PISCATAWAY, N.J. — After taking baby steps in Chris Ash’s first season as coach, Rutgers is hoping to walk a little in the Big Ten Conference this season.
Don’t expect too much.
While the Scarlet Knights should be a little better, they still are not close to competing with the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Don’t forget this was a team that went 2-10 overall and ended the season by losing all nine of its conference games by a 360-86 margin. The skid includes a 58-0 loss to Ohio State and a 78-0 setback to Michigan in consecutive games, and a 39-0 loss to Penn State late in the season.
“I’ll be the first to tell you I don’t care what happened last year,” Ash said at the start of training camp. “We wiped it out of our systems and we are moving forward. We are a lot better today because of what we went through last year. The adversity either brings you together or tears you apart. It brought our football team together.”
Heading into this season, Ash is coaching a team that is now more familiar with his offense and defense, so there is less teaching.
His defense returns eight starters, with the secondary getting all four starters back. Former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill is the new offensive coordinator, replacing Drew Mehringer, who left for a job at Texas.
There have also been some baby steps off the field for the Scarlet Knights. They built a new weight lifting center for Ash’s first season and this year they opened a magnificent outdoor practice facility last week.
Both will come in handy in the fight to lure recruits.
Still, the simple goal for Rutgers this season will be to play better.
“We do want to be more competitive and we do want to win more games,” Ash said.
THE BIG GRANT
Rutgers got its biggest boost in the offseason when wide receiver Janarion Grant opted to return for another season instead of entering the NFL draft. The return specialist broke his ankle in the fourth game of his senior season and was given a medical redshirt. At the time he was hurt, he had run for three touchdowns, returned a punt and a kickoff for scores and threw a touchdown. After he went down, so did Rutgers’ scoring. The big question will be whether Grant has the same speed that made him so elusive. He has been limited in training camp.
Ash and Kill have three players in the running for the job. Redshirt junior Gio Rescigno, who started five games last season, is the incumbent. He got almost all the first-team snaps in the spring game and has gotten a lot of work with the ones since camp opened. Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin, who lost his job to Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, has more experience than Rescigno but he didn’t play much last season. The wildcard is freshman Johnathan Lewis. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder from nearby St. Peter’s Prep has the best arm on the team and the wheels to scramble out of trouble.
THE KILL FACTOR
Kill is back in football after taking time off to deal with epilepsy. He worked at Kansas State last season as a liaison between the football program and the athletic directors’ office. His offense needs a quarterback that can run and gun but also adapts to the talents of the players. It seemed Mehringer tried to run a spread offense without having the right players. The one area Kill has to improve is the running game. Rutgers rushed for eight touchdowns last season, with only three being scored by running backs.
STOPPING THE RUN
Rutgers finished 126th of 128 teams last season in run defense, allowing 33 rushing touchdowns. The line lost its two top players, Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Darius Hamilton, while safety Anthony Cioffi also graduated.
The rest of the defense is back. The line will be helped if end Kemoko Turay rebounds from a subpar season and fellow redshirt seniors Darnell Davis and Sebastian Joseph improve. Deonte Roberts in the middle and Trevor Morris on the weak side give the linebackers experience, while the secondary is solid with cornerbacks Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton and safeties Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton all back in starting roles.
KEY GAMES: at Illinois, Oct. 14; Purdue, Oct. 21; vs. Maryland at New York (Nov. 4); at Indiana, Nov. 18.
PREDICTION: After winning only two games overall and going winless in the conference, five wins would be a major accomplishment. A bowl bid would be like hitting the lottery.
SEASON OPENER: Sept. 1 vs. Washington (12-2 in 2016).