job of provided leadership, I thought he did a better job of earning the trust of others, the way he conducted himself, but he’s gotta do it out on the practice field. Doing it in the weight room, doing it in conditioning is one thing; doing it with a helmet on and you’re back there, you’re behind center and you’re doing it consistently to the level guys trust you and believe in you, that’s a whole other thing.”
With less than a month to go until the season kicks-off in Seattle against Washington on September 3, there can still many shifts in the depth chart depending on the production throughout training camp.
For now, Allen is glad to be in the mix.
“I’m happy with the opportunity that I’ve gotten,” he said. “We have some great quarterbacks here and to be able to compete with everyone, it’s awesome.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Brian Fonseca @briannnnf on Twitter.