Chris Ash pleased with new captains, team chemistry at annual Chicago Big Ten Media Days
Before the Rutgers football team starts up its training camp on July 31, head coach Chris Ash and several student athletes made the trip to the Hilton Chicago for the annual Big Ten Football Media Days.
Ash, who took to the podium on the second media day, fielded questions about the Scarlet Knights' direction in the Big Ten. Rutgers finished at the bottom East Division with a 0-9 conference record for the first time since Ash's first year on the Banks in 2016.
While last year's Knights could not meet the expectations of garnering conference wins in one of college football's most competitive environment, Ash has confidence that the 2019 Rutgers team can bounce back from a 1-11 season. A large part of his confidence in the team has been attributed to the trust he has in his new captains: junior linebackers Tyshon Fogg and Tyreek Maddox-Williams and fifth-year senior offensive lineman Zach Venesky.
"I think this year we have the best chemistry on our team so far, the best leadership on our team, and it's because of the three guys that we've brought here with us today, all three elected captains this spring," Ash said. "They hold each other accountable as well as other players on our team, and I think that's going to allow us to improve as we move forward."
Aside from the new leadership, Ash noted that for the Knights to improve on last year's record, they have to focus more on fundamentals in practice.
Rutgers' offense last year ranked last in the conference in scoring with approximately 13 points per game, managing 17 total touchdowns.
The offensive line was a bright spot for Ash, and is returning the majority of its starters while only losing alumnus Tariq Cole. Venesky, who saw time in six games last season and was inserted into the lineup as a left guard, was a part of the offensive line that placed near the top of the Big Ten, allowing 1.33 sacks per game.
As for who will start at the quarterbacks position, Ash said that he will remain with sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski as his No. 1 man behind center, although Texas Tech transfer graduate student quarterback McLane Carter brings experience to the role.
“(Carter) has to earn the right to get reps, just like everybody else," Ash said, according to NJ Advance Media. "There is a competition in the room, but Art will our No. 1 quarterback going into training camp just like he was coming out of spring."
While the Knights await the results of freshman quarterback Johnny Langan's eligibility upon transferring from Boston College, Ash will look to Sitkowski to lead the first team offense in training camp at the end of this month.
Rutgers, who retains 70% of the offensive production from last season, has had success running the ball. Running backs junior Raheem Blackshear and sophomore Isaih Pacheco return to a backfield that produced 12 touchdowns and averaged approximately 134 yards per game.
Blackshear, who is the elder statesman in the running backs group, had the most total yards on the entire offense and was second to alumnus running back Jonathan Hilliman in touchdowns.
"He's the veteran guy of the (running backs) group," Ash said about Blackshear. "Isaih burst on the scene last year as a true freshman, had some really big runs, some good plays. So we think we have a good stable of backs that are going to provide some play making ability for our offense, but it'll be led by those two individuals."
As for the defensive side of the ball, Ash lost skilled defensive backs in alumni Blessuan Austin, Saquan Hampton and Isaiah Wharton, who all made up a large chunk of the secondary.
Sophomore defensive back Jarrett Paul was listed as Wharton's backup for the Knights' last game against Michigan State in 2018. Paul saw time mostly on special teams in all 12 games. Along with Paul, 11 other Rutgers players will be contesting for the two safety and corner back starters jobs.
"Just looking at our defense overall, I think right now we probably going into the season we have the most competition at all three positions," Ash said. "I think we have the most players that we feel confident in playing on our defensive line. It's going to allow us to rotate more players that will keep our players fresh."
The Knights will also be without alumnus linebackers Deonte Roberts, a former captain, and Trevor Morris, who were a part of Rutgers' passing defense that ranked fourth in the Big Ten. But without these two leaders, the linebacker spot and the defensive line are open for competition.
The team will hold its training camp until August 22, eight days prior to its season opener against UMass.
"It's a new year. It's a new team, as we go back and look at 2018 like we did at the end of the season, it was wasn't a lot of fun," Ash said. "When you're 1-11, things are difficult. I own it, and the good thing is that we can control our future."