Heading into his third campaign last summer, Rutgers coach Chris Ash told anyone willing to listen that he expected his Scarlet Knights to contend for the bowl berth that had eluded his program since 2014. It didn't happen. A string of arrests resulted in the suspension or dismissal of nine players, and then an offense that featured a freshman quarterback produced historically poor results as Rutgers staggered to a 1–11 finish — its worst record since 2002. By late November, the season had gotten so ugly that the school's athletics director, Pat Hobbs, felt compelled to issue a vote of confidence for Ash, who was widely perceived to be on the hot seat despite being owed $9.8 million through 2022. One thing is clear: Ash will be under intense scrutiny from a disappointed fan base.
Previewing Rutgers' Offense for 2019
Since Ash took over in 2016, Rutgers' scoring offense has ranked 127th in 2016 (15.7 ppg), 121st in 2017 (18.0 ppg) and 130th (13.5 ppg) last season. Any hope for the Scarlet Knights to turn it around in Ash's fourth campaign rests on the shoulders of Artur Sitkowski, who ranked last out of 113 quarterbacks nationally in pass efficiency rating (76.4).
Now a sophomore, Sitkowski will need to cut down on his interceptions — a nation-worst 18 — and improve his accuracy (49.1 completion percentage) for the Scarlet Knights to be competitive in their second season under the direction of offensive coordinator John McNulty. If Sitkowski struggles to take a step forward, Texas Tech graduate transfer McLane Carter provides an experienced option.
"We have to get better [at] everything," McNulty says. "When you were 1–11 and we were where we were ranked [offensively] ... we need to improve."
To that end, McNulty has stressed improving in third down efficiency after ranking 124th nationally last season. Another area of concern for Rutgers' play caller is big-play production after Rutgers ranked last nationally in offensive plays of 10 yards or longer and next to last in plays of 20 and 30 yards or longer.
The Scarlet Knights' bread and butter will be the run game, which will lean heavily on junior Raheem Blackshear (586 rushing yards) and sophomore Isaih Pacheco (551 rushing yards). "We'll be explosive with the run game," McNulty says. "I'm not as worried about that."
Dropped passes, the inability of receivers to get separation and subpar pass protection were issues as well, but Rutgers returns four of its top five pass catchers and three offensive linemen who started at least five games in 2018.
"It's a team offense, and we've got to have all 11 doing their job to be successful in the run game and in the pass game," Ash says. "Art has to play better. If we're going to have a chance to be successful as a football program, we have to have consistent quarterback play. But to get that, we have to have consistent O-line play, and we have to have consistent wide receiver and tight end play. All those pieces have to work together."
Previewing Rutgers' Defense for 2019
A defensive coach by trade, Ash wasn't satisfied with his team’s play last season and went out and tapped former Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh for the same position on his squad. The two worked together as assistants on the Wisconsin staff earlier this decade, and they spent the spring tweaking a defense that ranked 89th nationally in points allowed (31.4 ppg.) last season.
Ash likes the unit's depth at linebacker and in the defensive backfield. The latter position group will be led by senior Damon Hayes, who moves back to his natural cornerback spot after starting all 12 games last season at safety, and sophomore Avery Young, who exceeded expectations after being pressed into starting duty in Week 2.
"We're not going to wholesale-change the scheme," says Buh, who has served as the defensive play caller at Stanford, Nevada, California and Maryland in a coaching career that has spanned more than two decades. "Obviously there will be some wrinkles that we'll bring in to just add to the package here. But for the most part just getting the guys to play hard, concentrate on getting the ball out and that’s about it."
Previewing Rutgers' Specialists for 2019
Justin Davidovicz was a pleasant surprise in his first season handling both the kickoff and placekicking duties, drilling 9-of-11 fieldgoal attempts, including a 52-yarder. Adam Korsak, a rugby-style punter from Australia, helped Rutgers rank fourth in the conference in net punting average (40.6). Young and Pacheco will likely be Rutgers' primary returners on punts and kickoffs.
While Ash inherited a downtrodden program that would be hit with a two-year probation by the NCAA, patience is clearly wearing thin after a three-year tenure that has included a 7–29 overall record and a 3–24 mark in Big Ten play. The hope is that stability on offense — McNulty is the first offensive coordinator in a decade to return for his second season — and the development of a roster comprised mostly of Ash’s recruits will result in a turnaround this fall.
Does the turnaround need to be dramatic in order for Ash to get a fifth season? No one knows for sure, but keep in mind that Ash will still be owed $7.5 million after this season, and he has a boss in Hobbs who wants him to succeed.
"I love the team," Ash says. "They just show up every single day to work. And we're getting better. That's how I feel about our team right now."