Top-ranked New Jersey recruit starts, helps keep together Rutgers' No. 45 recruiting class
It was the lowest point in a season full of them for the Rutgers football team.
Fresh off a 58-0 loss to Ohio State in Columbus, the Scarlet Knights returned home for their first primetime matchup of the 2016 season, hosting a national title contender in No. 4 Michigan.
Not only were the Knights set to play in front of a national television audience and an expected sell-out crowd at High Point Solutions Stadium, but most notably, over 150 high school recruits.
With high-profile 2017 verbal commits on hand — such as four-stars offensive tackle Micah Clark, wide receiver Bo Melton and linebacker Tyshon Fogg — Rutgers was utterly and completely dominated by the Wolverines, who out-gained the Knights 600-39 en route to a 78-0 shellacking.
For the second consecutive week the Knights were steamrolled by a Big Ten elite, further demonstrating the wide gap between Rutgers and the programs in the upper-echelon of the conference.
But even after witnessing first hand an embarrassing defeat that could've given the commits second thoughts about their decision of where to play football at the next level, the core of the class didn't blink.
“After the Michigan game, we all really sat down. We were texting back and forth, like, 'come on bro, just think about what we’re really trying to achieve here,'" said early-enrollee lineman Micah Clark in his media session on National Signing Day, his first as a Scarlet Knight. "Don’t get psyched in that media hype of ‘you just lost 78-0, what are you thinking now? Oh, you really want to go to that school?’ Don’t get stuck in that hype. Think about what you really want to do and how this program is gonna better you in the future.”
It was hard to qualify the 2016 recruiting class as head football coach Chris Ash's first during his time on the Banks.
When Ash stood in front of the media in the team meeting room of the Hale Center to introduce that class, it was less than two months after he was being formally introduced as Rutgers' new head coach in the same room.
Ash and his staff were left with under two months to not only scramble to land new recruits, but to convince those who committed to the previous regime to remain on board.
When National Signing Day finally rolled around, the Knights' 2016 class totaled 19 recruits, nine of which hailed from within the state of New Jersey and none of whom that had higher than a three-star rating, per Scout.com. Overall, the class ranked No. 72 in the nation, per Scout.
While Ash couldn't piece together his first recruiting home run in time for the 2016 class, he wouldn't have to wait much longer.
Over two months later, Bo Melton, a four-star wide receiver from Cedar Creek, committed to Rutgers, arguably Ash's biggest win on the recruiting trail to date. The day before Melton committed, Clark, the top recruit in New Jersey in his class according to Scout, happened to making an unofficial visit to Rutgers.
Four days later, Clark — in addition to his step-brother Jamaal Beaty— committed to Rutgers.
In under a span of a week, Ash and his staff had gotten two of the top four New Jersey recruits, in Clark and Melton, to commit to Rutgers.
And it didn't stop there.
Just 15 days later, St. Peter's Prep quarterback Johnathan Lewis announced his commitment to Rutgers. Lewis, a three-star recruit and the No. 1 quarterback in New Jersey, played spring football with Clark when they were in the eighth grade.
"He was a great quarterback then," Clark said. "Now he's even better. ... He's a force to be reckon with on the field. A lot of people that played against him tell me he's hard to take down. You don't really expect that from too many quarterbacks. Usually a quarterback is easy to tackle. He's not your average quarterback. He's 225-230 (pounds), running the ball, running people over. You don't see that nowadays."
The final big domino to fall would be four-star linebacker Tyshon Fogg, who would announce on June 26 that he would be making the trek from Towson, Maryland, to play college ball at Rutgers.
"I thought we got caught on fire back in April, May and June all the way through the summer camps and a lot of it had to do with Bo," Ash said. "Micah, Bo, those were two of the top ranked players here in the state of New Jersey and again, any time those type of players jump in, it's kind of a snowball effect and it did. It created some momentum, it created energy and excitement. I can't thank guys like that enough."
When Ash took the podium for his second National Signing Day — the first one he had a full year to participate in — he had 29 signees, with 19 hailing from in-state, 15 three-star prospects and three four-star prospects.
What had ended as the No. 45 recruiting class in the nation, per Scout, started with Melton, Clark and Beaty.
"Honestly (me and my brother) talked about that," Clark said about he and Beaty's commits giving Rutgers momentum in the recruiting process. "Looking at all the other people that committed after us. Like (early-enrollee offensive lineman) Sam (Vretman) told us after he saw me and Jamaal commit, he was like 'wow, I really see what they're trying to do here and let me jump aboard and start this train that's going to keep moving.'"
Micah Clark has lived with his step-brother, Jamaal Beaty, since they were five years old.
It was around the time they started playing football together as well, and it was before the pair even stepped foot into high school that a consensus was reached that the two would eventually wind up playing football together in college if the opportunity presented itself.
When the topic of where the two would attend high school came up, there was some pushback between the Cliffwood, New Jersey, natives. But eventually Clark and Beaty reached a mutual decision and would go on to play high school ball at St. John Vianney in Holmdel.
"As we were little, we always wanted to play ball together," Clark said. "(Playing together in college) became real when we went to the same high school. There was a little altercation; one was trying to go here, the other one wanted to stay at our old high school. We were like come on, this what we dreamt for."
The decision to attend St. John Vianney would work out for the pair as, by the time they were seniors, the Lancers finished atop their division at 10-1 and advanced to the state semifinal round of the Non-Public Group 3 conference.
But the courtship of Clark began well before that successful senior campaign. As the No. 8 offensive tackle in the nation, Clark received more than his fair share of offers. Alabama, Michigan, Clemson and Ohio State were among the schools to offer Clark while he was still a sophomore in high school.
In the final quarter of 2015, Clark made an unofficial visit to Penn State and received a visit from Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer, per 247Sports.
That following February, Clark and Beaty attended Junior Day at Rutgers and the next day, the Knights offered Beaty.
Following unofficial visits from the duo in the subsequent days, both brothers committed to Rutgers.
"When I got offered, I was like 'alright, now all I need is my brother to get offered," Clark said. "Rutgers offered him and I was like, 'this is the place.'"
While the two won't be rooming together during their first year at Rutgers, they're thrilled to be living out a dream that's been a long time coming.
"It feels great that you get to play with your brother," Beaty said. "A lot of people can't say that they did that and me and my brother can say that we've been through the process together."
That's the amount time that would have to surpass before Clark would be able to sign his national letter of intent after initially committing to Rutgers. Give or take a few days and the same could be said for Melton and Lewis.
A whole lot can happen in that timeframe.
And a lot did wind up happening for Rutgers, but not in a good way.
The Knights would go on to finish 2-10 in their first season under the guidance of Chris Ash. A winless Big Ten campaign was highlighted by blowout, shutout losses to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. In conference play, Rutgers was outscored 360-86.
The bleeding didn't stop once the season ended either, as key coaches involved in Rutgers' recruiting efforts, in offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer and assistant defensive backs coach Aaron Henry, left Piscataway for jobs at Texas and North Carolina State, respectively.
But none of that fazed Clark — he'd been apart of a rebuild before.
“Me and my brother, we wanted to be a part of the foundation here," Clark said. "We wanted to start that new tradition here. We didn’t worry about the records because when we were little and we played for Marlboro youth, we had those records. We had the 2-11 records or the 0-10 records. So we didn’t focus on the records because records don’t mean anything. ... We're gonna be part of the change and it's just going to get better as the years come.”
There were other commits who didn't agree with the sentiment.
Two three-star running backs from New Jersey — Jonathan Lovett and Jonathan Taylor — decommitted in the latter stages of 2016. Three-star, in-state defensive backs Bryce Watts and Ihmir Smith-Marsette decommitted from Rutgers in mid-January and went on to sign with Virginia Tech and Iowa, respectively.
Clark said there were still schools "hounding him" throughout the season. But he, along with most of the other cornerstone commits in the 2017 class, remained locked in on Rutgers. Most didn't even take another one of their remaining five allotted visits.
That group chat session between the recruits after the Knights' loss to Michigan was just one example of the class' continuity and overall commitment to Rutgers.
"Obviously when you go 2-10, recruiting's tough," Ash said. "But the fact that guys like Bo and Micah and Jamaal, all the guys that committed early, they were committed, they were loyal. People came after them, tried to get them to take other trips. Most of those guys did not take another trip. They were really happy and excited about being here at Rutgers and that's really what's important to us is that we want players that want to be here. They know what we are trying to build."
Micah Clark wanted to savor this one a little bit more.
After making quick work of his first two opponents with pins in under one minute, Clark was now participating in what would be the final wrestling match of his career. The heavyweight from St. John Vianney allowed this match to last a little longer, but the result remained the same.
"Every match I went out there thinking, 'Okay, I'm not gonna waste my time.' I'm just gonna go out and pin them. ... (The) last match I took a little bit off to like a minute or so, it was my last match," Clark said. "After the match I started crying. I was like 'Wow, this is really my last match with my team.' Walked off into the hallway and just thought about it. Came back in with my whole team waiting there to hug me, cheer me on and wish me luck. It felt great."
Three consecutive pins capped a high school wrestling career at 62-23 with 23 pins for Clark, per NJ.com.
While the St. John Vianney wrestling team's season wasn't over, Clark's was. Two days later, the No. 1 football recruit in the state of New Jersey was set to become an early enrollee at Rutgers.
"I watch him in work outs, he's very athletic and putting weight on already," Ash said. "We haven't had a chance to do any football stuff with him yet, because we are on the road recruiting, but I'm excited to see what he has to offer once we get a chance to do that."
Now that he's on the ground in Piscataway, the Knights will have to figure out where Clark fits into the current offensive line picture. While he comes in as a highly-touted offensive tackle, that position will return two starters in junior Tariq Cole and sophomore Kamaal Seymour, each of which Ash spoke highly of at National Signing Day.
But while it may be hard for a freshman to come in and immediately become a starter, Clark has the advantage of getting a jump start on an ordinary freshman by being an early enrollee.
"It's hard for a freshman to come in at any position but the offensive line is even tougher," Ash said. "The fact that it was a midyear enrollee gives him a better chance to make that happen because he's going to be here through all of our off-season workouts, spring practice, summer workouts, and he's going to have a head start to get that done. Really when you talk about midyear enrollees, if they are players that you think have an opportunity potentially to help you early on, it's an advantage to get them here early and get a jump start and Micah has been able to do that."
And Clark isn't hiding the fact that he's at Rutgers early with his eyes on landing a starting job by the time the 2017 season commences.
"I come in looking to get that starting job," Clark said. "... (Being an early enrollee is) great because you get a jump on all the other players that are coming in the summer. You get used to the workouts and how things run around here."
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