Despite earlier reports that Blacknall narrowed his college choices to the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University, Rutgers University was always in the mix and it was the college Blacknall eventually chose as his home.
“He knows a lot of players on the team,” Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri said prior to the team’s first practice Thursday morning. “Rutgers was always in the mix . It was right there with those other teams. He’d been there a thousand times and he knew what it was all about.”
Mike Bimonte, currently a sophomore at Rutgers, is on the roster as a backup quarterback. Gurrieri said Bimonte’s experience has been nothing but positive. The Braves visit the campus for clinics, and the coaching staff is friendly with Scarlet Knights head coach Kyle Flood and his staff.
Despite the familiarity, Blacknall had never taken an official recruiting visit to Rutgers.
“It’s crazy, I had been to Clemson and all these other places, but I never even saw the home state university,” Blacknall said.
So he went up there for two visits, including this past weekend for the Scarlet Knights’ first scrimmage of the season. He spoke with junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman, and he made his decision.
“I felt the most comfortable here,” Blacknall said. “My family was a big part of it. It was either go a thousand miles away or go 20 miles away. They matched up with my goals and what I wanted to accomplish. I talked it over with my family and we decided home was the right place for me.”
Rutgers’ move to the Big 10 helped influence Blacknall’s decision.
“With them moving into the Big 10, the big stage is right here,” Blacknall said, adding that he was recruited by the major Big 10 schools, including Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska. “ … Rutgers has been growing, and who knows what’s going to happen now that they’re in the Big 10.”
Blacknall’s previously reported choices of Alabama and LSU are perennial national title contenders. Alabama has won back-to-back BCS titles, and three of the last four. LSU won titles in 2003 and 2007 and lost to Alabama in the 2011 title game.
They play in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), generally recognized as the top conference in the sport. To be in the middle of a recruiting war between those two rivals can be overwhelming for a high school student.
“Once his head stopped spinning from being at Alabama and LSU, he realized Rutgers was the right fit for him,” Gurrieri said. “He’s going to play in front of 100,000 fans when they play at Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. In the New York-Manhattan metropolitan area, there are a lot of Big 10 alums (who will come to the games when their team plays at Rutgers).”
At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Blacknall is the highest ranked recruit in Rutgers’ Class of 2014. He made 40 catches for 743 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012. On special teams, he averaged over 40 yards on kickoff and punt returns, and was responsible for a total of 16 touchdowns.
However, Gurrieri also stressed the importance of strong academics. Rutgers is a member of the American Association of Universities (AAU), a group of the leading research institutions in the country dedicated to strong academic research and education.
About 60 universities are member institutions of the group, founded in 1900 by a group of 14 Ph.D. granting universities.
Almost every member of the Big 10 is part of the AAU,
including the University of Maryland, which will join the conference on July 1,
2014, alongside Rutgers.
The University of Nebraska is the only member of the conference that doesn't have AAU status, having lost that status in 2011, just before joining the league.
“A strong academic and football experience,” Gurrieri said. “I don’t think you can beat it.”
Blacknall made his college choice in August so he could focus on his senior year of high school football. Manalapan has played in back-to-back sectional finals, and returns 14 starters, five on offense and nine on defense.
The team was undefeated before falling to South Brunswick in the Central Jersey Group V final last year.
The team has a lot of attention on it this season, but Gurrieri always wanted his player to do what was best for him.
“I told him to make the decision when the time was right,” Gurrieri said. “He told me he wanted to get it out of the way. It was important to him, so it was important to me. I would never put that kind of pressure on him.”
The Braves have never won a sectional title.
“I wanted to focus on this team,” Blacknall said. “I’m not a guy who wants the spotlight. We want to win a championship.”