Surprises in early depth chart as Rutgers kicks-off training camp
After two months of grueling offseason conditioning workouts at the crack of dawn, the Rutgers football team had a chance to do something it hadn’t done since the Scarlet and White Spring Game in April — play football.
The Scarlet Knights returned to action on the gridiron as they began their preparations for the first season of head coach Chris Ash’s tenure in Piscataway and excitement to get to work was palpable in the air.
“It was great summer in the weight room and in conditioning, it was great to put them on the field and see the improvement that we made," said head coach Chris Ash following practice. "It wasn't a great first day but it was better than our first day in the spring, which is what you would expect."
The biggest story remains the quarterback battle but not exactly for the same reasons as spring camp. Rutgers received a commitment from TCU graduate transfer quarterback Zach Allen over the summer, an immediately eligible player thrown into the three-man competition to start behind center.
Ash described Allen’s addition to the roster as “throwing a bomb into the quarterback room” at Big Ten Media Day last week, furthering the notion that neither Chris Laviano — last year’s starter under former head coach Kyle Flood — or Hayden Rettig were able to get a firm grasp on the starting role.
The bomb has begun ticking.
Having yet taken a snap in practice, Allen has already put himself atop the food chain. Ash has Allen listed as a co-starter with Laviano on the depth chart, pushing Rettig and Giovanni Rescigno as co-back-ups.
"They're the two who have earned it," Ash said of the co-starters. "Chris Laviano had a great summer. He was one of our most consistent players on the team ... he earned the right to go out and take reps with the first team ... Zach Allen, it's been documented why we brought him in — to create competition. He also had a great summer. We thought it was the right thing to do to give him opportunities with the first team."
There is still a lot of football to be played with 28 practices to come until the season opener against Washington in Seattle on September 3, but with one down, the 6-foot-3, 205 pound senior is well-positioned to have a chance at doing what Rettig couldn’t and steal the starting gig from Laviano.
In addition to Allen, true freshman quarterback Tylin Oden, one of Ash’s first commits, joined the team for the first time, though his frail 6-foot-5 frame and lack of collegiate experience point towards it being a redshirt year for the Columbia, Tennessee, native.
“Tylin's a big, tall, great looking kid," Mehringer said. "He showed some athletic ability today. He's still a young pup, though, still learning the ropes. His first college practice was an interesting one for him but did some really nice things. Don't know (what we're doing with him) yet though, still got a long way to go."
As Ash and Mehringer work to reach a conclusion on who will be throwing the ball this season, they also have their eyes on who will be on the other end of the passes.
Tasked with replacing the program’s all-time receiving touchdown leader Leonte Carroo, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft in May, Mehringer has his hands full in finding and developing the right guy to be the main receiver.
Senior Andre Patton appears to have a slight edge over the competition. After starting in the spring game and being chosen by Ash to come with him to Chicago for Big Ten Media Day alongside likely three-time captain Darius Hamilton and the outspoken Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Patton was atop the depth chart at wide receiver to kick-off training camp.
Fifth-year senior Vance Matthews is another candidate to have a breakout year at receiver, included among the starters with Patton.
While Patton and Matthews provide width and spread the field, Janarion Grant’s will be used to penetrate the middle of the field through the means of bubble screens and quarterback pitches out of the backfield. The senior wide receiver was the x-factor in the spring game and is practically a lock as one of the biggest pieces of the Knights’ offense.
“He's got a tremendous skill set, evident in what he did in special teams these past couple of years,” Mehringer said of Grant. "Finding a way to get that guy the ball in space the same way he gets it in special teams areas and returns is going to be the way we try to utilize him."
Not lagging far behind are 6-foot-6 Carlton Agudosi, John Tsimis — who is coming off a medical redshirt — and redshirt freshman Jawuan Harris, who didn’t participate in spring camp due to playing on the Rutgers baseball team.
If the season began today, Robert Martin would line up in the backfield next to Laviano and Grant as the running back, with Justin Goodwin listed as the back-up.
Returning starters right guard Chris Muller, center Derrick Nelson, left guard Dorian Miller join sophomores Tariq Cole and Zack Heeman as left and right tackles, respectively, along the offensive line. In the packages in which Rutgers uses a tight end, senior Nick Arcidiacono is currently listed as the first option.
There were less surprises on the defensive side of the depth chart, with four starters in defensive ends Quanzell Lambert and Julian Pinnix-Odrick and tackles Darius Hamilton and Sebastian Joseph leading the defensive line.
The linebacker corps, which Ash said made the most improvement over the summer after being called a “mess” in January, mirrored the starting line-up shown in the Scarlet and White game of Trevor Morris at weakside, Deonte Roberts at the MIKE and Najee Clayton at strongside.
After being thrown into the fire as true freshmen in an injury-riddled team last year, Isaiah Wharton and Blessaun Austin remain owners of the cornerback positions as of the beginning of training camp, but it’s likely the least secure position on the defensive side of the ball. Junior transfer Ross Douglas is likely to gain some ground in the battle as camp goes on.
At safety, senior Anthony Cioffi is listed as starter at strong safety, which is unlikely to change, while sophomore Saquan Hampton is listed above junior community college transfer Zane Campbell at free safety.
The hierarchy of positions has been established by the coaching staff, but they are anything but set in stone. Until the final depth chart prior to the Knights trip across the country to face the Huskies, there can — and likely will — be shifts.
After all, it's only been one day.
“We got a long way to go," Ash said. "It's a typical first day of a new offense, new defense, new special teams, new coaching staff. But I'm encouraged by a lot of the things I saw today. But it wasn't like it was perfect."
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Brian Fonseca @briannnnf on Twitter.
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