By Alexander Haynes
Exiting the balmy skies of San Marcos, the Texas State Bobcats will be thundering into New Brunswick, New Jersey, eager to reveal a new athleticism, a new quarterback, and new plans for the 2018 season against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The skies too will be thundering at 11 AM on September 1st as both squads take the field for the proverbial clash of football titans. As Texas State comes off a 2-10 season, and Rutgers an equally disappointing 4-8 season, the matchup has the potential to define momentum for seasons set to be turning points. With Rutgers boasting new offensive coordinator John McNulty and Texas State’s Head Coach Everett Withers observing, “We have had more competition this training camp than any other point since I have been here”, Saturday will be a grinding, classic, gridiron battle.
Texas State Bobcat Headlines
The Texas State Bobcats will be marching into Saturday behind true sophomore quarterback Willie Jones III, who was announced as the starter on Monday morning after rigorous competition throughout training camp. In his first career start, Jones will be looking to define an athletic and dynamic offense. Quarterbacks coach Brett Elliott, returning after a year with Mississippi State, has helped Jones solidify progressions, decision making, and the leadership qualities which carry an offense through thick and thin.
With top wide receivers Tyler Watts and Hutch White returning from last season to join the passing attack, there is a real threat for the passing attack to take an up tempo formation. One of the biggest questions from a strategy standpoint will be how coach Withers decides to handle his young quarterback early in the game.
Watching last year’s leading rusher Anthony D. Taylor return to the field for his junior season, alongside now sophomore running back Anthony Smith will be a dynamic experience. The health and congruency of the offensive line throughout training camp means a more cerebral group than ever before – a trait which could turn into Jones, Taylor, and Smith blowing through the depths of the trenches.
The game plan, however, does take all three elements of the team to come together. On defense and special teams, the coaches have created unique play sets for new and returning faces.
Special teams coordinator Jules Montinar will be guiding his squad through the new college football kick off rule. Although subtle and nuanced, rules now allow for a fair catch to be waived for inside the 25-yard line, resulting in a touchback to commence play at the 25-yard line. The wholistic change would be to encourage the fair catch and slowly ebb the return play, marked as the most dangerous in football, out of the college rank and file. However, coach Withers hinted in his Monday press conference that coach Montinar has been studying the placing of his return and coverage lines, seeking to find holes and teams sleeping on the new ruling.
Defensively, there is a plethora to watch in the secondary. JaShon Waddy will be making his debut at safety, while Kordell Rodgers, captain A.J. Krawczyk, and Anthony J. Taylor will be joining him in an athletic defense, now with the notch of ‘veteran’. As Rutgers displays new concepts, the secondary could be the emphasis for disruptive, game-changing plays in crucial moments.
Rutgers Scarlet Knight Headlines
As much as the Texas State headlines are about finishing three years of work by coach Withers, the Rutgers’ headlines are about starting a reset this year. Coach McNulty is not new to the offensive coordinator position. In fact, he coached the 2007 Scarlet Knights who became the first FBS team to have a 3,000-yard passer (Mike Teel), a 2,000-yard rusher (Ray Rice), and two 1,000-yard wide receivers (Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood). In that essence, McNulty represents the narrative of bountiful hope sprung a new; the chance for Rutgers to jump start what has been a defunct offense.
However, there will be the growing pain of youths. The excitement McNulty brings will be met with the controversial decision to start freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski. Head Coach Chris Ash gave his confidence in Sitkowski’s talents, stating, “…He can make a lot of throws. But above and beyond he’s a leader.” Although young, Texas State’s defense will be tested by the resilience of the freshman and the inevitable deception McNulty operates inside of his pro-style, motion offense. The first game could see different offensive formations disguise one single play, implicating Sitkowski conducting as a functional robot opposed to austere creativity.
Rutgers youth problems do not get easier at other positions. Their projected main running back will be sophomore Raheem Blackshear, leading to the hypothetical the Scarlet Knights will be using this first game to solidify team congruency. Their main veteran on offense will be senior tight end Jerome Washington, a force to be reckoned with in blocking and passing.
The national headline for Rutgers, however, takes a dark turn as on July 13, news broke 11 players were under investigation for credit card fraud. Linebacker Brendan DeVera, the alleged leader of the fraud-ring, and cornerback K.J. Gray were immediately dismissed. Edwin Lopez, Malik Vaccaro-Dixon, Syhiem Simmons, Christian Onyechi, Kwabena Marfo, and Naijee Jones are other plays since implicated in the on-going investigation.
The investigation is not only a demarcation on the defense, both DeVera and Gray were slotted to be key leaders, but a haunting note on coach Ash’s tenure to clean-up the Rutgers image. Regard, in 2015 former Head Coach Kyle Flood was fired after eight players were charged for a mix of robbery, assault, or drug chargers. This year’s investigation will be a frustrating note for a coach focused on installing a refreshing aura in New Brunswick. Only time will tell if the cloud of investigation follows the entire team onto the field.
Scheme, Players, and Game Flow to Watch For
The spark of youth also begets the spark of new schematic prose. With Chris Ash being a defensive-minded head coach, he has made John McNulty the de facto offensive mind. After a nine-year trip through the NFL, McNulty returns to Rutgers with concepts reminiscent of 12 personnel (one-running back, two tight-ends), using the run to establish the passing game.
One of McNulty’s latest positions was the Los Angeles Chargers tight end coach (2016-2017); hence, Washington will take a role equal to his massive 6’4” frame. As Sitkowski learns to process different defensive looks, the tight end will be a luxurious blanket in the short-passing game. With two tight-ends and a plethora of motion, the goal for Rutgers will be using a wide receiver or running back off-set, motioning them across the defense, thus moving a linebacker and creating spacing for Washington, Travis Vokolek, or Nakia Griffin-Stewart.
With regards to tempo, the Rutgers coaches have hinted at desire to establish the pass with the run. The opening script might very well be, “run, run, short-pass, run, play-action pass.” The more successful Rutgers is at pounding the ball, the more linebackers are drawn in, therefore opening quicker and simpler slant routes for Sitkowski to check toward.
In short, Texas State’s defensive goals are three-fold: penetrate the one and two gaps to bottle-neck inside-runs, discern the true-intention of the motion set, and use the secondary to contest bold routes early. The first goal can be met by defensive end Dean Taylor; he stood out on practice Tuesday as a de facto leader of tenacity on defense, looking the part of a lean and monstrous 6’5”, 280 pounds while assisting other player’s fall into correct alignment.
Discernment and contesting route concepts will be a derivation of how safeties Krawczyk and Waddy recognize motions and move the defense about. Optimally, if a motion intended to shift the defense out of position fails, correct alignment will result in blind passing to a blanketed player, equating interceptions.
Furthermore, the more Rutgers’ running fails, the more involved linebackers can be in blitzing or checking tight ends at the line of scrimmage to delay their entry into play-action routes. McNulty’s tight ends route concepts traditionally test the safeties wits with, making the battle between Washington and Krawczyk one of the most enticing in the afternoon.
On offense, Texas State could separate the Rutgers defense with a similar modus operandi of run to open the pass, albeit in the exhilarating style of a spread concept. The Rutgers defensive line returns only Kevin Wilkins as a starter, and if the offensive line is as exciting as promised, the athleticism of the offense could very well be observed in the form of counter runs from shotgun.
Splitting out wide receivers will inevitably move Rutgers’ senior safeties Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts away from the box, opening the quick screen game and bubble routes to running backs Taylor and Smith. Offensively, the quicker plays are run to misalign a young linebacker and defensive line corps, the more play variation and running gaps will open. There is no better way to operate the quick pass game than using running backs to squirrel around less athletic linebackers.
The theoretical goals of the offense will be foremost to operate with intellectual speed, utilize different running back sets, and thus introduce new concepts as the game progresses. In the end, the matchup may not be as much about the pure talent of each quarterback in their opening start, rather the chess matches coaches play and the subsequent cleanliness of the play execution.
Featured image via Texas State Athletics.