Chris Ash, Rutgers take step forward in second year of head coaching tenure
To the naked eye, 4-8 and a losing conference record does not look like a successful season. But for head coach Chris Ash and the Rutgers football team, it was a big step forward.
A year after going 2-10 and not winning a single Big Ten game, Ash saw his team win three conference games against Illinois, Purdue and Maryland. And despite a sour ending to the season — three straight losses by 29, 41 and 33 points — the big picture for the program is positive.
"We made a lot of strides here this year, but obviously not enough," Ash said after the team's final game of the season, a 40-7 loss to No. 16 Michigan State. "That's part of the rebuild. Each year, you've got to keep improving in certain areas and keep moving forward."
And for fifth-year senior guard and captain Dorian Miller — the player who always makes a point to speak to the media and be a voice for the team, especially after tough losses — there are feelings of jealousy.
The Metuchen, N.J., native was a three-year starter for the Scarlet Knights and has seen the highs and lows of the program over the years. His perspective sheds light on his thoughts on the rebuild, and he clearly believes in Ash and his vision for the team.
“I’ve said it multiple times, but I’m jealous of the guys that are going to stay and get to be with this staff," Miller said. "They have a great support group around them.”
Junior linebacker and fellow captain Deonte Roberts, who will return next season, is also optimistic about the future of the team, one he will be the leader of in 2018.
He will be one of the eight returning starters on the defense and will enter his third consecutive season as a first-teamer.
“It’s going to be a good team (next year). We have a lot of guys coming back," Roberts said. "The sky’s the limit for us, we just need to come back and work.”
Ash is optimistic as well, but is also more upfront and willing to talk about the work that still needs to be done. He saw his team drastically improve on the defensive end and be more competitive with the Big Ten elite.
Rutgers' scoring margin in 2016 was -21.8 per game and in 2017, it improved the mark by over 10 points per game to -10.3.
"We made a lot of strides here this year, but obviously not enough," Ash said. "That's part of the rebuild. Each year, you've got to keep improving in certain areas and keep moving forward."
In fact, the offense actually took a step backward, as it went from averaging 283 yards per game to 263 this past season. Although it moved up a spot from being dead last in the country (130th) to 129th, the team did not improve by an acceptable margin, considering the perceived upgrade in offensive coordinators when Drew Mehringer was replaced by Jerry Kill in the offseason.
The Knights still lack a legitimate quarterback, but freshman Johnathan Lewis showed flashes of being a solid starter with his arm strength and running ability. He lacked the intangibles to be a full-time starter his first year, but has put himself in strong consideration to be the starter next year and has given Rutgers a faithful reason to be optimistic heading into 2018.
"I'm really, really happy about some of the things we did, and we'll have a tremendous offseason. (I'm) very excited to get started with our offseason program," Ash said. "We've got a lot of freshmen that played and we've got a lot of coming back on both sides of the ball and on special teams, and really looking forward to getting the chance to work with them and develop them and continue to build the program and move it forward."
Ash has also displayed a key quality not all fans have during his first two years on the Banks — patience.
When he was hired in December 2015, he told reporters he knew he was in for a long rebuilding job, but was committed to the process. The message remained the same after year two and it is one that Ash said he will continue to preach to recruits.
Heading into year three, often viewed as the most important year in a college head coach's tenure, Ash will undoubtedly expect an even bigger step forward from his team.
"I've told everybody (the rebuild will take a while). (I) continue to tell recruits that," Ash said. "But we need to continue to make steady progress. I think from year one to year two, we did do that. We made progress. We won more games in the Big Ten and we've got to do the same thing next year. We've got to keep doing that."