When Chris Ash took over the full-time reins of Rutgers football with less than a month before National Signing Day, Sparta (N.J.) Pope John XXIII Regional head coach Brian Carlson was one of the first local minds he contacted.
After meetings with Ash, defensive line coach Shane Burnham and offensive line coach AJ Blazek in January, the staff made a strong first impression about the direction and brand of Rutgers.
With two former players headed to Rutgers this summer in lineman Sam Howson and Boston College graduate transfer Malachi Moore, Carlson is a part of a growing contingent of New Jersey coaches behind the recruiting efforts of Ash.
“It’s one thing for me to pump up Rutgers [but] it’s another thing to have two players there pumping up Rutgers,” Carlson said. “It’s just a different dynamic.”
Carlson noted that Ash’s early openness crafted familiarity that grew with time, and influenced his decision to send a jaw-dropping number of his players to Wednesday’s Tri-State Showcase at Fairleigh Dickinson in Madison, N.J.
“I got a bus going down to FDU for coach Ash,” Carlson said. “We’re going to have 50 kids going. We are all behind that program, believe me. People called me about the other (Next Level Football) camp (featuring Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh) and we were like, ‘Sorry, we’re going to this (Tri-State Showcase) camp (featuring Ash, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Temple coach Matt Rhule).’ There’s not a kid from our program going to the other camp.”
A big part of that stems from the new staffs drive in recruiting what Carlson called “developmental players,” referring to the under-recruited two- and three-star prospects in the state.
Taking those kids in, Carlson said, paves the way for recruiting the four- and five-star prospects from those same schools — some of which are the parochial powerhouses.
As important as relationships at top powers were, an expanded footprint is equally important to the latest recruiting successes.
Rutgers’ latest commit came from Camden, N.J. when Woodrow Wilson’s Edwin Lopez, Scout’s top cornerback in the state, brought the tally of South Jersey commits to six — more than half the amount of 2017 pledges.
Toms River (N.J) North head coach Dave Oizerowitz, who coaches Rutgers commit Bryce Watts, discussed the shift in the recruiting landscape by Rutgers since Ash took over.
“For me, they’re the first staff that I can remember that, going back to probably coach (Doug) Graber that has gone out and really has reached out to the central and south of Piscataway, down to the South Jersey and the Shore area,” Oizerowitz said. “… You see them going down and getting a (Bo) Melton and going down and getting the running back from Salem (Jonathan Taylor). They’re flipping over every stone, every rock to find the players that and the best players that fit their system. They know exactly what they’re looking for.”
Rather than going all-in on blue-chippers from parochial powers, Oizerowitz said the new staff’s balanced approach fully encompasses the state for its unique talents.
“It’s not just the big parochial schools that are up in North Jersey,” he said. “They’ve got great players, they’re gonna recruit those kids. But … they’re not just trying to make a living off those four schools in North Jersey. I think, in my opinion, that’s been the biggest mistake in the past where you’ve seen them just Rutgers’ mind just North Jersey, Piscataway … and they’d really lose out on players that go to Iowa and West Virginia and other schools down in South Jersey.
“A lot of great players traditionally that have played down in South Jersey haven’t even been recruited by Rutgers University, you know. So, I’m just impressed with their overall philosophy, in terms of the way they go about their recruiting game and the way they present their plan, and they know exactly what they want.”
Even past “fencing the garden,” the efforts of reaching out to the growing recruiting scene in nearby New York City has been evident as well. Rutgers currently has Staten Island athlete Tim Barrow verbally committed in the class of 2017, with 2016 signee Ahmed Bah preparing for enrollment.
Former Rutgers wide out K.J. Stroud, who coaches receivers at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Grand Street Campus, the collective efforts of Ash and the new staff highlight the success on the recruiting trail so far. More importantly, Stroud said it points to what is yet to come.
“I’ve been up there already just talking to the staff, support system, academic support and everyone that I’ve seen there when I was there, they all said this was what Rutgers needed, as far as making the change in approaching the Big Ten, that things needed to change to be a competitive program in the Big Ten,” said Stroud, who will attend Ash’s Tri-State Showcase on Wednesday. “And I can tell you this much — going down there and seeing it, you can see there’s nothing but great things to come from that program in the years coach Ash will be there. So, I’m excited. I can’t wait to come back down to the Banks and catch a game this year and just see the change, man. It’s going to be awesome, and I truly believe in coach Ash and his staff’s vision.”