Defending Home Turf Crucial for Chris Ash at Rutgers

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Present the elevator pitch for Chris Ash’s top priority as Rutgers head coach, and it probably goes something like this: prove Scarlet Knights football worthy of its place in the Big Ten.

A simple enough concept in theory, but Chris Ash has certain challenges inherent with the program itself that make his task tough. Rutgers is a newcomer to a division in the midst of a renaissance, with Michigan State enjoying its most success in decades; Ohio State standing as one of the sport’s top-tier powers, thank in part to Ash’s own contributions; and Michigan resurgent through the efforts of Jim Harbaugh.

Rutgers must play catch-up not only to the Big Ten East’s top three, but also traditional power Penn State. And Chris Ash must do so with an immediate disadvantage: Rutgers simply lacking the prominence of its divisional counterparts.

The Scarlet Knights came into the Big Ten not with the history and clout of Nebraska, nor the power-conference lineage of Maryland. Rutgers joined the Big Ten as something of a little brother, there because of television market more than historic success.

Combating a little brother perception isn’t easy when Michigan’s Harbaugh tries putting the program in the same box as Middle Tennessee, Coastal Carolina, Charleston Southern and other Group of Five and FCS programs situated in recruiting-rich areas.

Harbaugh’s traveling satellite camp tour makes a stop in Rutgers’ New Jersey backyard June 8. That in and of itself isn’t especially noteworthy, as he’ll plant maize-and-blue flags in other Big Ten territories this summer, including Ohio.

Ash himself endorsed satellite camps on the Big Ten coaches call last month.

“We also have a job to do to go out and recruit student-athletes to our program[s],” he said. “I’m all for opportunities for student-athletes to be exposed to college football coaches, be evaluated for recruiting and scholarship opportunities.”

But Harbaugh offering guest appearance invitations to the Rutgers coaching staff sheds light on the outside perception of the program.

It’s not an “act of war,” as NJ.com columnist Steve Politi writes — more a patronizing assessment of Rutgers’ place in the Big Ten East. It’s not a rival, no threat to Michigan.

RU is seen as more comparable to a Conference USA team Michigan might schedule a one-off date with in early September than a November foe, capable of eliminating it from the conference title race.

New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania are burgeoning battlegrounds in the recruiting arms race. The Garden State’s 36 247Sports prospects for the 2017 recruiting class are nowhere near the numbers coming out of traditional pipelines like California, Texas and Florida.

However, New Jersey’s importance in the recruiting landscape is beginning to approach that of Virginia, Mississippi, even Alabama.

New head coaches often tout the importance of winning on the local recruiting first and foremost. In Chris Ash’s case, it’s especially paramount.

Ash is already building the program’s identity around the booming, local prep scene. Rutgers has verbal commitments from eight of the state’s top 2017 recruits, including 4-star prospects Micah Clark and Bo Melton.

But the Garden State’s potential is catching on outside of Rutgers’ sphere of influence. Harbaugh’s setting up shop there in part because eight Wolverines all ready come from New Jersey, including star defensive back Jabrill Peppers.

As New Jersey high schools produce more players of Peppers’ ability, Michigan won’t be the only program with a more illustrious history and bigger brand name trying to infiltrate Chris Ash’s new territory.

Update: Didn’t take Rutgers long to respond, or Ohio State to get in the fray: