Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, August 12, 2016
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The BTN bus tour spent Friday morning watching Rutgers' practice on the school's Livingston Campus, far from High Point Solutions Stadium. Why? Chris Ash wants to preserve the fields adjacent to the stadium.
Here are some more fun takes from the Scarlet Knights' practice.
Most impressive player: Janarion Grant. He is a 5-10, 174-pound ball of muscle and fury who will be a playmaker in this offense.
Top specimen: DT Darius Hamilton. He already looks like an NFL defensive tackle.
Loudest coach: Chris Ash set the tone with some fiery rhetoric. Urban would be proud.
Impressive newcomer: TCU transfer QB Zach Allen. He is a good-looking athlete who can run this spread offense.
On the rise: Najee Clayton was a safety who has bulked up to play linebacker. He needs to be a player on the strong side.
Nagging question: Will the back seven on defense develop?
Under the radar: Redshirt freshman Jawuan Harris is just 5-9, but the redshirt freshman wideout is turning heads.
Number: 14, sacks by Rutgers, the fewest in the Big Ten in 2015.
Few coaches are as tuned-in to tackling as Chris Ash. He has studied the rugby tackling system for years and has taught it to his RU players. The system teaches players to lead with their shoulder and target a ball carrier's legs instead of leading with the head across a ball carrier's chest.
The linebacking corps has a lot to prove and remains a work in progress with Steve Longa, Kaiwain Lewis and Quentin Gause gone. Check this out: There is one career start among the 15 LBs on the roster. For now, the Scarlet Knights line up Najee Clayton on the strong side; Roberts in the middle and Trevor Morris on the weak side. But keep an eye on Kevin Marquez, Greg Jones and Brandon Russell and T.J. Taylor.
Talked to strength coach Kenny Parker, and he said many players made big strides in conditioning in the offseason. Parker, who came from Ohio State, says he has 10 categories players are measured in. And 19 players improved in nine of 10 categories, while 12 improved in 10 of 10. Perhaps the strongest guy pound-for-pound on the team in WR Janarion Grant.
The d-line is the strongest part of the defense. And, it?s not even close. The front is anchored by the senior trio of Darius Hamilton, Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Quanzell Lambert. And junior Sebastian Joseph is the other projected starter who is a load at tackle. Kemoko Turay? He?s is battling through injuries. RU had a Big Ten-low 14 sacks last year. That must change. And it would help if this front can get heat without benefit of a blitz.
The QB situation is still unknown. But, we know this: Chris Laviano and Zach Allen are listed as co-starters. Hayden Rettig recently was demoted to third team. Laviano has to be the fav, given his experience. And he is accustomed to battling for his job. He lost to Gary Nova in 2014 and beat Rettig last camp. How serious of a threat is Allen? He played in one game as a quarterback at TCU before transferring. Add it all up, and Allen tossed just two passes while in Fort Worth over three years and ultimately moved to wide receiver last season. Still, he is a nice athlete who may be a fit for this spread-option offense.
Former coach Dan McCarney has been on campus helping evaluate camp. Chris Ash worked on his Iowa State staff.
There is promise at wideout led by Andre Patton, a big target. And Janarion Grant is a nifty ball of muscles who just gets open. The new staff wants to feature him, and he looks good in space in a variety of screens.
The o-line looks promising. The leader is right guard Chris Muller, the strongest player on the team. Dorian Miller is at left guard with Derrick Nelson at center. That?s a nice interior. The key will be the tackle spots. Tariq Cole is a mammoth left tackle who takes over for Keith Lumpkin. He can?t falter. Zack Heeman unseated J.J. Denman at right tackle.
This is good news: The secondary is looking better after getting ripped often in recent years. How bad was it last season? The Scarlet Knights ranked 118th out of 127 teams nationally in passing yards allowed. More good news: Chris Ash is adept at rehabbing pass defenses. He helped improve Ohio State from 112th in the nation in pass defense in 2013 to 29th in 2014, when the Buckeyes won the national title. Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton are big corners who had a baptism by fire last year. They could be good. Anthony Cioffi is a veteran strong safety.
Speaking of the secondary, look for scheme change. The corners now will play more press. But, it won?t be straight man-to-man coverage. Instead, it will be Cover 4-or quarters coverage –with the corners and safeties each responsible for a quarter of the field.
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