Chris Ash opens his second spring practice as head coach at Rutgers, and he has plenty to focus on as the Scarlet Knights look to improve in 2017. Year one was expected to be quite the uphill battle for Ash in his head coaching debut, and it most certainly was. Rutgers won just two games in 2016, the fewest in a season for the program since winning just one game in ‘01.
5 Storylines to Watch During Rutgers’ Spring Practice
1. Jerry Kill gets to work reshaping Rutgers offense
The former head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers is back to coaching, albeit in a somewhat lower profile position. At Rutgers, Kill will be tasked with finding some stability on offense, and he may be the right guy for the challenging job. As a head coach at Northern Illinois and Minnesota, Kill built offenses from the ground up. With so many questions on offense this spring, Kill will get to work putting together a master plan and look for steady improvement across the field. There is nowhere to go but up, as Rutgers finished 128th in the nation in total offense and 127th in scoring offense last season.
2. Quarterback depth is as shallow as a kiddie pool
Rutgers needs a quarterback in a bad way, but the best option may not be available until Class of 2017 addition Johnathan Lewis arrives this summer. Until then, following the recent departures of Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig, a three-way battle between Gio Rescigno, Zach Allen and Tylin Oden will be ongoing. Rescigno is the most experienced of the three with five starts last season, but the quarterback position should be considered a wide-open battle. Rutgers ranked 122nd in the nation in passing offense last fall.
3. Receivers getting upgraded
Figuring out who is throwing the football is critical for Rutgers, but it would appear the wide receiver position has received a boost this spring with the transfers of brothers Ahmir and Damon Mitchell. Ahmir is a transfer from Michigan and Damon is making his way to Rutgers from Arkansas, and each should be expected to take on a significant role in the passing game if they can prove to have a solid showing this spring. Rutgers also has Jawuan Harris back after leading the team in receiving as a freshman in 2016.
4. Janarion Grant expected to be limited
There is no need to waste extra energy on Rutgers’ best playmaker. Grant is coming off a broken ankle suffered early last season, which means he has had plenty of time to heal his ankle. Even with that being the case, Grant is not expected to take on a heavy load this spring, and nor should he. Keeping Grant as healthy as possible is essential because he has the ability to flip the field any time he touches the ball, especially on special teams.
5. Getting tough on defense
Rutgers has a lot of work to do to improve on offense, but the defense has a long way to go to catch up to their Big Ten rivals as well. The Scarlet Knights allowed a Big Ten-worst 450.7 yards per game last season and were second-worst in scoring defense (37.5 points per game, Purdue allowed 38.3 ppg). Ash’s focus on getting bigger and stronger on the defensive line is a start, and developing the linebacker unit with the absence of Tyreek Maddox-Williams will be key.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Rutgers in the Big Ten
Ask a magic 8-ball how Rutgers will look in 2017 and the answer may come back reading “Outlook not so good.” Don’t expect Rutgers to immediately catch up and compete with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. There is simply too much ground to make up for that and one spring is not going to change that. Neither will one summer. But Rutgers can take steps forward and work its way closer to bowl eligibility, even if six wins feels like a reach at this point.
Rutgers does not have the overall talent or depth to be a threat in the Big Ten East, but setting smaller goals like not being outscored and decimated at home routinely is an attainable achievement. Things did not go according to plan in 2016 for Ash and his new program, which means ‘17 is already an important season to prove he can get Rutgers moving in the right direction. Ash has a good overall plan and vision for the program, but the signs of improvement may not show up in the win column just yet.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.