Ultimately, the game of football is won not in the trenches, or in the air, or in the stands. It’s won in the minds.
The coaches determine the Xs and Os, the acquisition and development of players, and ultimately the Wins and Losses.
Nowhere is that more profoundly visible than on the banks of the Raritan. As our “writers” and commenters have noted in the past, Rutgers has often squandered great recruiting and an uncontested hotbed of natural talent with sub-optimal coaching. Ken Burns showed us what could be done with great coaching and great talent. Greg Schiano too.
Now, we’re starting to see it with Chris Ash and his team of tacticians. Let’s break it down.
Chris Ash, Head Coach
On the strategy side, Ash is nearly unassailable so far. He took an absolute tire fire of a situation when hired and turned it into a Schianoesque rebuild. No, 2 wins and 4 wins are not the expectation of this program from the fans or the administration, but the method by which that progress has been made is important.
No scandals. No embarrassments. No cut corners or blurred lines.
Ash does things based on a championship caliber playbook and that proven approach is starting to pay dividends.
Now, from a program perspective, all of that is accurate with a giant asterisk. It’s time to start seeing results. Right now, Ash’s seat is a comfortable 70 degrees. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right. Win six games and go to a bowl and you’re starting to punch your ticket, Schiano style, for a big contract extension and a reinvestment from the administration. Fail to do so and all of the goodwill starts falling apart.
Let’s talk a moment about those Schiano parallels. We know the backgrounds are similar - National Championship-level Defensive Coordinator recruited at the height of their career for record-breaking contracts. We know the early days are similar - tough, embarrassing early losses, easily stomached because the process was being improved.
If the trend continues, this year could be big. In 2005 the team broke through, made a bowl, and set up an epic 2006 run that peaked at #3 in the polls. That 2005 team was helmed by a freshman quarterback with big time pedigree. This 2018 team is likely to be led by a freshman quarterback with big time pedigree. 2005 was carried by a stellar defense and a big play running back. Same with 2018.
Nobody expected 2015, even here at Rutgers. Again, 2018 is the same.
From a strategy perspective, Ash has played the right cards and followed Greg Schiano’s gilded footsteps down the banks of the old Raritan. Now, we’ll see if those footsteps lead to the same destination.
John McNulty, Offensive Coordinator
On the tactical side, no addition since Ash took over the program has been more meaningful than McNulty.
Why? Execution, recruiting, and longevity.
McNulty holds the distinction as being the first FBS offensive coordinator to oversee an offense with a 3,000 yard passer (Teel), a 2,000 yard rusher (Rice), and two 1,000 yard receivers (Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood). Yes, they were elite talent, but as we mentioned, elite talent at Rutgers hasn’t always translated to elite results. McNulty got the best of his players and led one of the most explosive offenses in the Big East, one of the most explosive offenses in Rutgers history, one of the most explosive offenses in the history of college football.
We’re talking rarefied air here people. This is a tactician who can deliver results, who has executed at all levels of football.
John McNulty is the most accomplished offensive coordinator Rutgers has fielded since John McNulty. On the execution side, we should see big plays, big risks, lost yardage, sacks, interceptions, 50+ yard touchdowns, 3-play touchdown drives, and the kind of vertical passing game we haven’t seen in a decade. For Rutgers fans and Big Ten football fans alike, it should be an exciting experience.
However, that’s the least important thing that McNulty brings to the table.
The most important facets are his ability to recruit based on a significant history of NFL success and the fact that he may be the one Rutgers OC to finally end the hemorrhaging.
On the recruiting side, we’re already seeing the big time offensive recruits - especially in the Wide Receivers room, McNulty’s specialty. It’s not hard to understand why. Every recruit wants to play in The League - McNulty can point to his experience with the Cowboys, Chargers, Jags and Titans. Every recruit wants to be prolific in college - McNulty can point to the very offense he oversaw at Rutgers.
Perhaps mostly importantly, he seems like a guy ready to settle down. This is unscientific and we may be chirping the same tune about the next guy to sit in this chair, but McNulty has every reason to stay. He has a young family ready to enjoy the best schools in the country. He has a fanbase and administration who remember his first tenure with rose-colored glasses. He has a coach and team desperate for any reasonable offensive acumen and starving for continuity.
In the same way that Schiano had the opportunity to become a legend in New Brunswick, so too does McNulty.
Just like with Ash though, the only question is if the results will match the hype.
Jay Niemann & Chris Ash, Defense
There’s less ink to spill here, because you already know what you’re going to get with these two: League-best secondary play, team-first work in the trenches, workmanlike linebackers who finish off plays and solid tackling at every level. Rutgers has steadily climbed the ranks the past few years and should be poised to do the same this year.
Nobody expects this defense to suffocate opponents like their 2005 counterparts, but that may not be necessary. While Rutgers’ defense ranked middle-of-the-pack last year, they were not helped out by the offense. Tons of 3-and-outs and short fields as a standard operating procedure meant that the defense was often left to play with its back against the wall. If the offense can claw its way to mediocrity, we may see a return to the dominant Rutgers defenses of yore.
For those who play against the Rutgers defense, it might be a good time to grab a beverage. Big plays will be hard to come by, but so will splash plays on defense. This group won’t lead the league in turnovers, but will do fundamentals well.
While the 2018 Rutgers offense should be explosive and dynamic, the defense should be a mirror of Ash’s strategic oversight. Workaday, solid, effective.
The thing is, that might be enough for this 2018 team to reach spectacular heights.
Vince Okruch - A feel-good story of a coach who was almost left behind by football, Okruch mirrors Ash’s steady demeanor. He’ll need it overseeing a Special Teams group turning over a massive percentage of production. This is a group that may be interesting to watch every Saturday, for better or worse.
AJ Blazek - If you ever see a video of an interview with this guy, just do yourself a favor and click it. In addition to being a great O-Line coach, Blazek’s verbal flea flickers are a delight.
Nunzio Campanile - A legend in NJ high school football coaching, this might be the guy who can finally keep New Jersey’s elite talent home. With all of the Midwest coaching firepower on this staff, Campanile’s presence is a powerful anchor to the state’s local talent base - a fact that may be reflected in the ratio of in-state recruits for the 2019 recruiting cycle.
Ultimately, 2018 is a pivotal year for Rutgers football. Make a bowl and you’re in for the long haul. Miss and the harsh eye of the biggest media market in the country is upon you.
Now is the time to put up or shut up.
Hopefully, for the Rutgers faithful, the parallels of the 2018 and 2005 coaching staffs show up not just in the tea leaves, but on the stat sheet and in the wins column.