Ash facing tough task at Rutgers heading into third season
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Chris Ash heads into his third season as football coach trying to make Rutgers more than an also-ran in the Big Ten Conference while the shadow of a credit card scandal involving several of his players looms over the program.
It’s an annoyance for a team that has enough problems on the field.
The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 4-8 season that included a 3-6 mark in the Big Ten. While that isn’t impressive, it was an improvement from the 2-10, 0-9 mark in his first year.
More is expected this season with Rutgers bringing back a very experienced defense with a solid back seven.
The offense has more open questions with John McNulty back for a second stint as coordinator. It starts at quarterback with Gio Rescigno, who started the final seven games in 2017. He is being pushed hard by freshman Artur Sitkowski and sophomore Johnathan Lewis. Sitkowski, who has a cannon for an arm and poise beyond his years, has a chance to start.
“It’s about trying to build your team and have an opportunity to go to postseason play, and right now I feel like we’re right on track to get that done,” Ash said before the start of training camp. “A lot of things we have to still do to get to that point and reach that goal.”
If Sitkowski wins the starting job and lives up to expectations, Rutgers might get close to a bowl game.
“I don’t think when he starts playing he’s going to win every game,” McNulty said. “It kind of goes with the territory. If we didn’t feel like an 18-year-old guy that’s a freshman legitimately wasn’t ready to take on this responsibility then we can’t play him. That’s part of the evaluation. It’s not just how far he can throw the ball. It’s the mental makeup and your ability to handle the job. As a rookie or a freshman, you could ruin the kid.”
Here are some things to know heading into the season.
OFF THE FIELD
Six players were left off the training camp roster because of a police investigation into credit card fraud, though none has been charged and officials haven’t given details of the investigation. The players are redshirt junior linebacker/safety Malik Dixon, senior defensive back Kobe Marfo, sophomore defensive end C.J. Onyechi, redshirt freshman cornerback Edwin Lopez, redshirt freshman defensive back Naijee Jones and redshirt freshman linebacker Syhiem Simmons. Simmons tweeted his intent to transfer last week. This group was going to provide some depth but it was doubtful any would have started.
DEFENSIVE STRENGTH: The back seven is a veteran group with Trevor Morris, Deonte Roberts and Tyreek Maddox-Williams at linebacker, Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton at cornerback and Damon Hayes and Saquan Hampton at safety.
Jon Bateky and Kevin Wilkins give the Scarlet Knights experience on the line but Willington Previlon, Julius Turner and Elorm Lumor will have to step up in expanded roles.
REBUILDING OFFENSE: A graduate transfer is again expected to lead the running game with Jonathan Hilliman coming from Boston College, where he rushed for 638 yards with five touchdowns last season. Sophomore Raheem Blackshear showed flashes last season, averaging 6.1 yards. The receiving corps is led by tight end Jerome Washington while Bo Melton is the top returning receiver. The line, which allowed the fewest sacks in the conference last season, has holes at the guard spots with Jonah Jackson, coming off an injury, and Mike Lonsdorf being the probable starters.
Instead of opening at home against nationally ranked Washington, Rutgers gets an easier contest against Texas State, which was 2-10 overall and finished last in the Sun Belt Conference. The undermanned and young Bobcats are finally filling out their roster with scholarship players, but this will be a big task for them. However, the Scarlet Knights thought they had an easy one with Eastern Michigan on the schedule after Washington, and they were upset.
If Ash wants any chance of taking Rutgers to a bowl game in his third season, he has to do well in the early part of the season. Facing Ohio State on the road in Week 2 will be tough, but the schedule follows with Kansas, Buffalo, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland and Northwestern. The Scarlet Knights probably need five wins in those opening eight games and hope they can get a sixth with an upset of Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State in the home stretch.