COACH ASH: Special day for our program, university and fan base and very excited to especially terror welcome 29 new members to our football program. The day has been a great day. It started with 6 a.m. workouts with our team and then it went for a couple hours with us receiving national letters of intents back from all of our signees.
And finally just got our last one, a young man that just had a press conference at 2:30, made it official he's coming our way, so finally over with all the waiting and excited to get these guys with us and on board.
Again today is about bringing 29 new members into our football team. Quick breakdown: 16 offensive players, 11 defense, two specialists. We've had five midyear guys on campus already that have been in winter workouts, going to class, and part of our football team and very excited about those five guys, get a chance to talk to them here later on today, and we've got two grad transfers that have also joined our program with Damon Mitchell and Ryan Anderson.
Unlike last year where we only had a couple of weeks to be able to throw the class together so to speak, we had a whole year to go through and recruit and develop relationships with these players, these families, high school coaches, around the state and around the area, and really happy with what we've been able to put together here.
When you go through and you build a class like this and you work so hard throughout the course of the year, there are a lot of people that play a part in helping this thing come together and I'd like to thank a lot of people, starting with our staff. Our coaching staff has worked relentlessly every single day to recruit and build relationships, and I can't say enough about the effort they put forth to make this thing come together today.
The other part of it is their wives and their families. We talk about a family atmosphere and we talk about the type of environment we want to create here in our football program and a lot of it has to do with our coaches' wives, our families, our kids. They obviously go through a lot of sacrifices for this job, and what we do with the time commitment that we have. But it's about them coming around and being around the recruits and their families and welcoming them and making our homes available to their families and their young men.
So again, I can't say enough about the coaches, families and their wives and their effort that they put forth to help us build this class. Again a lot of people behind the scenes put forth a lot of effort in recruiting.
Talk about the recruiting staff. We have an outstanding recruiting staff and they work very hard every single day doing the things that we need to do behind the scenes and helping our coaching staff focus on recruiting and coaching when we need to and develop relationships with the current players on our team.
Our strength staff, they meet with the recruits all the time. And our academic staffs, when you talk about the education our young men can get here, your academics have to play a huge role in your ability to sign players and our academic staff has done a great job. Our training staff, our nutrition staff, our staff all the way down the line, everybody that's been involved in the process, I can't thank enough.
Recruiting is about relationships, and I think we've done a great job in this state. We're going to sign 17 players from the State of New Jersey and 23 from the tri-state area. All of our recruiting efforts like I've said in the past since we took the job, they are going to start right here at home, and I think we've made a huge dent and made some huge inroads in our recruiting efforts here at home, and we'll continue to do that.
Obviously we didn't get everybody here in the state. We'll never be able to do that. There are too many outstanding football players here and too many options for them to choose from, but if we can continue to build on what we are able to do here this year, we are going to have a very competitive football team and a competitive roster here soon.
A little bit about the profile of the players. Again, a lot of people talk about talent and star rankings and all that. The things that we're looking for first and foremost, we want to sign players that love football. They need to have a passion for the game of football, and I think we've been able to do that.
We talk a lot about competitive spirit and the ability and desire to compete here in this program in all areas, and I think the 29 players that we have signed, all of them have competitive spirit, they love the game of football and they are going to compete to be the best that they can be. We want guys that are tough. Football is a tough game and we want guys that are tough and when you watch the film on these players, I think we've signed a tough class.
Lastly, the part that I'm really excited about is the character of the individuals that we've signed. Again, 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.
So I'm going to go ahead and just open it up for questions and let you guys fire away.
Q. With how important a quarterback is in recruiting and to a football team, what do you like about Johnathan Lewis? How important was he to get on board early and keep as a part of this class?
COACH ASH: Yeah, a quarterback is everything. I don't care what level of football you're a part of, whether it's the NFL, college, high school; if you don't have a quarterback, you really don't have a chance. And to be able to get a quarterback with the characteristics Johnathan Lewis has means everything to us. He's big, he's got a strong arm and he makes great decisions. He can run. He possesses leadership ability.
I'm so excited about him and his family and the commitment they made and the loyalty they showed. Their willingness to recruit others, it's just been unbelievable and I'm excited to have him part of our program. Now is he going to walk in the door and start? No, there's no guarantees or promises of that. But he's going to come in and have a chance to compete, just like the quarterbacks on our roster and he's going to hopefully I increase the level of play of everyone in that room.
Johnathan, can't say enough about him and I'm very excited about his skill sets and his leadership ability.
Q. The job that you did in New Jersey, I think you have 18 commitments. Was that an emphasis as a recruiting state?
COACH ASH: Absolutely, it will be every year. There's a tremendous amount of high school football players here. We are going to recruit as hard as we can on the players here in the state. When we say this state, we talk about the whole tri-state area: New York, New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania. It's really all the same area to us and when you look at those three areas right there, there's a ton of talented football players that want to come to Rutgers, want to be a part of what we are building here, and all of our efforts will start there.
Q. Losing two assistant coaches this month during the height of the recruiting season, how did that affect you guys and how were you able to overcome it?
COACH ASH: Yeah, transition is never easy and especially when it's middle of recruiting. The later you get into recruiting, closer you get to signing day, the tougher that is. But I think we had great relationships with some of the guys we're recruiting.
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.
Q. I know he was a late commit and was originally committed to a smaller school but can you talk about Elijah Barnwell?
COACH ASH: Elijah is a local kid here. And you mentioned he was committed to a smaller school: I really don't care. What I see in Elijah, he ran for I think 5,700 yards in his career, had 1,800 yards as a senior.
He's a guy we've talked about literally every week since we've been here watching his film as a staff, discussing how he would fit into our offense. I think one of the things that helped Elijah and Rutgers and the partnership, the relationship that came together today, was new offensive coordinator and new running backs coach. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and everybody sees things differently, and what we want to do offensively we need a back like Elijah.
I look at Tyreek Williams from last year's class. Tyreek was committed to Buffalo and guess what, he came in and was the starting linebacker for us and was one of most productive players we had on defense, and I'm hoping Elijah comes and can provide competition and depth in the running backs room and eventually provide some production.
Q. My point about asking about a smaller school, was did he blow up in your eyes?
COACH ASH: No, he's always been on our radar screen. Elijah is one of the best players in the State of New Jersey and we've had him on our radar screen since we've been here.
Honestly he's been on my radar screen since the 2015 season when I was at Ohio State. We evaluated him; so I've known about Elijah for a long time. It took awhile to get to the point where we offered him, you know, and that happens. It's part of the process.
And again I think with the switch in the offensive coordinator or running backs coach and the way they looked at Elijah and how he fit and what we wanted to do and what we needed, I'm extremely excited that he's here.
Q. One of the things I think last year's team was lacking was that speed element. Do you think you addressed that with this class and could some of these kids maybe give you that kind of lift on special teams speed as freshmen?
COACH ASH: We sure hope so. If you look at the class overall, there was a huge emphasis on the skill positions. You look at the wide receivers, DBs, running backs, who I think we have increased our overall team speed, I think we've increased the number of people that we can use on special teams early. A lot of these players I think are going to have a chance on special teams right away.
But yeah, the team speed and depth really for special teams play was really important for us and I think we've been able to address that.
Q. Unique situation bringing in a punter, transfer, D3, played wide receiver in basketball. Can you explain how you found him and maybe your expectations for Ryan this year?
COACH ASH: To be honest with you, some of our offensive staff guys knew of him and through mutual friendships with people that Ryan knew, the word got out that he was looking to transfer and be a grad transfer.
And we'll make no secrets about it: Our special teams where they needed to be. We needed to find a way to create competition at the punting position, the kicking position, and with who we have got coming in at both positions, I think we are able to do that.
Again, there's no guarantee just because he's a grad transfer he's going to come in and take the starting punting position. But we've created competition there where hopefully it makes who is on campus better with him coming in, and I'm excited to see what he does.
Q. Understanding this happened before you were here but notice of allegations you guys got in December, can you talk about how you addressed that with the recruits, getting in front of that, knowing that other teams were going to use that against you in recruiting?
COACH ASH: I think you're exactly right and make some good points there that we were aware that an investigation, the investigation was ongoing to things here in the program. It's not something that we were a part of. I really couldn't tell you what's true, what's not true. It's none of my business. I do know that an investigation took place and that we actually had conversations with recruits and their families well in advance to let them know.
There were no secrets. We talk about our recruiting philosophy is open, honest and transparent and we were open and honest about the things that were ongoing before they ever came out. When the notice of allegations came out, we knew that the other schools would discuss those in recruiting battles and they were brought up. It was brought up.
You know, can I sit here and tell you it made a difference or not in certain individuals decisions? I don't know. But there were conversations about that all the way through the recruiting process. But we tried to get out in front of it and it started way back in the spring and summer when we were recruiting players.
Q. The Wayne Hills group, I guess what do you like about the Wayne Hills program that made you go on so many kids from that school and what do you expect from those three guys?
COACH ASH: Coach Demikoff does a great job. They had a great season. Do we want to recruit players from winning programs? Absolutely. But you look at players that fit our program and you look at those three guys individually and forget where they are from.
You look at Brendan Devara, we are going to use him fullback / h-back and motion guy. We have not used a fullback in our offense in this last year, and that's one of the unique changes that we'll have in our offense is we'll use a fullback at times. You look at Brendan, he played quarterback, he played safety, he was a punter, he was all over the field. He's just a pure football player. We have been recruiting him for quite a while. We never really could pinpoint what his best position was going to be.
Again with Coach Kill coming in in the new offensive approach here, we found a position that he would be able to fit and that was at fullback. I think he's big, 6-2, 240 pounds. You watch his film, he can run. He's a guy that can block. He's a guy that can catch. He can do multiple things and I'm really excited about him.
You look at the Hayek brothers, we had Tyler in camp and he did a phenomenal job in camp. Hunter had a tremendous senior season. You go back and look at his track season and he's very fast, one of the fastest kids in the State of New Jersey. You look rat his senior film and he had a great senior year and again we're looking for guys that can make plays with the ball in their hands and really looking at that slot position, a position that Janarion Grant has held. We need guys that can fill that position and Hunter is able to do that.
We don't look at, hey, they are just from Wayne Hills. We look at each individual player and do they fit what we want to do and all of them do.
Q. As a follow-up to the question about the tri-state area, it's seven players from south Jersey and the Philadelphia area. What is done specifically in that reason to try to build inroads there?
COACH ASH: It's not about any specific region. It's just our overall approach and philosophy to what we do. Again, I don't care really where the players come from, if it's north jersey, south jersey, eastern PA, western PA, upstate, I don't really care.
We are going to go in and we are going to be open, honest, transparent and try to build relationships with every high school coach and every recruit in their family that we are going to try to recruit into our program. We went into south Jersey to recruit, just like we did north Jersey, eastern PA. It doesn't really matter. Recruiting is recruiting. I don't care where it's at. We have a style, we have an approach and we have a philosophy that we're going to attack with every recruit.
Q. You had a preexisting relationship with Damon Mitchell; can you talk about that and what role you expect him to play on the team this year?
COACH ASH: I was part of recruiting Damon Mitchell at Wisconsin, and got Damon to commit to us when I was at Arkansas. And watched his career at Arkansas, he was a Jack of all trades. He was a quarterback when he first went to Arkansas, he has played DB, wide receiver and running back and he's going to come here and play wide receiver.
We may use him at quarterback in certain packages but he's going to be a wide receiver for us. Why was Damon an attractive individual and such an important get for us? It's more about his leadership ability. Obviously we lost a lot of players at the wide receiver position. We feel with Damon, his brother Ahmir, Janarion, coming back, Bo Melton and the receivers coming in, we will have a completely different looking wide receiver group. But they needed leadership and Damon brings leadership to that room.
You talk about player-run practices or going out throwing and catching and running routes, he leads that group to get those things done. In the weight room, he's a leader in the weight room. He just got on campus and he is already for that group a player elected leader of the wide receiver group, so that's the type of impact that we wanted by getting Damon Mitchell into our program.
He's been part of the turnaround program. Arkansas was 3-9 his first year there. Next year there, they went to a Bowl game; they were in a Bowl game every year he was there. He knows what it takes. He's seen it, he's done it and he's constantly talking to our players about what it's going to take to get that done.
Q. Can you talk about two Cedar Creek kids --
COACH ASH: Yeah, you know, the cool thing about the whole class is they really try to recruit each other and recruit other guys. Bo was one of our earliest commits and he was really out in front and a leader of the class and trying to -- in terms of trying to build a connection and relationship and get out and recruit people. They are going to be with Bo and Owen, we are going to have four Cedar Creek players in the program.
Coach Watson does a tremendous job down there with that program. They are well-coached, developed, got great character and excited to have both of those guys in our program. But Bo and Owen both did a great job trying to help us develop this class.
Q. You mentioned getting Bo early and I think you got him around the same time you got Micah and Jamaal. How big was that in terms of I guess it seems like forever ago now, but that last April where you seemed to really build some momentum?
COACH ASH: Yeah, it was huge. I think we had 17 commits, 16 or 17 commits before August. We really got on a roll and started in summer camps to be honest with you. We had 11 of the guys we've signed today in summer camp so we got a chance to evaluate them ourselves, and that's my opinion, the best evaluation.
But when you can get a player of Bo Melton's status, so to speak, committed early, and you know that he's a legacy here from Rutgers, that means a lot and to watch him go out and to attack other players and to help get them here was important.
But we really, I thought we got caught on fire back in April May and June all the way through the summer camps and a lot of it had to do with Bo.
Micah, Bo, those were two of the top ranked players here in the State of New Jersey and again, any time those type of players jump in, it's kind of a snowball effect and it did. It created some momentum, it created energy and excitement. I can't thank guys like that enough.
Obviously when you go 2-10, recruiting's tough. But the fact that guys like Bo and Micah and Jamaal, all the guys that committed early, they were committed, they were loyal. People came after them, tried to get them to take other trips. Most of those guys did not take another trip. They were really happy and excited about being here at Rutgers and that's really what's important to us is that we want players that want to be here.
They know what we are trying to build. They know the environment we have and to do that in here with a great education and do that in front of familially and friends and never wavering, is outstanding.
I hear all the time, people say, you have to take your five visits -- no, you don't. If you find what you want and you're really happy about it, you don't have to take five visits. Very few people take five visits anymore. The fact that they found what they wanted for them personally and for their family, and stayed committed and loyal, means a lot to us.
Q. You've had a chance to be around Micah Clark for a little bit, can you talk about him and in your experience, how difficult is it for a young kid like that to come in and make an impact immediately on the offensive line in the Big Ten?
COACH ASH: It's hard. It's hard for a freshman to come in at any position but the offensive line is even tougher. The fact that it was a midyear enrollee gives him a better chance to make that happen because he's going to be here through all of our off-season workouts, spring practice, summer workouts, and he's going to have a head start to get that done.
Really when you talk about midyear enrollees, if they are players that you think have an opportunity potentially to help you early on, it's an advantage to get them here early and get a jump start and Micah has been able to do that. I watch him in work outs, he's very athletic and putting weight on already. We haven't had a chance to do any football stuff with him yet, because we are on the road recruiting, but I'm excited to see what he has to offer once we get a chance to do that.
Q. With that in mind, Johnathan Lewis, how realistic is it for him to be able to learn the playbook and be ready mentally by the time training camp, to compete for the starting job?
COACH ASH: Just like the offensive line. Quarterback and offensive line are two of the toughest positions for freshmen to have a chance to play let alone start.
A lot will depend on the amount of time and effort he puts in. We talk about the recruiting process goes up to signing day and after signing day it's preparation time. We don't ever promise, I shouldn't say promise; we don't ever talk about redshirting to our recruits. We want them to come in with the mind-set that they are going to come take somebody's job and they are going to compete for playing time and we want them to prepare that way once they sign that national letter of intent.
So Johnathan's ability to come in and have a chance to compete or possibly start is going to depend on what he does between now and then to learn the offense, learn football, work on his skills, develop his skills, so when he gets on campus, he's ready to go.
Q. It seems Blackshear came on late. What was the process there with him?
COACH ASH: Didn't necessarily come on late. We watched his junior film. He had a really good junior year. We watched his senior film when it was over. He had a great senior year. In this day and age of recruiting, I believe not a lot of people go back and watch senior film.
You go back and watch Raheem Blackshear's senior film, you're going to see a dynamic player and one honestly I'm not sure why his offer list wasn't very long, because he was a dynamic player his senior year. He played running back, wide receiver, kick returner, punt returner.
The only knock I guess you would have on him is if maybe people said he was too small. You look at the kid; he's not. I'm extremely excited to have him in our program. I think he's a steel and I think he's going to be a dynamic player for us.
Q. There were times last year where you expressed your disappointment with the way the offensive line was playing. Do you feel with Mike and Sam, some of the other guys, do you feel like you've bolstered?
COACH ASH: Well, it's going to start with the guys that are running in the program because to sit here and say that we are going to be able to use like Micah and Sam and any of those guys to play for us next year, that's going to be hard to do; and change the results to, say we are going to put true freshmen out there and start on the offensive line and change the results, it's going to be hard, very hard to do.
Why were we not as good as we wanted to be on the offensive line? We started two red-shirt be tackles for the majority of the year. One had moved over to the offensive line after training camp. The other was his first year playing in Tariq Cole. If we get better at those two positions, which we will, hopefully that will help us change the play of our offensive line and the results on the offense overall.
I know there's a lot of conversation about the lack of production at the quarterback position, a lot of it starts up front. We have to be able to protect and we have got to be able to run the ball and it starts with those tackles on the outside.
Tariq Cole and Kamaal Seymour are going to be returning tackles. I think they have got tremendous potential. They are great kids. They are high-character rids. They work hard. They are very athletic. They were red-shirt freshmen last year, first time playing.
And I look at the two corners, Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin and the improvement they made from their first year playing to this last year, I'm hoping that those two tackles can make that type of improvement, too, and it will make the offense better.
Q. He's not on this list, but we haven't talked to you since Janarion decided to come back. What lift did that give you guys, if you look at him as a grad transfer kind of thing and are the young kids excited to play with him?
COACH ASH: Absolutely. I think when he made the announcement to come back, players that were committed to us were extremely excited, especially the wide receivers because they want to be able to learn from him and emulate him because he's a dynamic player.
I think it gave the players in the program, myself included, a lift, because he is a difference maker. When you talk about whether it's football, basketball, whatever it may be, you want to have those players that when the game is on the line or a play needs to be made, you can say: Get the ball to this guy.
And Janarion is one of those guys. He did it on special teams when he was healthy and he did it on offense when he was healthy and we are hoping we can get him bigger and stronger and stay healthy and he can do that for us this next year.
It just lifts the play of everybody else around him, and I can't say enough about Janarion and making the decision to come back. It means that, one, he believes in what we are doing and he believes that we can continue to develop him and help him reach his dreams and goals of being an NFL player.
Q. Even though the signing period has come and gone, not knowing what may come of the NCAA investigation, how does it hamstring you going forward?
COACH ASH: I don't worry about it. We've got a job to do and that's to build a program, build a team, to recruit players, to develop players and coach players. Whatever the NCAA does, they do. We have nothing to do with it. I'm focused on the future. I'm focused on our team.
I can't wait to get through this, this day, and get a chance to coach our players and recruit the next class. That's all I'm worried about. Whatever happens, I'll let everyone else worry about it. We're worried about our players and recruiting to build for the future.
Q. Is it hard not to worry about it?
COACH ASH: No, not at all. I can't control it. It's out of my control. I'm going to worry about the things I can control.
Q. Who was the 29th player who signed at 2:30? And the second part of the question is now that you have this class together, can you be more competitive next year?
COACH ASH: Well, Raheem Blackshear was the one that just made the announcement at 2:30. We felt good that he was coming. We knew he was coming. But he had a press conference late after school. You know, to build a competitive football team, it requires a lot, a lot of work.
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. 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.
But I do like this class in terms of their character, their competitive spirit, their ability to be developed, they are big, they are strong, they are faster than some of the other guys and I'm excited -- with the guys returning and this group coming in, what we have done on our football team that we have needed to do was create competition.
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 a chance to take time. They want to try to have 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.