Rutgers enters offseason looking to answer questions left from Chris Ash's first season in Piscataway
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Saturday’s 31-13 loss to Maryland bookended a tumultuous first season for Chris Ash as the head coach of the Rutgers football team.
The point total in the Scarlet Knights’ (2-10, 0-9) season finale against the Terrapins was the same as the 48-13 loss in their season opener in Seattle against No. 5 Washington. In between the losses was a campaign filled with history, though not the kind Ash and his staff were looking to make in their inaugural season in Piscataway.
The Knights were shutout four times, the first time it has happened to the program in a single season since 1936. In those four losses to No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 8 Penn State and Michigan State, Rutgers was outscored 224-0.
The shutouts arrived in two pairs — Connecticut was the only other Division I team to be held scoreless more than once this season, according to sports-reference.com — and with them came historic scoreless droughts.
Junior running back Robert Martin’s touchdown in the second frame ended a streak of 9 quarters without scoring for Rutgers, the second longest in Division I this season.
The longest? An 11 quarter drought for the Knights earlier in the season, the longest such streak in the FBS in a decade, according to ESPN.
The level at which Rutgers struggled on offense becomes most evident when looking at where it ranks nationally in all major statistical categories — dead-last in yards per game, penultimate in points per game, first downs and offensive redzone efficiency, fifth-worst in 3rd down conversion percentage and the list goes on and on.
But perhaps the shortcoming that Ash laments the most is the fact he couldn’t earn a conference win for his senior class, a group he’s credited plenty in the final weeks of the season for helping build a foundation for his program moving forward.
“I’m just feeling for them right now,” Ash said of his senior class. “They put a lot into the second half of the season, especially in the last two games and the last home game, that we were unable to get them a victory, but we have a great group of individuals that are still going to go on and do successful things in life or hopefully in football if they get that opportunity.”
As those 20 fifth-year seniors and redshirt juniors move on following the final game of their careers as Knights — some taking time off to recover from a long season before preparing for the NFL Draft while others pursue other academic or career goals to begin the rest of their lives — those who remain will begin preparing for Ash’s second season at the helm this Monday with end-of-season team and individual meetings.
There, they’ll discuss offseason plans as well as the laundry list of things Rutgers needs work on improving if it plans on digging itself out of the basement of the Big Ten.
It all starts back in the weight room, where the Knights begin their second offseason working with strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker. With the experience of the first go-around, Ash hopes his team will have a different approach this time.
“Last offseason was extremely hard for them, but this offseason will be hard also,” he said. “Mentally, they’ll have an idea of what to expect and hopefully they’ll go out and attack it this offseason rather than be nervous or afraid of what’s coming.”
As the players work on improving themselves individually, Ash and the Rutgers coaching staff will be hitting the recruiting trail as they look to replace the holes left by the departing senior class and any subsequent transfers, as well as load up on areas of need.
The main position group of concern continues to be the linebackers corps. The paper-thin unit was banged up for most of the season and Saturday was no exception, with juniors Brandon Russell and Eric Margolis making their first careers starts at strongside and weakside, respectively, against the Terrapins.
The forced line-up change yielded similar results, with the fifth-worst rushing defense in the nation conceding 318 yards and 3 touchdowns — the last of which coming from a walk-on senior fullback taking his first career carry — on the ground to the hosts.
And while Ash distributes the load of responsibility in defending the run to all 11 players on the field, he did concede that the linebackers have a lot of room to grow.
“We have to get our linebackers bigger and stronger. We have to fit the runs more consistently,” he said. “We have to continue to develop that whole group so that our run defense improves.”
Quarterback is listed next to linebacker at 1B on the hierarchy of development this offseason, with the group of wide receivers the player behind center will be throwing to coming right after.
Sophomore Giovanni Rescigno, who had a decent 203 yards on 22-for-39 passing Saturday, looks to be the early favorite to spearhead the quarterback pecking order heading into the spring given he’s shown to be the best balance of experience and fit in the offense of the four that featured for Rutgers this season.
With true freshman Tylin Oden developing slower than offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Drew Mehringer had hoped and still two months remaining until three-star class of 2017 commit Jonathan Lewis has a chance to honor his verbal commitment and officially join the Knights on National Signing Day, it’s Rescigno’s job to lose.
Knowing that, he’s prepared to fix the deficiencies in his game he’s noticed throughout his six starts behind center this year.
“A lot of the times where I put my eyes on certain plays. I think I’ve gotten better with that over the last two games,” Rescigno said, before continuing the list. “And just seeing defenses, recognizing what the defense is trying to do, the coverages and then mechanically-wise with my feet, how they are in the pocket, not tripping in the pocket, trusting the protection, just stuff like that.”
It will help that, for the first time in his time in Piscataway, it appears he won’t be spending most of his offseason learning a new offense. Asked about his confidence in Mehringer’s ability to get the offense right, Ash expressed “a lot of faith” in the 27-year-old offensive coordinator.
"I was talking about that with some of my buddies, a couple of guys on the offense just going into spring ball knowing that you won't have to learn a whole new playbook. That's huge," Rescigno said. "When that happens, you can work on the things that you struggled within that offense ... which is awesome. So looking forward to that."
Aiding him further is Ash’s commitment to adding speed to the roster with the upcoming recruiting class. Senior wide receiver Janarion Grant’s future remains in doubt as he awaits for a decision for a medical waiver from the NCAA in order for him to be able to make a decision on whether he returns to Piscataway for his fifth season. His return would be a big boost to the Knights passing attack as they work to replace seniors Andre Patton, John Tsimis and Carlton Agudosi.
With Michigan transfer Ahmir Mitchell gaining eligibility next season, adding a pair of quick receivers with the next recruiting class could push Rutgers’ a couple levels of production above the 131.2 passing yards per game average, which ranks dead-last among Big Ten teams, it finished the season with.
“When you talk about recruiting, you look at the recruiting class reporting together. I think you’ll see that there’s an emphasis on speed,” Ash said. “It’s hard to develop speed. You get guys a little bit faster, but you have to go out and recruit guys that are fast. We have some fast guys on the team, but we need more. … It can’t be just one guy. It has to be a few guys.”
Based on the results within the four white lines, it’s hard to imagine Ash’s first season as a head coach could’ve gone much worse. But zoom out of the turf field and look at the whole picture of the program a year into the Ash era and it becomes clear that not everything has trended negatively for the Knights.
Ash took over a team weeks removed from one of the most controversial seasons in program history. His predecessor Kyle Flood was suspended for 3 games and fined 50,000 dollars after an internal investigation from the University concluded he had impermissible contact with a faculty member regarding the academic standing of one of his players.
That player, former cornerback Nadir Barnwell, was 1 of 5 dismissed from the team for their involvement in an alleged assault case, a punishment which was announced 10 minutes before kick-off of the team’s season opener against Norfolk State.
Five other players were suspended for the first half of the game against the Spartans, including star wide receiver Leonte Carroo and then-sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano.
Rutgers remained in the national spotlight on multiple occasions under Ash this season, but this time due to some embarrassing moments and disastrous performances on the field rather than humiliating incidents off it.
The welcome change is a testament to the former Ohio State defensive coordinator, who was able to right the ship of a seemingly sinking program.
“When you talk about the way we train, investing in the players, in recovery, in nutrition, the other is really about social behavior,” Ash said. “We want a football team that makes good decisions and I think we’ve demonstrated that we have a team of individuals that does that.”
He went on to say the Knights hope to transition that success onto the football field, an area where Rutgers didn’t show much growth throughout the season.
It ended just as it began, with the Knights falling due to difficulties in the run game, in coverage on special teams and in operating the power-spread offense. Rutgers didn’t strike first in any of its games this season and led for just 3.9 percent of its nine conference games, according to NJ Advanced Media’s Steve Politi.
The bad news for Rutgers is everything culminated in a 2-10 season without a win in Big Ten play, the worst season for the program since it went 1-11 in Greg Schiano’s second season as a head coach in Piscataway in 2002.
The good news is that, barring a disastrous offseason where everything goes wrong, things can only go up here for the Knights.
A forgettable first season can be labeled as an extended adjustment period for both Ash and his players. The work to prevent the sequel from being another step backwards for a program at the edge of rock bottom begins now.
“We want competition in each position,” Ash said. “We got guys out there that play well, we just need to get bigger and stronger and learn their job responsibility and do it more consistently. Will we bring in more guys that have a chance to compete? Absolutely, and that’s what we’re trying to do with recruiting. But we have to develop the guys on our football team also to be better than what we were this year. And we will.”