NCF On The Trail: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Maryland and Rutgers are entering their first season as members of the Big Ten Conference, and there are plenty of challenges ahead of both programs on the field. Joining the conference also means there will be new roadblocks on the recruiting trail.

Both programs have dealt with Big Ten schools invading their home states, but now that they are conference foes it becomes imperative they land their in-state recruiting targets.

Being able to fight off the competition means knowing who the competition is and the landscape for both programs. Here is a look at what Maryland and Rutgers are up against.

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Neither Maryland nor Rutgers has ever had a recruiting class ranked in the top 20 by ESPN.com. Both programs, however, believe they can boost their recruiting fortunes as Big Ten members.

Geographically, both universities have talent-rich areas surrounding them that produce top prospects year after year. The states in close proximity to Rutgers and Maryland were home to 25 ESPN 300 prospects in 2014 and have 21 in the 2015 class.

There has always been a selling point to local prospects to stay close to home, but now with a new conference, Maryland coach Randy Edsall believes it’s an even bigger draw.


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Where’s Olivia Pope when you need her? Washington D.C.’s top fixers would have a hard time repairing the damage that has been done to the Rutgers brand over the last 13 months.

It started with a messy transition in basketball where the school fired Mike Rice after videos surfaced showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players, and then failed to fully vet new coach Eddie Jordan.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/John RaouxCoach Kyle Flood and Rutgers had the No. 56-ranked recruiting class in 2014.
It continued recently when new athletic director Julie Hermann declared that it "would be great" if the state's largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, went ahead and died. The school then took another major PR dagger over the weekend when it rescinded a commencement speaker offer to Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers’ football player who was paralyzed during a game in 2010. (LeGrand will speak at the school).

Outside of a disappointing 6-7 season in 2013, the Rutgers football program has not been a part of any of the negatives that have touched the university over the last year. But many in the New Jersey high school community agree the university’s issues have impacted the football program’s success on the recruiting trail.

“I think the football program has been unfortunately painted with the same brush so to speak,” Erial (N.J.) Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson said. “All the football recruits see is all the negative stuff going on with the school. I think it definitely has hurt them with all the things that are going on. Coach [Kyle] Flood and those guys have had to face the brunt of something that was everybody else's mess. It’s made it awfully difficult for them on the recruiting trail.”

Hinson is right. The Class of 2015 has gotten off to a disastrous start in-state for the Scarlet Knights. After ESPN 300 quarterback Brandon Wimbush committed to Penn State on Tuesday, it means Rutgers likely won't land any of the top four players in New Jersey. The only top-10 player in the state to commit to Rutgers at this point is three-star quarterback Michael Dare, while Penn State has already landed four in the top 10.

The 2014 class wasn’t much better as Rutgers signed only one of the top 15 players in the state and future Big Ten rivals Michigan, Northwestern, Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State and Penn State raided New Jersey for talent. Rutgers’ 2014 class also made national headlines when it lost 12 decommitments during the final push to signing day.

"I know Rutgers is a really special place, because I graduated from Rutgers, my wife graduated from there, my brother-in-law graduated from there and my father-in-law was a three-sport letter winner there," Hinson said. "But all the stuff that's been floating around about Rutgers has made a lot of recruits sour on them. It has nothing to do with football, it's just recruits hearing folks asking all the time 'What's going on up at Rutgers.' For one reason or another, they’ve not been able to fix some of the PR issues that they’ve faced and it’s really hurt them with recruits."

Penn State was faced with similar challenges, albeit on a much grander scale after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal that rocked college football in 2011. When Bill O’Brien was hired he had an impossible job of putting together a recruiting class in the wake of NCAA sanctions.

But the players, the university and the community rallied behind the program, helping O’Brien land a serviceable 2011 class and even better 2012 and 2013 classes. It set the table for James Franklin, who was hired in January. Penn State finished with a top-25 class in 2014 and the 2015 class ranks as the nation’s fourth best and got stronger Tuesday with the additional of Wimbush and Sterling Jenkins, the top-ranked prospect in Pennsylvania.

Instead of trending downward, the Nittany Lions are now one of the hottest recruiting programs in the country, and many observers believe they’ve been able to rebound from scandal better than Rutgers because of that support from the community and fan base.

“When you get rocked like they got rocked, but you're able to still manage a commitment from the university, and more importantly from the fan base, the students and the community, it certainly can change how things are viewed by recruits,” Piscataway (N.J.) High coach Dan Higgins said.

“When you can fill the stadium each week it sends a big signal to everybody. You can't tear that place down, it doesn't matter what happens. The place is still special, and I felt it myself when I was there for the Wisconsin game. It was chilling to be there and understand that it's a lot bigger than just a scandal or a football team. That helped them survive with dignity and class, and there's no question that has impacted the athletes that have had Penn State on the mind the last few classes.”

Juwan Johnson, one of the Nittany Lions’ top commits in New Jersey and the No. 3 prospect in the state, agrees with Higgins. He said prospects all over New Jersey are aware of what’s happened at Rutgers because of the nonstop media coverage and he believes the way Penn State handled things has made it easier to buy into future success.

“I wasn’t bothered by the Penn State scandal because I knew they had rebounded from it really well from it and the school had more to offer me than Rutgers and other schools,” said Johnson, who picked the Nittany Lions over offers from Alabama, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Michigan State, among others. “I just don’t think Rutgers can compete with Penn State now with all that’s going on.”

Hinson, Higgins and a number of other high school coaches in New Jersey believe Rutgers’ transition to the Big Ten will eventually pay off on the recruiting trail. There are still other quality 2015 in-state recruits on the board like linebacker Manny Bowen, athlete Daiquan Kelly, safety Ronnie James, tight end Jake Pickard and others who list Rutgers among their favorites, plus all of the coaches were unanimous in support of Flood and his staff.

“He’s a very personable guy that can relate to coaches in New Jersey,” Higgins said. “He’s a former offensive line coach that worked his way up the ladder through hard work. Everybody here respects that, and I know there are a lot of people hoping he can fix things, push past all the other stuff that’s hurting the university and start keeping New Jersey kids at home.”
CLIFTON, Va. -- Five-star defensive tackle Tim Settle, No. 10 in the ESPN 300, will not be making an early commitment, that much has been known from the start. What is also known about Settle is that he intends to go through the entire process and take all five of his official visits.

What wasn’t known is that Settle has started to think about what schools will make the cut.

“I’m going to trim it down in August to 14,” said Settle, who earned an invitation to The Opening Saturday after a stellar performance at the Nike Football Training Camp at Centreville High School in Clifton, Va. “The reason I’m going to trim it down in August is two-a-days and getting ready for the season. I don’t want a lot of pressure on me. I just want to play and have fun my senior season.


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ASHBURN, Va. -- If there was an award given out for the most physically gifted quarterback at Friday’s Elite 11 regional camp at the Washington Redskins' practice facility, Brandon Wimbush would undoubtedly be a runaway winner.

The No. 107-ranked prospect in the ESPN 300 showed impressive arm power, a strong frame that can carry 225 pounds, and the feet and balance that have earned him offers from the likes of Penn State, Virginia Tech, Miami, Ohio State, LSU and a host of others. The news of the day Friday was the offer list might soon be growing, and one could be a game-changer.


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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Despite a shortage of top quarterbacks in the East in the 2015 class, the Elite 11 regional Friday in Washington, D.C., will allow top underclassmen to shine. Plus, the recruiting world will get to see whether or not a 2018 quarterback prospect who already has early attention truly has the goods.


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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Monday’s offerings: After a few weeks to recover from the holiday that was signing day, it’s always interesting to analyze the data to get a better understanding of what really happened. This past Friday, I took a look at the teams that saw the biggest gains from 2013 to 2014. But what were some of the teams that were on the other end of the spectrum?

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Now that the 2014 class is in the books it’s time to take a look at which teams need to make a big splash in recruiting for the 2015 class. Below are five teams we feel have to perform well in recruiting to move forward and re-establish their programs among the college football elite. There are always peaks and valleys in recruiting, but there’s also an expectation level that some programs no matter what will always perform to a high standard and that’s not always realistic.

For these programs, it won’t just be about how good the players are that they sign in 2015; it will also be about what type of person that player is to represent the program and establish a new chemistry. These programs are laying down a new foundation, and it will be this class that will be looked back upon as one that got the ball rolling. These programs need to make the Tennessee-type splash of 2014. Just ask Ole Miss about its 2013 class and what one recruiting cycle can do to reenergize a program. We’ve closed the door on the 2014 class now, here’s to opening the door for the 2015 class. Let’s get off to a fast start shall we?


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Biggest flips: Big Ten 

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The 2014 class has seen a very high number of commitment switches during this recruiting cycle. With so many flips throughout the process, here is a look at some of the biggest in the Big Ten.


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If James Franklin wanted to make a statement on the recruiting trail at Penn State, he has done just that. Franklin and his staff flipped athlete Koa Farmer (Sherman Oaks, Calif./Notre Dame High School) from Cal while on a visit on Saturday, then flipped another prospect to Penn State on Sunday.

ESPN 300 wide receiver Saeed Blacknall (Manapalan, N.J./Manalapan) switched his commitment from Rutgers to Penn State. He gives the Nittany Lions three ESPN 300 receivers in the 2014 class.



The No. 118-ranked prospect took a visit to Penn State on Jan. 17 and had been thinking about making the switch ever since.

At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Blacknall will complement De’Andre Thompkins and Chris Godwin, the two other ESPN 300 receiver commitments in this class. Both Godwin and Blacknall are bigger, physical receivers whereas Thompkins is a more athletic player who could even be a wildcat quarterback in certain plays.

Blacknall hails from New Jersey, which is an area Franklin and his staff are going to make a priority. This was a good commitment to start with for the new staff as Blacknall is now the second highest ranked commit in the class.

The ESPN 300 receiver gives the Nittany Lions 23 commitments for 2014 and some outstanding options at receiver going forward.
Three programs remain in the hunt for one of the nation's top senior risers, ESPN 300 wide receiver and returner Isaiah McKenzie (Plantation, Fla./American Heritage).

The nation's No. 286-ranked prospect took an official visit to Florida last weekend, and this weekend visited Oxford, Miss., to take in Ole Miss.


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Midyear signings: Rutgers

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According to Rutgers senior associate AD of communications Jason Baum, the following players have enrolled at Rutgers:

Marcus Applefield OT Weeki Wachee, Fla./Weeki Wachee
HT: 6-6 WT: 255
Positional Rank: #84 OT
Stars: 3

Brandon Russell OLB Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./University School
HT: 6-1 WT: 210
Positional Rank: No. 107 OLB
Stars: 3

Logan Lister TE-Y Katy, Texas/Katy
HT: 6-4 WT: 241
Positional Rank: No. 42 TE-Y
Stars: 3

Kamren Lott CB Jacksonville, Fla./First Coast
HT: 5-10 WT: 180
Positional Rank: No. 97 CB
Stars: 3

Eric Wiafe DE Egg Harbor Township, N.J./Milford Academy
HT: 6-5 WT: 260
Positional Rank: N/A Post-grad
Stars: 2
Al Golden said earlier this year that his native state of New Jersey will always be a priority on the recruiting trail at Miami. Sunday, he scored a recruiting win from the Garden State, coming at the expense of the local New Jersey school.

ESPN 300 athlete Kiy Hester (Wayne, N.J./DePaul Catholic) committed to Miami following an official visit to Coral Gables. His pledge to the Hurricanes comes on the heels of a decommitment from Rutgers in November.

Hester announced his commitment on Twitter.


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BC Eagles add ESPN 300 RB Hilliman 

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Boston College senior Andre Williams was a Heisman finalist Saturday, but before the ceremony began the Eagles replenished the running back position with a commitment from an ESPN 300 member.


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A no-visit policy should be an unspoken, unwritten, does-this-really-need-to-be-explained policy.

That is how decorated Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep coach Rich Hansen views it. It’s part of being a verbal commitment, he says. At least, that is how it should be.

Tyler Wiegers
Tom VanHaaren/ESPN.comFour-star quarterback Tyler Wiegers is the latest prospect to decommit from Rutgers.
“You commit to School X and your end of the bargain is you’re not gonna visit or court any other schools,” Hansen said, “... but college football created this mess and now they’re getting some of the punch back. Unless they stop offering freshmen, offering eighth graders, stop these idiotic things, then it is going to be around.”

Hansen is referring to verbally committed players taking visits, which has been a talking point after Rutgers lost a few commitments last week.

Three-star receiver David Njoku reportedly had his scholarship pulled following an October visit to Penn State; Njoku denied that to ESPN.com and said he decommitted. ESPN 300 receiver Adonis Jennings decommitted after visiting Pittsburgh, knowing the Scarlet Knights coaches were ready to pull his offer. And fellow ESPN 300 athlete Kiy Hester decommitted when coach Kyle Flood told him he would no longer be considered a commitment if he followed through with visit plans. Late Sunday, four-star quarterback Tyler Wiegers decommitted and is planning an Iowa visit as early as this coming weekend.

The fact is no-visit policies are still the exception rather than the rule, which is why Rutgers’ stance has created headlines. Michigan and Texas have no-visit policies, and Oregon, under former coach Chip Kelly, did not allow visits. When push came to shove, however, all three softened their stance and curtailed the policy for ESPN 300 prospects that visited elsewhere.

“Probably no school should have it, but some schools when they say [don’t take a visit] you probably don’t want to do it,” said a New Jersey high school coach who has previously sent players to Rutgers. “Nick Saban never says that, but he has the ability to say it. Only certain schools can puff out their chest and do it.”

One Big Ten assistant said he likes the idea of a no-visit policy. Another Big Ten assistant said it could end up driving away recruits who would likely stick with their commitment. Both argue legitimate points. If a player commits to a school, he should be loyal to that program. Others argue this is the only time the recruit holds the cards and feelings for 17- and 18-year old kids fluctuate wildly. The debate extends far outside the banks of the Raritan in Piscataway, N.J., too.

Two Rutgers commitments, who were granted anonymity to ensure truthful answers, said if a player is not sure about his commitment, he should be allowed to visit other schools. Both said ideally a committed prospect would not need to take visits but extenuating circumstances often arise.

“For someone who isn’t sure of their decision and the family still thinks it’s a good idea to explore, then it’s wrong for [the school to implement the policy], but if you have your mind made up, you shouldn’t take any more visits,” said one commit, speaking generally about no-visit policies and not Rutgers’.

Njoku, who parted ways with Rutgers in October, said he was unaware of the school’s no-visit policy before visiting Penn State for the Michigan game. The visit was simply to have “fun [with] my friends.”

However, a few minutes later Njoku said he indeed was looking around. “Rutgers was still recruiting other receivers so I thought it was fair to window shop, as well,” he said.

Hansen, in his 31st year at St. Peter’s, said he thought more schools would have no-visit policies. He believes the only time a recruit should take visits is if coaches leave or they weren’t upfront with the player.

Jennings, the ESPN 300 receiver, began wavering months ago. A source close to the situation said Jennings was told by the staff there was only one spot left at receiver, prompting an early commitment. Weeks later, receiver Saeed Blacknall committed and Rutgers continued recruiting athlete Noah Brown. NCAA rules forbid Rutgers from commenting publicly on unsigned recruits.

There is pressure during the recruiting process for prospects to commit early, and it's not always directly from coaches.

An NCAA rule clarification will undoubtedly thicken the plot. If a prospect plans to enroll early, a school can offer him a financial-aid agreement, which is non-binding for the committed player. The school is locked into it. In theory, a player could sign a financial-aid agreement, ensuring a spot in the class and continue visiting elsewhere without the threat of his scholarship being yanked.

“I don’t understand why college football would want to do that,” Hansen said. “It makes a toxic situation even more toxic.”

New Jersey’s top two juniors are under Hansen’s tutelage. Both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Brandon Wimbush are among the top 100 prospects in the 2015 ESPN Junior 300, and Hansen’s advice is to let the process play out as long as possible.

A piece of advice from Njoku, who was asked what he would do differently if given an opportunity to go back: “I probably shouldn’t have committed so early.”

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