After months of constant travel, communication and worries of late decommitments, the first full recruiting cycle of Chris Ash’s tenure as the Rutgers head football coach came to a conclusion on National Signing Day Wednesday.
The result came in the form of a class of 29 athletes, the final of which signing 15 minutes before Ash addressed the media. Of the 29, 16 arrive on the offensive side of the ball, 11 on defense and two on special teams. There are three consensus four-star players, 21 three-stars, two preferred walk-ons and two graduate transfers — one an athlete from a Southeastern Conference program, the other a two-time Division III All-American punter. Eighteen come from the Garden State and 23 are from the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Among them all is a common thread, the characteristics Ash and his staff looked for in prospective recruits — a passion for football and willingness to work combined with high levels of toughness and character.
“We can go all around the country and you can find talented players but when you can find high-character players that love the game of football, they are tough and they have got great character and you can trust them in all areas of your life, I think that's a special group of individuals that you bring into your program,” Ash said.
There were a number of bumps on the road to signing day, from a 2-10 regular season record in Ash’s first year, to a notice of allegations from the NCAA received a month after the season finale to the loss of three members of the coaching staff.
Each was addressed to the recruits by Ash, but some proved more costly than others.
While offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer and running backs coach Zak Kuhr moving onto Texas and Texas State respectively didn’t appear to hurt much on the recruiting trail, the loss of assistant defensive backs coach Aaron Henry two weeks before signing day saw the decommitment of two key prospects come shortly after.
Though it may not have been the whole reason, it certainly played a role in defensive backs Bryce Watts (Toms River, N.J.) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Newark, N.J.) signing letters of intent to Virginia Tech and Iowa respectively.
“Transition is never easy and especially when it's middle of recruiting,” Ash said. “The later you get into recruiting, closer you get to signing day, the tougher that is. ... Obviously we lost Coach Henry, our corners coach and he was deep in the middle of recruiting some prospects that unfortunately we didn't get but that's part of college football. It happens everywhere and we're not the only team that went through it.
As for the NCAA allegations and the lackluster regular season, Ash was open and honest with the prospects from the jump, getting out in front of the news to both the players and their families so they wouldn’t be surprised.
He was rewarded by the nucleus of his first full class — four-star recruits Micah Clark (Holmdel, N.J.), Bo Melton (Egg Harbor City, N.J.), linebacker Tyshon Fogg (Baltimore, Md.) and three-star quarterback Johnathan Lewis (Jersey City, N.J.) — staying intact throughout the year despite all verbally committing months before the season began.
They never wavered, never decommitted and many didn’t even take visits to other schools — not after the season-opening shellacking to Washington in Seattle, not after the embarrassing 78-0 shutout loss to Michigan at home in primetime and not after the 39-19 loss to Maryland in College Park that marked the end of a winless Big Ten season.
The group was not worried about where the program was then but rather where they could take it in the future when they were the ones donning the block R, whether it be in their freshman year in 2017 or long after they’ve left Piscataway.
“We actually have a group chat. It’s all the commits,” said Clark, the top-rated prospect in New Jersey according to Scout and one of the de-facto leaders of the class. “We just kept telling each other, like, stay focused on the main goal and that’s building a program here and really striving for that goal for Rutgers. ... It might not take a year, it might not take a month. It’s gonna take time and we’re willing to risk that time. ... We’re here to start that foundation right now.”
Whether they are able to do what so many previous classes aspired to do and put Rutgers back on the map after its fleeting passage in the national spotlight in the mid-2000's under Greg Schiano remains to be seen.
For right now, that's not what Ash is asking of them either.
"To, again, sit here and say that this class is going to make the difference in one year, that's hard to say and it's not fair to put that pressure on them," Ash said. "Will this be the class that in time will be able to hopefully change the narrative of Rutgers football? Absolutely. How fast that happens, it remains to be seen. ... The existing players on our team, they want to play and they don't want to lose playing time or spots to new freshmen coming in. The freshmen coming in want ... an opportunity to start and that creates competition. If we can create competition like that and everybody embrace it is, hopefully the football team is better and the results change, sooner than later."