For Michigan and Rutgers, New Jersey becomes center of recruiting rivalry
It all started with Jabrill Peppers.
On May 26, 2013, the New Jersey native made an appearance on ESPN, where he performed a freestyle rap, pulled out a winged helmet and officially committed to play football at Michigan.
Just like that, the No. 1 recruit in the state was headed to Ann Arbor. The exodus had begun.
New Jersey wasn’t always a hotbed for college football recruits. Freshman safety and Jersey native Brad Hawkins remembers when his home was known only as “the basketball state.”
But eventually — perhaps while scouting stars like Peppers — teams saw what they were missing. Michigan, along with a collection of the nation’s elite programs, began mining for talent and enticed recruits to play their college football outside of their home state.
Chris Ash aimed to halt that process when he accepted the head coaching job in Piscataway just under two years ago.
He helped coin the phrase “Fence the Garden” — a mantra meant to symbolize Rutgers’ focus on keeping the best high school football players in New Jersey to continue their college careers.
And with the phrase came an odd rivalry.
At the beginning of June in 2016, Jim Harbaugh organized one of his then-infamous satellite camps at Paramus Catholic — Peppers’ old stomping grounds. On the same day, Ash brought in Urban Meyer to host a camp of his own just over six miles away at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Rutgers students had their own response, too. The Order of the Bull’s Blood — a secret society at the university — claimed responsibility for acts of vandalism at Paramus Catholic that occurred in the days leading up to Michigan’s camp.
All past drama aside, though, Ash’s “Fence the Garden” mantra, to this point, appears to be all it was.
Roughly a month after the inception of the phrase, Rashan Gary — then the top-ranked recruit in the nation — committed to Michigan. Kareem Walker, the top-ranked running back in the state, joined him.
A year later, the trend continued. Drew Singleton, a Union City, N.J. native ranked as the fifth-best recruit in the state according to the ESPN 300, signed a letter of intent to play at Michigan.
They aren’t the only ones either. The list includes Gary, Walker, Singleton, Hawkins, Hunter Reynolds, Joe Beneducci, Michael Dwumfour, Jon Runyan, Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Ron Johnson. All on Michigan’s roster. All hail from New Jersey.
Some came before Peppers. Some came with him. But the majority came after him.
All it took was an appearance on national television.
“I think it definitely (opens the door), because growing up in Jersey, we looked up to guys like Jabrill when I was a kid,” Dwumfour said. “... When he made the move here, it definitely opened the eyes of guys like me in Jersey.”
The logic is simple.
“Jersey guys, we like to win,” Dwumfour said of Michigan’s increased presence in his home state. “So wherever fits us right and feels like home, that’s where we want to be.”
Unfortunately for Rutgers, it has failed to fit that criteria for a long time now.
Ray Rice was a sophomore the last time the Scarlet Knights had a 10-win season. That came in 2006, when Greg Schiano’s team punctuated an 11-2 season in the Big East with a victory over Kansas State in the Texas Bowl. Before that, you would need to go back to 1976 to find double digits in the win column.
The Scarlet Knights haven’t had a winning season in the Big Ten since their inaugural year when they finished 8-5 and beat North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. And in the past two seasons, Rutgers has finished a combined 6-18.
It’s for those reasons that Hawkins and Bushell-Beatty remember growing up with little exposure to Rutgers football.
As a kid in New Jersey, Hawkins recalls watching “whoever gets the TV time pretty much.” The Scarlet Knights rarely received that big of a stage.
Someday they might, but to Nunzio Campanile — the head coach at Bergen Catholic in Oradell, N.J. — it’s a process that will inevitably take time.
“I think that success is relative,” Campanile said. “I think that if they start getting to the point where they’re winning five, six, seven games, I think some of those higher-level players might be willing to take that leap.
“I think that kids would love to play football at Rutgers, and I think there’s a lot of real genuine interest by the kids in our state. … I don’t think you’ve got to go 12-0, I think you’ve got to show that you can be competitive, and I think they’ve shown that already this year.”
To some extent, Rutgers has. It owns two conference wins over Illinois and Purdue, and another over Morgan State.
But losses to Washington, Eastern Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State hurt. It won’t get any easier, either. The Scarlet Knights close out the year at Michigan, Penn State and Indiana, with two home games against Michigan State and Maryland.
And it’s against those powerhouses that Rutgers must compete against, not only on Saturdays, but also throughout the entire recruiting cycle.
“Yeah I guess you get that little type of pressure,” Gary said. “I remember because Rutgers was one of my first offers and for a minute I’m like, ‘Wow they’re the first team that showed me that they really cared about me.’
“So I was gonna go, but then as more offers start rolling in and rolling in, I started looking more and really trying to find the best school for me, so Rutgers just ended up slipping off the board. But there’s always that pressure to go home.”
The statistics of the last three years show progress.
According to 247Sports’ rankings of New Jersey recruits, Rutgers had six recruits committed to play in Piscataway in 2015, three of whom were in the top 30.
From there, the Scarlet Knights made strides. They secured nine recruits, with four in the top 30, in 2016 and 15 recruits — including the second- and third-best prospects — in 2017.
This incoming class, however, appears to be a regression.
Though it’s still early, Rutgers has just five players committed, but only one is among the state’s top 30 players.
Where Rutgers goes from here remains to be seen.
One man that may have an idea is special teams coordinator Chris Partridge, who joined Michigan’s staff in January of 2015 after serving as the head coach at Paramus Catholic in New Jersey for five years.
With that experience, Partridge witnessed firsthand what yielded success.
“Forming relationships, speaking to the kids, knowing all the kids no matter what — even if it’s a guy who’s not maybe a Big Ten player, or Big East in those days, or whatever it might be,” Partridge said. “The Division I guys, understanding who they are and what they can do and just having a really good grasp of the whole state. They did a good job there, and (they’re) making the inroads. I know that Greg Schiano did a good job with the high school coaches and with knowing even down to the Pop Warner coaches and stuff.
“You’ve got to cultivate the whole state there, and I’m sure the staff is doing that. Like I said, I wasn’t there at all with the new staff — they’re getting talented kids on the team, they have talented kids, so I’m sure they’re doing a good job with that now.”
Campanile sees that Ash is making those same inroads, whether it be by trying to develop personal relationships with the coaches, making trips to in-state high schools when NCAA regulations permit or creating events that get coaches involved with the Rutgers staff and program.
Of course, Campanile says he’d love the opportunity to see his players close to home. He would like to give their families the same opportunity.
Right now, though, that’s easier said than done.
“Let me preface this by saying I think Coach Ash is doing a great job trying to recruit New Jersey,” Campanile said. “But everyone that’s ever been the head coach at (Rutgers) has tried desperately to keep the best players in state. And it’s not an easy task. He’s worked really hard at it.”
Perhaps that’s the most frustrating part for the Scarlet Knights. No matter how hard their coach works, they need results in order to harvest the elite talent in New Jersey. And in order to get those results, they need more talent. So flows the cycle.
That’s not to say the cycle can’t be broken. But with other coaches like Harbaugh consistently besting Rutgers both in games and in recruiting, it won’t be easy.