Rutgers head coach Chris Ash speaks at Big Ten Media Day
With training camp less than a week away, Rutgers football head coach Chris Ash took the podium at Big Ten Media Day to give updates and insight on the Scarlet Knights.
Among the things Ash discussed was a tumultuous 2016 season that included a 2-10 record, no Big Ten wins and 4 shutout losses, 2 of which came at home.
" 2016, it wasn't fun. (I've) been asked a lot about it. It was awful. But we've moved on. It's behind us and we're a lot better football team today because of what we went through a year ago," Ash said of his debut season. "We went through a lot of adversity. a lot of tough times, a lot of challenges. (It) brought our football team closer together. What we did (was) push the reset button in December when the season was over."
From that team, Rutgers will return 15 starters, 7 on offense and 8 on defense. The strength of the team, which Ash noted in his presser, will be the secondary. That group is led by junior cornerback Blessuan Austin, who joined senior guard Dorian Miller and senior defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph as the Rutgers representatives at the two-day media extravaganza.
In 2016, Austin led the team with 14 pass breakups and was second in the Big Ten with 1.4 passes defended per game. Opposite from Austin is junior cornerback Isaiah Wharton, who ranked second to Austin on the team in pass breakups. Behind those two are junior safeties Saquan Hampton and Kiy Hester, who share plenty of starting experience.
"I think last year the strength of our football team was our secondary, and I would say it's probably going to continue to be the strength of our football team," Ash said. "We do have a lot of guys back that have played a lot of games and had a lot of production."
But Ash added that for the secondary to succeed, the defensive line needs to perform at a high level as well. That group is without three of its four starters from last season and will have to replace a lot of production and leadership.
"For us to be a really good secondary, it all starts up front. We have to improve our defensive line," he said. "Their ability to not only stop the run but put pressure on the quarterback ... makes a successful secondary."
Among those who graduated in 2016 are three-time captain Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick, a 2016 team captain who led the team in sacks with 5.
With all the production Ash returns on both sides of the ball, the Knights are primed to improve on last year's 2-win season.
But improvement is not easy in the Big Ten East, a division that includes heavyweights such as Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, teams that Rutgers sees on its schedule every year.
Ash joined Rutgers after 2 years as the Ohio State defensive coordinator, so coaching in arguably the toughest divisions in college football is nothing new to him.
"It doesn't matter where you're at, what the logo is on your jersey, what the uniform colors are, everybody's got a challenge, everybody's got a task. It's difficult. But that's why we're here," he said. "We embrace those challenges. We embrace those difficulties. And we think we can build a program, build a football team that can compete with anybody in our league and that's what we're trying to do. But we embrace it. There are challenges, but we look at them more as opportunities and that's what's in front of us, a lot of opportunities to go out and continue to get better."
And while Rutgers is behind its competition on the field, the program also is in the process of catching up with its Big Ten brethren on a facilities standpoint.
On Sunday, August 6th, the Marco Battaglia Practice Facility will officially open, a practice complex that will be at or above the level of the rest of college football.
Ash took time to speak on that matter, highlighting the many benefits of the new facility.
"Facilities is obviously something that's very important to a lot of programs," he said. "We have a new facility that's being opened here on August 6th. Brand new practice facility. Marco Battaglia Practice Facility. I think it will be one of the best in the country. It's going to be two-fold: One, (it will) help us in recruiting but also in player development. And we continue to build and make our program better. And (I am) very excited about that new facility."
Transcript and video of Ash's presser can be found here.