Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the union of four loving coaches in a saucy plurality that can only be known as the Rutgers’ Coaching Staff.
As is tradition, the bride(s?) have brought something Old (retained ST Coach Vince Okruch), something new (new DC Andy Buh), something borrowed (OC John McNulty, borrowed from the Rutgers halcyon days), and something Blitz Heavy (HC-but-actually-also-really-DC Chris Ash).
[editor’s note: this metaphor is falling apart faster than a Kyle Flood secret plan]
For the Rutgers’ faithfull, I’ll do my best to provide a fresh hot take that we haven’t heard covered by the excellent folks at On the Banks or NJ.com yet. For the rest of you corn enthusiasts, I’d like to share why Rutgers should be a pretty entertaining opponent this year.
Something Old - Vince Okruch, Special Teams Coordinator
When we say something old, we don’t just mean that Vince is the only senior staffer remaining on Chris Ash’s crew, we also mean that he has that “I’ve seen some shit” old guy look. Like, that dude is probably 39, but looks like he’s pushing 100. I suppose this is what happens when you pour your soul and/or sign a deal with the devil to run an expectations-defying Special Teams unit.
Despite a ton of roster turnover - especially at the bottom of the depth chart where many ST contributors come from - the Rutgers Special Teams unit on a whole performed well:
- Rutgers’ kick coverage was spectacular, good for #7 in the nation with 16.4 yards per return and only 14 touchbacks.
- Justin Davidovicz, in his first season as a starting kicker was 81% (9/11) on FGs and a perfect 17/17 on extra points.
- Aussie phenom Punter Adam Korsak averaged 42.7 yards on 78 punts with a wallaby of a long punt at 79 yards (the 4th longest punt in college football)
- The RU punt coverage team tallied 40.1 net yards per punt, good for #22 in the country
The return game was hit or miss and the team only blocked 3 kicks (its hallmark under Schiano and Flood), so it wasn’t all pretty, but overall, the Special Teams unit exceeded expectations in large part due to excellent coaching from Okruch.
What can you expect from this team in 2019? Solid coaching, discipline and some sneaky athleticism. Rutgers has a lot of skill players on Teams as the depth there (as opposed to on the lines) is meaningful. There won’t be many dumb penalties or breakdowns in coverage. There might not be a ton of flashy returns or splash plays, but there won’t be any disasters in most games.
Overall, Rutgers’ special teams should be steady, high performing and unspectacular. Things go a bit downhill from here, but you know you’re reading a Big Ten blog when all the superlatives are heaped on the punter.
Something New - Andy Buh, Defensive Coordinator
I’m going to be honest, none of us really know much about Andy Buh. This is partially due to the fact that he most recently coached and Maryland and partially due to the fact that anyone or anything from or associated with Maryland is generally dull and without merit.
That said, he’s one of us now, so let’s break it down.
In 2018 Chris Ash went from executive coach in the beginning of the year, where his defense struggled against inferior (yes, believe it or not) non-conference opponents to a hands-on defensive play caller in the back half of the schedule, when the defense started playing markedly better. Expect that trend to continue this year, with Buh contributing more on the strategy side, less on the tactics side.
Buh’s background comes from working with the linebackers - considered a strength for the unit this year - which compliments Ash’s focus on the defensive backfield. He’s been a defensive coordinator at a number of high profile stops (Maryland, Stanford and Cal) so he’s seen a lot of P5 offenses and should be able to provide input and coaching to compliment Ash’s defensive structure.
All that said, Buh’s contributions will be channeled through Ash’s play calling, so we’ll move on.
Something Borrowed - John McNulty, Offensive Coordinator
Borrowing from Rutgers’ most successful offense in history (the only NCAA team with a 4,000 yard passer, 2,000 yard rusher and two 1,000 yard receivers), we have offensive coordinator John McNulty.
You might look at Rutgers’ historically bad offense in 2018 and think that John McNulty is on the hot seat. You would be wrong.
If there’s one thing the offense needs, it’s continuity.
The unit has had 8 coordinators in 8 seasons. Think about that. Every season this decade, a coordinator has retired, been fired, or moved on to a new position. We’ve gone from Wild Knight to Pro Style to Spread back to Pro Style. No incoming recruits in the past 7 classes have played for the offensive coordinator they committed to. This is nothing short of mind-boggling and highlights why Rutgers’ has had problems all over the offensive side of the ball, from recruiting to player development to player retention.
The hope with McNulty is that it all stops now. This is a guy who made his number running historically good offenses at Rutgers in the 2000’s. If he can come back and restore a unit that has been pretty bad for a while, he’ll be a legend. He’ll be the next hot head coaching candidate. He’ll be the guy who brought the team back from 4 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He has every incentive to stick it out for a few seasons, which in Rutgers Offensive Coordinator years, corresponds to a few millennia.
Easier said than done, but the tools are in place more so than any time in recent history at Rutgers. The offensive line has decent talent, the QB has been in the system for a year, and there are stellar athletes a receiver and running back. If Sitkowski or Carter makes meaningful progress this year, there is potential for a respectable offensive output on the banks.
Look for a ton of running on early downs. Pacheco should be the off tackle specialist, churning up yards inside on designed runs, while breaking a few big ones (remember that 80 yard touchdown run against Michigan?). Operating from more of a scatback position, Raheem Blackshear should be the beneficiary of a lot of outside runs from the RPO platform. This will be the bread and butter of the offense and success on these types of plays will predicate any improvement this unit makes.
In the passing game, we should see more downfield throws to receivers than last year. Look for Bo Melton to emerge as a primary target with a significant number of touches, as well as former quarterback Jonathan Lewis at tight end. Outside of those two, there are few proven receivers on the offense, with depth at tight end being pretty perilous. One name to keep an eye on is receiver Daevon Robinson. He played out of position at tight end last year and is a big body that could make heaps of contested catches. If the offensive line can keep Sitkowski or Turner clean, there should be opportunities downfield.
Something Blitz Heavy - Chris Ash, Head Coach (Also Kinda DC)
Finally we come to the man of the house, Head Coach and defensive play caller Chris Ash. With a plurality of athletic linebackers and defensive backs and a dearth of proven linemen, especially in the interior, this will likely be the most blitz-happy Rutgers defense we’ve seen in years.
But let’s take a quick look back.
In 2018, we saw the defense underperform throughout the early schedule. Beyond that, we saw it playing flat, uninspired football. This wasn’t the case of a team giving up on its coach, but a team just not giving the extra 10% that can mean the difference between success and failure on a given assignment or play.
Halfway through the season, Ash changed that. He took over play calling on the defensive side of the ball and went from 10,000 Foot View Executive Head Coach to Get Up In Your Grill Defensive Coordinator. He was fired up, he was pissed off and he let his players know it. Numerous reports surfaced of some intense practices and some pointed feedback to players not giving it 100%.
The result? The team responded with aggressive play down the stretch. More hustle. More splash plays. More effort.
The result clearly wasn’t enough to stem the tide, but the telemetry is hopeful. If Ash stays hands on with the defense throughout an offseason and utilizes his play calling acumen over the season to get the results this defense is capable of, the Scarlet Knights have a chance to challenge most opponents.
Again, like the offense, the defense is predicted on potential. If even incremental progress can be made, that will be meaningful for this team in 2019. Look for heavy blitzing from the back seven, especially from uber-athletic linebackers Tyshon Fogg and Tyreek Maddox-Williams to compliment a strong push from ends Mike Tverdov and Elorm Lumor. A solid secondary should be opportunistic if the pass rush can get home.
Good Thing We Signed a Prenup
Yes, I am an optimistic fool. Every season I think Rutgers is going to outperform expectations. That said, I do want to touch on one harsh reality: This marriage has one year to make some babies (wait what) or its time to get a divorce and let matchmaker Pat Hobbs do his magic.
If this team doesn’t show marked improvement from each of these areas or backslides, it’ll be on to a new coach. That’s the bottom line.
The good news is that by this time next year, we’ll either be writing to you about an exciting offseason of improvement by this talented Rutgers coaching staff after a lovely honeymoon, or the courtship of a new and exciting set of coaches.
Hopefully, we’ll also have some less weird metaphors.
Tuesday: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blitz Heavy
Wednesday: Bit o Rutgers History
Thursday: The Rutgers Experience in Memes
Friday: Rutgers Hate and Self-Hate Friday