Today, I'll be kicking off the 2008 season unit analyses by looking at the key to Rutgers's success during the past three seasons: the offensive line. During the past three seasons, Rutgers has been among the best in the nation up front. Strangely though, they have received very little press from the red state-centric college football universe. We all know that Ray Rice rushed for some gaudy rushing totals during the past few years, but consider for a moment how good the pass protection has been:
2007: 10 sacks allowed total, .77 per game (ranked #2 in FBS)
2006: 8 sacks allowed total, .62 per game (ranked #1 in I-A)
2005: 19 sacks allowed total, 1.58 per game (ranked #26 in I-A)
No unit has been more critical to the team's success during the past few seasons, and no unit is a bigger question mark entering 2008, following the graduations of Pedro Sosa, Jeremy Zuttah, and Mike Fladell. That's why they justly will be tackled first.
Pedro Sosa efforts to catch on in the NFL have been thwarted to this point by a serious knee injury. However, it's hard to understate how purely dominant he has been during the past three seasons. In 2005, during an otherwise-miserable meltdown vs. Louisville, Sosa was one of few positives by managing to blank All-American DE Elvis Dumervil. In 2006's Texas Bowl, Sosa manhandled Kansas State's Ian Campbell, who had wrecked havoc on the Big XII all season. Campbell received a lot of credit for playing a major role in the Wildcats' upset of the Texas Longhorns. Under the glare of ESPN cameras in 2007, Sosa struck again, blanking USF's George Selvie. A theme is emerging here, that Sosa was absolutely masterful in pass protection, and could routinely be counted on to shut down the opposition's top weakside pass rusher. Not having Sosa down the stretch in 2007 as he battled knee problems surely wrecked havoc on what had been the heart of the Scarlet Knights.
Sosa was far from the only OL standout in recent memory however. A quick primer: the unit as a whole made major strides in 2003, being one of several factors leading Rutgers up from misery into mere mediocrity. The Miami Hurricanes hired coach Mario Cristobal after the season, and the unit struggled mightily in 2004 under Rod Holder. One of the few bright spots was true freshman Jeremy Zuttah. Holder departed for Eastern Illinois after the season, and was replaced by an unknown hire from Delaware, Kyle Flood.
Flood, a high school teammate of former Rutgers All-American Marco Battaglia, has been nothing short of a panacea for the unit. In 2005, the team's pass protection dramatically improved, and a true freshman RB named Ray Rice started came on as the season progressed. I could have run through the gigantic holes they were opening. Flood has been a vital component of Rutgers's staff in other ways, being the primary recruiter for New York City and Long Island. With the departure of Darren Rizzi following the 2007 season to take over the HC job at the University of Rhode Island, Flood was promoted to an associate HC position. Along with John McNulty and Joe Susan, he is one of three core assistants that Rutgers can ill-afford to lose. He is in all likelihood a future head coach at the division I-A level, and Rutgers fans should be prepared for him to receive considerable interest from other programs as his star continues to rise.
In signing an unknown junior college lineman named Darnell Stapleton during 2005's signing day, the team made a sleeper move that ended up working out marvelously. In his two years on the banks, Stapleton surpassed all expectations, and was a dramatic upgrade over the overmatched Ray Pilch of 2004, a converted FB/TE. Stapleton anchored a line with the speed and finesse of Pedro Sosa and Jeremy Zuttah on the left side; and a gritty, physical mean streak of John Glass Jr. and Sameeh McDonald on the right.
Glass (who had a cup of coffee with the Philadelphia Eagles) and McDonald (likewise, with the Lions) graduated after 2005, and more changes were to come. Coach Flood finished transitioning the team to a zone blocking scheme during spring practices in 2006. Fans were skeptical. Jeremy Zuttah certainly had the feet to play tackle, but wasn't he undersized? Why would you put a 6-6 behemoth like Mike Fladell on the inside? Really, they're going to put a JUCO transfer DT in Cameron Stephenson, who's bounced around between both lines and never accomplished anything, as a starting right guard?
However, the line performed better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Rice built on his debut to garner consideration as one of the best RBs in the country. Stephenson went from an unknown, to a dominant run blocker, and his raw athleticism was intriguing enough that Pittsburgh drafted him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. Subsequently, he has been cut twice, and is currently with the Philadelphia Eagles. Stapleton was a far more consistent player in college, yet he went undrafted. However, he made the Steelers as a UDFA last year, and is currently in the mix for a bigger role in 2008.
Rutgers fans had reason to be cocky entering 2007. Three underclassmen returned from a top OL unit in 2006. Center Ryan Blaszczyk had been a standout during spring practice. The only real question mark was at right guard. Rutgers fans had been optimistic about David McClain, but he fell behind in the depth chart in spring practice and transferred. That left the job to Kevin Haslam entering the season.
To say that Haslam struggled is an understatement, although I don't believe it was entirely his fault. At a lanky 6-7, Haslam was a relative tooth pick that struggled to contain bulkier defensive tackles. As his game was mostly based on athleticism, Haslam would have been much better suited to playing a tackle position. Between Haslam, Sosa's injury, and the blocking struggles of FB Jack Corcoran, the running game could no longer physically dominate games and impose their will on other teams as they had in 2006. The drop in TOP of 38 seconds per game may not seem like much, but that definitely had a cumulative effect on the defense, as well as placing more pressure on the passing game.
The brightest spot in a mixed (by recent standards) 2007 was true freshman Anthony Davis. The coaching staff tried to downplay expectations for the elite recruit, highlighting his conditioning issues in fall practice, and publicly raising the possibility of a redshirt. However, as the season progressed, it became evident that he could not be held out of the lineup any longer. Ray Rice struggled to establish himself during the first month of the season, culminating in performances vs. Maryland and Cincinnati where he seemed to be stuck in the mud. Davis's entry into the starting lineup vs. Syracuse was a major turning point, and led to another Rice clinic vs. nationally ranked South Florida the following week.
We already know that Davis can be one hell of a right guard. Now the question remains; is he going to be another in a long line of top-flight offensive tackles that gets his feet wet at guard before kicking outside? Or is he going to be a collegiate version of Leonard Davis? There are two reasons I'm not particularly worried about the latter. A general rule of thumb in college is that your best lineman should play left tackle, even if he has significant flaws in his game, ala Jeff Otah of Pitt last year. Secondly, all reports out of spring practice were uniformly positive, as they were with Blaze entering 2007.
Projected 2008 depth chart
LT: Anthony Davis (SO 6-6, 325 lbs), Desmond Stapleton (RS-FR 6-5, 280 lbs)
LG: Kevin Haslam (RS-JR 6-7, 295 lbs), Moritz Lange (RS-SO 6-7, 310 lbs)
C: Ryan Blaszczyk (RS-JR 6-4, 295 lbs), Marlon Romulus (RS-SO, 6-3, 285 lbs)
RG: Caleb Ruch (RS-FR 6-4, 285 lbs), Howard Barbieri (RS-SO, 6-5, 295 lbs)
RT: Mike Gilmartin (RS-SR 6-5, 290 lbs), Richard Muldrow (RS-FR, 6-6 290 lbs)
That's the depth chart from the spring prospectus. Two thoughts immediately come to mind when looking it over. First: they're young. Really young. Blaze started all of last year, and Davis/Haslam split a season at a different position. Gilmartin was one of the top reserves last year, and Ruch is essentially being thrown into the fire. They liked him enough to publicly raise the possibility of him backing up Blaze as a true freshman, before eventually taking him out of the two-deep later in the year to preserve his redshirt. I worry that he will get pushed around akin to Haslam last season. Another year of S/C with Jay Butler would definitely ease any concerns.
Second: they're talented. They're unquestionably the most talented linemen that have ever been recruited to the banks, and they're only going to get better. This group has so many stars, they could easily unlock the final battle with Bowser in Super Mario 64.
Stapleton is the younger brother of the afore-mentioned Darnell Stapleton. I can still project him to any of the OL positions, and he was part of a deep OL class two years ago that also included Davis, Ruch, Richard Muldrow, Keith Newell, and grayshirt Matt Hardison. Muldrow, from scouting reports, appears to be a classic, mauling right tackle. Newell is a phenomenal athlete that absolutely has the ability to play left tackle. He and Hardison began their career as defensive linemen, but switched to offense either during or following the 2007 season. That has typically been a bad sign as far as recent memory goes. For every Stephenson, there's a Carl Howard, George Eshareturi, or Nate Nurse that ended up leaving the football team.
Lange is the reincarnation of Mike Fladell, a massive project that gets completely rebuild by Butler and his staff, and eventually settles in at a guard position. Romulus was, ala Devon Watkis in last year's class, a Kyle Flood specialty that hopefully can provide some steady depth at center. Barbieri is a former walk-on that may have earned a scholarship; he played some TE in bunch formations last season. The only other lineman that may possibly receive playing time is true freshman Art Forst. It is highly unlikely that Devon Watkis will see the field under any scenario.
With such lofty shoes to fill, the theme for this unit in 2008 will be progress. Ideally, they get the jitters out of their system early, and play at a similarly high level as they have during the past few seasons once all the kinks are worked out. They'll need to keep Mike Teel's jersey clean, but more importantly; they'll need to open holes for an even greener RB corps.