Rutgers Media Day: Ash notes improvements "in all areas" ahead of season
It irks those close to the Rutgers football team — in work and in fandom — to know that outlets like USA Today deem the Scarlet Knights at least equal to their output from last year. It is one thing to go 2-10, but it is another to do it twice.
September 1 will come around swiftly but surely, and on that Friday night, Rutgers will do battle with Washington at High Point Solutions Stadium, a team who kicked off the Knights’ season last year with a quiet trip home from Seattle after a 48-13 loss.
While one would be hard-pressed to find a journalist or fan who likes Rutgers’ odds versus the Huskies in less than three weeks time, it is not lost on anyone, especially the coaching staff, that improvements made throughout training camp can reap some booming rewards come the Washington matchup.
"I think we’ve improved in all areas of our football team," head coach Chris Ash said. “We are better fundamentally right now than what we were a year ago.”
Ash took the stand Sunday at Rutgers Media Day, addressing the state of the team as it bolts into his second season at the helm.
As of right now, despite injuries hampering the offense and new faces gracing the defense, it bears to mind that most roles on the first team have been filled and those that haven’t lend themselves to competition over the next few weeks and depth following that.
Of all the positions, quarterback has the boldest question mark.
With junior Giovanni Rescigno all but slated to sit the “throne” of now-Aztec Chris Laviano as summer came around, graduate transfer Kyle Bolin seems to have made all the right moves in training camp to jut out into the lead in the race for starting quarterback.
"I think we are improved at the quarterback position," Ash said. "We’ve got three guys getting a lot of reps, and we’ve been mixing them in with the ones and twos.”
Behind Bolin and Laviano is true freshman Johnathan Lewis, who has also seen action with the starting offense.
Differently, the offensive line is about as set a core as Rutgers has with three returning starters in junior left tackle Tariq Cole, fifth-year senior left guard Dorian Miller and sophomore right tackle Kamaal Seymour. Rounding out the line is sophomore center Jonah Jackson, who has never seen game time at the position but was groomed for the role following Derrick Nelson’s exit, and junior right guard Marcus Applefield.
But where injury comes to bite the Knights is at wide receiver, as both Janarion Grant and Ahmir Mitchell remain green-shirted at practice. Even so, Ash maintains that both are recovering well, holding that Mitchell is making strides in rehab and should be back in uniform by the middle of the season.
As for Grant, his recovery gives Ash hope that he'll be able to continue his versatility on the offense early on in the season, both from the backfield and in the slot.
“Janarion is still gonna be one of our top playmakers, and we’re going to use him how we have to use him," he said.
In the event of injury of course comes opportunity, and sophomore Dacoven Bailey and Jawuan Harris look to be featured in the first team come September. Depending on Grant’s health in three weeks, Bailey will take the slot position while Harris remains a leading option on the outside.
Opportunity also comes out of uncertainty, which has shrouded the defensive line since the beginning of training camp, as the team sports a new-look line with three tackles and one end, a setup used on third downs last season.
In that, fifth-year senior Sebastian Joseph will line up at nose tackle with tackles Kevin Wilkins and Jon Bateky to his left and right. The defensive end role will be filled by fifth-year senior Kemoko Turay, who has been racking up the sacks in practice as of late, according to defensive line coach Shane Burnham.
But the most stable core of all is the secondary for Rutgers, as the first team returns safeties Saquan Hampton and Kiy Hester and cornerback Blessuan Austin, with K.J. Gray inserted into the mix.
It should, by Ash's words, lead to production, more so than last year's. A team that notoriously had trouble getting fans in the seats last season, Ash — and surely Rutgers Athletics — knows output breeds attendance. With the program counting on strong numbers in its Yankee Stadium bout with Maryland — recently, a poor matchup for attendance — Ash understands only one factor will bring people to the games.
“When you win, they all come," Ash said.