It’s time for the Rutgers University football program to take a step forward.

What constitutes a step forward?

The Scarlet Knights need to be competitive in 2019.

How many wins does that translate to? Who knows? But Rutgers fans will know a competitive team when they see one.

Rutgers coach Chris Ash seems to agree with that assessment.

“I know a lot of people want to put a number on it,” Ash said at Rutgers media day Wednesday. “To me, it’s about improving and having your football team go out and have a chance to win as many games as possible.”

Rutgers began training camp Thursday. The Scarlet Knights open the season at home against Massachusetts on Aug. 30.

This is Ash’s fourth season as head coach. Rutgers finished 1-11, including 0-9 in the Big 10, last season. The Scarlet Knights lost to Ohio State 52-3 and Michigan 42-7.

It was a season that caused many South Jersey high school coaches to wonder what exactly was going on at Rutgers.

Ash, who is signed through 2022, seems to know this is a pivotal year for the program.

“I’m here every day, and I see our team develop and improve every single day,” he said. “I see the players come in with great attitude, great focus and great commitment.”

Rutgers and Ash, however, are running out of excuses.

Ash recruited nearly all of the players on the current roster. The facilities have been upgraded, including a new locker room ahead of this season.

It’s probably not realistic to expect Rutgers to beat Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State on a consistent basis.

But it’s not asking too much to expect Rutgers to rarely, if ever, lose to teams such as Kansas. The Jayhawks had lost 39 of their previous 42 games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents before beating Rutgers 55-14 on Sept. 15.

Rutgers will feature several players from Atlantic and Cumberland counties this season.

Sophomore running back Isaih Pacheco, of Vineland High School, should be one of Rutgers’ top offensive players. Junior wide receiver Bo Melton, of Cedar Creek, is poised to have a breakout season. Redshirt freshman Nihym Anderson (Vineland) should contribute at linebacker and on special teams. Owen Bowles (Cedar Creek) is a redshirt sophomore offensive lineman, and Mohamed Toure (Pleasantville) is a freshman linebacker.

It would be great fun if Rutgers fielded a competitive team. Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano created a buzz in the state during his tenure with the Scarlet Knights from 2001-11.

Schiano motivated his Rutgers teams by urging them to “keep chopping wood.”

The weekend after Rutgers beat Louisville 28-25 in a 2006 nationally-televised Thursday game, several high school coaches around the state used the same phrase to inspire their teams.

If Ash doesn’t get the program headed in the right direction soon, Rutgers will almost certainly be forced in the next few years to hire a new coach with a new rebuilding plan.

How long then before Rutgers becomes competitive — 2030?

Rutgers athletic director Patrick Hobbs has said Rutgers needs to show significant improvement this season.

“When you go through a year like last year, you’re not sure how teams are going to respond,” Ash said. “But I can say this football team has responded in the right way.”

We will see this fall.

Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.

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Contact: 609-272-7209 MMcGarry@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressMcGarry

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