Rutgers kicks off 2019 campaign with first spring practice
How different will Rutgers football look when spring practice starts tomorrow? Three months removed from concluding a 1-11 season, head coach Chris Ash will be leading the 105th Rutgers football team and the sixth as part of the Big Ten.
All three phases will be molding a new identity over the spring, adjusting to newcomers, departures, coaching changes and the pressure of following up a failed season in a conference with a potentially different landscape than a year ago.
For the first time in six years, Ohio State, the perennial overlord of the Big Ten will not be led by Urban Meyer. Meyer’s retirement this past season also meant the departure of defensive coordinator and former Scarlet Knights head coach Greg Schiano.
Michigan is coming off their fourth consecutive season of failing to fulfill Jim Harbaugh’s promise of delivering a national championship to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Harbaugh’s fifth year at the helm will be uncharted territory as the longest tenure he’s had as a head coach after four-year stints leading Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers.
Spring practice will give us the first glimpse as to where Rutgers will fit into this year’s Big Ten, and if it can escape the basement.
True freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski will return to the Knights’ lineup after starting 11 games under center. The former IMG Academy product edged out fifth-year senior Giovanni Rescigno and sophomore Johnathan Lewis for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
In his first game donning a Scarlet jersey, Sitkowski completed 20 of 30 passes to eight different wideouts against Texas State on Sept. 1.
Since that game against the Bobcats, Sitkowski led all quarterbacks with interceptions, at one point during the season. He finished the season with a 12.7 QBR, the lowest rating of any FBS quarterback in the nation.
But, there is room for optimism for the new season. Offensive coordinator John McNulty returns nine starters on offense, including all but one offensive lineman.
Rutgers’ running game will be without graduate student tailback Jonathan Hilliman, who started five games while playing in 11.
Hilliman, who arrived on the Banks after graduating at Boston College, tallied 337 rushing yards while averaging 30.6 yards per game.
The running game will be in the hands of two underclassmen: sophomore Raheem Blackshear and true freshman Isaih Pacheco, who were inserted more into McNulty’s offensive scheme throughout the season. They can fill the Plainfield, New Jersey native’s shoes this coming season.
Blackshear and Pacheco ranked first and second on the team’s all-purpose yards list, respectively. Blackshear was a dual-threat runner and receiver, leading the Knights in both categories’ total yards.
While Blackshear finished with 586 total rushing yards, Pacheco was right behind him with 551 yards. In his first season on the Banks, Pacheco finished with 3 touchdowns, the same as Blackshear.
Although Pacheco hauled in two receptions for 11 yards, he may be inserted more under McNulty’s offense.
On the receivers' side, Rutgers returns its starters in sophomores Bo Melton and Hunter Hayek and freshman Shameen Jones. Last season, the Knights ranked 126th in the nation for receiving yards, averaging 131.3 yards per game.
The defense will see a change at leadership with former Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh making the move up I-95 North to take over a Rutgers defense that ranked 67th in the country last year. Ash and Buh were part of a championship-winning Wisconsin staff back in 2012. Buh coached the linebackers on a defense coordinated by Ash, and they will now both be together again in superior roles for the Knights.
A secondary that was, last year’s team greatest strength after finishing 17th in pass defense, will be losing its two best defensive backs to the NFL and a captain to graduation. Buh and new defensive backs coach Jay Valai will be forced to find starters to fill the holes by the departures of fifth-year senior safety Saquan Hampton, and cornerbacks senior Blessuan Austin and fifth-year senior Isaiah Wharton.
Defensive backs freshman Avery Young, sophomore Tre Avery and junior Damon Hayes will all have one more year of Rutgers football under their belt when they take the practice field on Friday as the frontrunners in the battle for time in the secondary. Other challengers for those spots include incoming freshmen Darius Gooden from West Side High School and Donald Williams from Camden High School.
Generating pass-rush pressure is a category that can seemingly only go up for the Knights this year, after finishing with 16 total team sacks in 2018. Sophomore defensive line Elorm Lumor led the team in sacks last season with 3.5, and will be in the mix to create pressure in 2019, but will need company in the front seven to create a legitimate pass rushing unit.
Joining Lumor in the trenches in 2019 will be incoming freshman Malachi Burby, who committed early back in December as a three-star recruit from Cheshire Academy in Connecticut.
The arrival of sophomore linebacker Drew Singleton from Michigan is the biggest acquisition for Rutgers defense this offseason, as the former four-star recruit and Union City native will look to record his first collegiate sack in scarlet and black if he's granted eligibility to play in 2019. The NCAA has yet to conclude if Singleton will be eligible for the upcoming season, or if he would have to sit a year. If Singleton is granted eligibility for 2019, he would be one of the only four-star recruits on the roster.
Special teams will be the most preserved unit from a year ago, with the two key players from last year’s squad returning off a season in which they were each bright spots on an underachieving roster with a pair of trivial yet nifty milestones.
Junior kicker Justin Davidovicz was an All Big Ten honorable and tied the conference’s longest field goal of 2018 with a 52-yarder against Indiana. Freshman punter Adam Korsak was also an All Big Ten honorable mention, and set the school record for the longest punt with a 79-yarder against Northwestern.
The special teams will be a podium for newcomers and potential starters on the bubble over the course of spring bound to see a several position battles.
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