Coming into the season, Rutgers fans were hoping for an improved team after a tough 2016. For that to happen, Chris Ash and staff needed to develop depth with the young players and lean on a few seasoned play makers. So far, many returning players have struggled to stay healthy. Meanwhile, the newcomers and young players have carried the team to what has been major improvement on the field.
Janarion Grant has struggled to stay on the field, which has been a major blow to the offense this year. Kemoko Turay has played solidly, but even he missed the Maryland game last week. When the season started, the secondary was a major strength of the team. Then, in a two game stretch, Blessuan Austin was lost for the season and Saquan Hampton and Ky Hester were knocked out for multiple weeks. With a 1-4 start, injuries started to take their toll and the season looked bleak.
When similar injuries happened last year, the season went downhill fast. Ash has been quick to note that this team changed in the off season. The players bought in and this team was significantly improved in every area. Ash developed depth at every position, and where there wasn’t, he moved the right guys to new positions to plug holes.
At the beginning of the season, the secondary had some real Big Ten talent but it was quickly decimated. When both starting safeties were injured, Ash made the right moves to keep the team together. Sophomore KJ Gray went from being the third safety to being the only safety left with playing experience. Ash and Niemann focused on development all off-season and Gray was one player who really improved. Gray got his chance and didn’t disappoint. The true sophomore currently ranks in the top-five for tackles, tackles for a loss, sacks and interceptions on the team. The guy has a nose for the ball and has stepped up his game big time.
Lining up next to Gray has been Jawuan Harris for the last four games. The teams leading receiver from 2016, was struggling to find a role in the offense, and Ash thought his athletic ability would help in the secondary. Boy was he right! The move to defense quickly payed off, and in his first game on defense, Harris lead the team with 11 tackles, caught a key interception and forced a fumble. The move — a very selfless one by the redshirt sophomore — may have saved the season.
On the defensive line, Sebastian Joseph has been touch to block, even with a club on his hand for some of the season. The question before the season started was who else would step up in the interior alongside Joseph. Kevin Wilkins has filled that role and flashed big play ability all season. Big No. 99 has found a way into the opposing backfield, leading the team in tackles for a loss and second in quarterback hurries. Coach Burnham has noted Wilkins’s abilities in the past but always came back to consistency being the area he needed to improve. Well, the coaching is paying off, and Wilkins has established himself every down Big Ten defensive lineman.
The offensive line is a great example of player development and constant improvement. Along with Jerry Kill, AJ Blazek may be the most valuable assistant coach on the team. The whole offensive line has improved across the board. A few games in, center Jonah Jackson went down with an injury. Redshirt freshman Mike Maietti, stepped in, and the offense hasn’t missed a beat. The run game has been dominant in the three Big Ten wins and Maietti has often been the guy leading the way. No doubt that Gus Edwards, Robert Martin and Raheem Blacksheer have a lot to do with that success, but the offensive line has been dominating their opponents and getting a great push, especially late in games. In the pass game, the offensive line has protected the quarterback all year. Rutgers leads the Big Ten in sacks allowed at 11.
The most improved unit on the team may be the special teams kickoff coverage. Ash completely revamped the unit this past year and pushed for competition by giving the true freshmen a shot to get on the field. The move has paid major dividends. Rutgers leads the big ten in kickoff coverage with a unit led by starters and true freshmen. Mohamed Jabbie has been one key contributor that developed physically and mentally. Jabbie did not see much time through the first four games but kept grinding in practice. The staff took notice, and now Jabbie not only has excelled on special teams but also has found a starting role at wide receiver.
One visible and underrated change has been coach Ash himself. Ash has showed a fire and fight this season and especially this past week. After the horrendously bad offside call on 4th and 1 vs Maryland, Ash ripped into the refs during the next stoppage in play and let the players and crowd know that he was not letting this game get away. The crowd and players responded, and Rutgers scored 14 straight points for the comeback win.
Ash has clearly developed the young players on the team but, as he noted, they are still far from where they want to be. If the staff continues to improve recruiting and develop those players, expect some more noise in Piscataway in the near future.