Rutgers' early spring practices characterized by movement
A black banner reading "The Hunt" is taped on the wall of the Indoor Practice Bubble, risen high enough for any player, coach or trainer on the Rutgers football team to take in the mantra head coach Chris Ash set in when he first came to the Scarlet Knights.
Thursday began the second season of the Ash era, as the first spring practice of the year came underway, but the energy under the dome suggested it isn't much of a second season. A second first, maybe, with all of the movement that has uprooted the coaching staff and the depth chart in the months leading to Thursday.
Out went Drew Mehringer and in came offensive coordinator Jerry Kill.
Kill, who leads the quarterbacks, took to the turf Thursday in the wake of Mehringer's absence, guiding returning starter Giovanni Rescigno and backups Tylin Oden and Zach Allen in their drills.
And on the field, mixing and matching to fill dearths of talent at certain positions has led to new homes for players like fifth-year senior Myles Nash, who takes the reins at tight end for his final year.
All of this shifting though hasn't stunted the growth of his players, says Ash.
"You talk a lot about player development, that's a phrase a lot of people throw out there that's really important to us," he said. "I think we have seen a lot of development that has taken place from this time a year ago to this time now — that's physically, that's mentally, that's maturity."
That offseason development came to fruition during Thursday's practice, one Ash touted as "clean" and "efficient."
Virtually the entire roster made it out for the first practice, including many who were questionable heading into spring camp because they were nursing injuries and prior surgeries.
One of those players was Janarion Grant.
The senior wide receiver, whose season ended with an ankle injury in Rutgers' loss to Iowa in late September last year, returned to Rutgers football Thursday, stretching and jogging with the rest of the team as many had expected.
But there was question as to whether Grant would be running routes and making cuts just two months after a January surgery, and he did exactly that.
"The fact that he can get out and do anything right now — running some routes and catching some balls — is a benefit to him and to us," Ash said. "He's come a long way from the surgery and where he was at in January."
Another who surprised a few with an appearance was sophomore wide receiver Jawuan Harris, who is in the middle of baseball season as a two-sport athlete.
Ash held that Harris will continue to participate in spring activities, given his baseball schedule permits, as that is his priority at the moment.
Harris spent much of the afternoon receiving punts, many of which were launched by backup kicker Jared Smolar.
Others coming back from injury took to stretching and walking up and down the sidelines on Thursday, as it was hardly the most urgent atmosphere with still five months removed from the first game of the season in August.
Regardless, Ash has already marked improvements in a squad he has only seen marginally since the early winter, one that needed a lot of direct coaching this time last year as a result of Ash's first few days at the helm.
And even after a paltry 2-10 record, Ash calls upon that player development within the months removed from the season, signaling a major shift in the way him and the rest of the staff went about Thursday's practice.
He wasn't micromanaging the team, and this presents the greatest difference from a year ago. More room for substance.
"We're not coaching the little things like alignments and stances as much as we were a year ago," Ash said. "I really like where a lot of the players are at right now from a player development standpoint."