Takeaways from Rutgers' spring game
With four months left until the start of training camp, the Rutgers football team concluded its spring practices with the traditional Scarlet-White Game this past Saturday.
In a simulated game that featured the likes of alumni and former Scarlet Knight standouts like Tim Wright, Steve Longa, Leonte Carroo and Michael Burton as honorary coaches, the annual spring game provided fans with a glimpse of what the team would look like come August.
The Scarlet team, featuring the offensive players, impressed early in the game. Along with sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski, last season’s starter, head coach Chris Ash inserted true freshmen quarterbacks Cole Snyder and Johnny Langan behind center.
Rutgers has not earned a winning record in the Ash era, its last time being with former head coach Kyle Flood at the helm for an eight-win season in 2014.
With the Knights finishing last season with an overall record of 1-11 and zero conference wins, Ash made sure to increase the number of reps this spring.
“One thing we did differently this spring was we practiced longer,” Ash said. “We got a lot of reps in, a lot more teams reps in. I think the players benefited from it.”
As Rutgers relaxes until summer training camp, here are several takeaways from the Scarlet-White Game:
Running back strength
One area where the Knights have a significant amount of depth is at the running back position, a unit that averaged more than 134 yards per game this past season.
With the departure of senior running back Jonathan Hilliman, who scored the most touchdowns (six) on the ground, Rutgers returns three main rushers in rising junior Raheem Blackshear, rising sophomore Isaih Pacheco and fifth-year senior Charles Snorweah, each with their own strengths.
Snorweah’s performance was arguably the most impressive of the day, totaling 134 yards on the ground and rushing for two touchdowns. Last season, he only carried the ball five times — four of which were in the Knights’ win over Texas State — but could expect some more play in the backfield in the fall.
It is not uncommon for some tailbacks to occasionally split out wide in certain offensive sets, acting as a hybrid running back that can also play as a receiver. Such is the case for Blackshear and Pacheco.
Blackshear, who is one of Rutgers’ offensive captains along with senior offensive linemen Zach Venesky, has been a consistent option as a slotback and a tailback. Last season, he averaged the most yards per game both as a running back (48.8) and as a wideout (30.6).
Last Saturday, Blackshear rushed 8 carries for 67 yards, with his longest run of the day coming on a speedy 45-yarder that broke right through the White team’s secondary.
Without Hilliman, who took the majority of the Knights’ snaps in the red zone, Blackshear will likely emerge as the power back.
Like Blackshear, Pacheco has also been a consistent option as a hybrid tailback. As a freshman last season, he rushed for three touchdowns.
“The whole backfield, we bring our own special talent to the group,” Snorweah said. “We’re not really focused on who’s starting. Everybody’s trying to get better every day.”
Now in at linebacker
After commanding a Maryland defense that ranked in the top 50 FBS last season, new defensive coordinator Andy Buh hopes to improve a Rutgers unit that gave up an average of nearly 215 yards per game to opposing running backs.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Deion Jennings was present all over the field in his first spring game after sitting out the season before. He made six tackles and secured the only interception against Sitkowski, returning it for 34 yards.
Without defensive backs senior Blessuan Austin and fifth-year seniors Isaiah Wharton and Saquan Hampton, Buh will need new faces to emerge as leaders of the Knights’ secondary.