Without a doubt, the one major takeaway from the 2017 Rutgers football season so far is that the Scarlet Knights have improved. The season was up and down, of course, but more importantly, Chris Ash captured more conference wins this season than last. Even in losses, Rutgers looked like a team that belonged in the Big Ten. There was even hope of possible bowl eligibility before the 41-0 thrashing by Indiana on November 18. Now here they are, looking at a tough match-up against a Michigan State team that is well on its way to a postseason appearance as the regular season wraps up.
Head coach Chris Ash has already stated that he’s still focused on this season and that he won’t be using this game as a springboard into next season. However, Ash should probably get real with himself and thrust at least some of the team’s younger players into action.
I’m not saying throw redshirts away and fill the lineup with freshmen, but there are players who could benefit from the playing time, including backup quarterback Johnathan Lewis, who I wrote about back in late September. Lewis could have ideally taken over the job then, as the outlook of the season was bleak. Instead of thrusting the freshman into the fire then, Ash decided to hand the reigns over to Gio Rescigno, who started towards the end of last season. Rescigno has played well enough with his legs to help the Scarlet Knights win a few games, but the arm talent just isn’t there.
As much as Ash might hate to admit it, it is time to look toward the future, and that would mean letting Lewis start this Saturday. And by play, I don’t mean calling quarterback draws and limiting him to specifically to a Wildcat quarterback role. After a long and injury-riddled season, it’s about time Lewis got an ample opportunity to actually throw the ball. The true freshman quarterback has thrown a mere 22 pass attempts, completing just eight for a touchdown and two interceptions.
As you can tell, when Lewis has been able to throw the ball there have been mixed results. It’s not entirely his fault, as the supporting cast around him isn’t great, but there’s more to be seen. Ash can get together with offensive coordinator Jerry Kill to tailor a game plan to suit Lewis. Short, confidence-building throws and allowing him to dabble in some play action passes should do the youngin’ well in terms of development. A full season of practice and limited game experience should bode well for Lewis in full game action, and at worst they could always pull him if they feel the experience is hurting his confidence.
The duo of true freshman wide receivers that have seen some action this season could benefit from being on the end of some of those throws. Bo Melton and Hunter Hayek have both seen an ample amount of playing time, offensively and on special teams. Melton was the more touted recruit coming out of high school but Hayek has found more playing time on the field. Hayek has notched eight receptions for a mere 62 yards, but has found a place returning punts for the Scarlet Knights. Melton has reeled in half the receptions of Hayek but has mustered more yards (83) with those catches.
Both Hayek and Melton are going to play important roles in the growth of this offense in the future. Hayek is a smaller receiver who can be shifty, which is why Kill has used the receiver to run screens. Melton, on the other hand, has recently returned to his more comfortable position as a slot receiver. The true freshman receiver is also elusive and can lose defenders in with his ability to run routes. He wasn’t used as much early in the season as he adjusted to the rigors of playing Division I football. He caught two passes for 31 yards against Indiana, so he could play a larger role should he receive more playing time against Michigan State.
Running back Raheem Blackshear has been the one true freshman that has seen consistent snaps all season. With the formidable senior duo of Gus Edwards and Robert Martin currently entrenched, Blackshear’s playing time will continue to be rather limited. None-the-less I would expect to see more snaps this week from him as well.
In all, I understand where Ash is coming from when he says he’s still focused on this season. However, with an almost guaranteed quarterback battle looming this spring, it would be wise for Ash to give Lewis some actual in-game experience. The same can be said for Hayek and Melton, who will need to develop a rapport with Lewis going into the offseason. Besides, what exactly do the Scarlet Knights have to lose with this game? All that went out the window when they let Indiana prance all over them last week.