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2009 Season Preview: Offensive Line

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Projected depth chart:

LT: Anthony Davis (JR 6'6, 315 lbs), Devon Watkis (RS-FR 6'7, 310 lbs)
LG: Howard Barbieri (RS-JR 6'5, 300 lbs) OR Caleb Ruch (RS-SO 6'4, 290 lbs)
C: Ryan Blaszczyk (RS-SR 6'4, 295 lbs), Matt Hardison (RS-SO 6'4, 285 lbs)
RG: Art Forst (SO 6'8, 310 lbs), Desmond Wynn (RS-SO 6'6, 290 lbs)
RT: Kevin Haslam (RS-SR 6'7, 295 lbs), Desmond Stapleton (RS-SO 6'5, 285 lbs)

Even the best have to rebuild at some point. After three years of absolutely stellar OL play (barring a few rough patches in 2007), regression was inevitable at this point one year ago. Every member of the memorable 2006 line at least signed a contract with a NFL team. Two started in the pros last year. That unit demolished opposing lines, creating running lanes so massive that a spectator from the stands could have conceivably waltzed through them for 4 yards per carry. They consistently opened holes, and ensured that Quarterback Mike Teel had an eternity to throw, being sacked less than once per game.

When I think back to 2006, my thoughts don't necessarily turn to Ray Rice and Brian Leonard in an instant. I think to those guys, and how they pulverized the opposition into dust. Coach Schiano wants a physical team (on both sides of the ball), and so do I. I want to see Rutgers get back to that lunch pail style, with a steady mix of big passing plays to keep opponents honest.

Jeremy Zuttah is on his way to being a top starter in the NFL. Pedro Sosa (the lockdown left tackle who humiliated the paper tiger George Selvie in front of a national audience in 2006) and Mike Fladell have seen their pro dreams derailed to this point by injury, but still could make it down the road. Darnell Stapleton is in the NFL, and Cameron Stephenson is in camp with the Jaguars. None of this happened by accident. The coaching staff recruited some excellent players over the years, with Sosa and Zuttah being especially big gets. But now, the Rutgers brand is becoming synonymous with quality line play. When you think of "OL U", you think Michigan under Lloyd Carr. You think of Iowa, where Kirk Ferentz is probably the best line coach on any level of football. You think of Rick Trickett (formerly of WVU, and now FSU), Glen Mason at Minnesota, and BC whether under Tom O'Brien, or the vastly differing style of Jeff Jagodzinski. Now RU is starting to get up there.

It's not by accident. OL Coach Kyle Flood took two junior college transfers in Stapleton and Stephenson and turned them into stars in his zone-blocking scheme, requiring a steady mix of smarts and athleticism, over the likes of power and brawn. There are no 350-lb -plodding behemoths in this group. Instead of being matched up with a particular opponent (as linemen are in "man" protection), our guys are assigned a specific area, which can help with double teaming and the like.

Flood is one of the truly elite assistants in the entire country; the only thing holding Rutgers fans back from singing his praises even more being the fear that someone will hear and lure away our secret weapon. However, even the best coaches can't lose three seniors without missing a beat (at least for a little while). The only starter returning to his same position on the line was center Ryan "Blaze" Blaszczyk. Kevin Haslam had surrendered his right guard spot to Anthony Davis midway through 2007. Davis excelled, and took over as the program's new left tackle in the spring of 2007.

Blaze was returning, Davis had the blue chip pedigree and had impressed during camp, and Haslam at least had some experience. More of a question mark would be breaking in two inexperienced linemen, while preparing the team's reserve of talented underclassmen to take the reins in the future. Caleb Ruch narrowly defeated key reserve Howard Barbieri for one starting job at guard, and the coaching staff settled on senior Mike Gilmartin over the more-inexperienced alternatives. However, the initial combination was not to last.

As the Scarlet Knights sputtered to a 1-5 start, the line lacked chemistry and clearly looked out of sync. While not up to the unit's previous standards, they at least were adequate in pass protection (finishing the year tied for 30th in sacks allowed). The real issues were in the running game, where a struggling line only served to make a green RB corps look even worse. There were no holes for the likes of Kordell Young and Jourdan Brooks, as defenders frequently tackled them behind the line of scrimmage.

I like to see a good offensive line dominate at the line of scrimmage, physically pushing their foes off the ball to a point where a back can almost secure positive yardage by default. Early in the year, it seemed like RU was getting nothing from the right side of its line at all, and had resorted to running behind Davis on every down. Opponents quickly picked up on that strategy, which only exacerbated things. The lineup was frequently shuffled, moving players in and out of the lineup on a weekly basis, and even changing their positions. Haslam soon moved to right tackle. The guards were a revolving door, before Schiano and Flood eventually settled on the freshmen tandem of Caleb Ruch and Art Forst.

Eventually, things clicked. I can't say whether or not it was one specific personnel grouping. Because during the Pittsburgh game, it seemed as if the black cloud had been lifted off the heads of the entire team. Everyone suddenly that extra spring in their step back, and was far hungrier. All five starters that gelled in the second half last fall will return, although there is once again an open competition between Ruch and upperclassman Howard Barbieri.

What more can I say about Anthony Davis at this point, considering that I have already written posts analyzing his play from last fall, and whether or not he will enter next year's NFL Draft. Quickly recapping: Davis is already an excellent pass blocker, and his rare athleticism for the position is why there's so much speculation about him leaping to the pros. He only made one mistake all year in that regard by my count (failing to pick up the afore-mentioned Selvie on stunt, in an otherwise dominating performance). Davis is still very raw as a run blocker, but he dominated as a guard in 2007, and looked great in spring and fall camp, so he should take his game to the next level there.

Evaluating his pro prospects is trickier. The rules have changed. It used to be that the NFL would absolutely want quarterbacks and offensive linemen to exhaust all of their college eligibility, but now that's falling by the wayside a bit. If Davis doesn't develop into an elite run blocker, he's still in a class with players like D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Eugene Monroe (who both stayed for their senior years). It's the old Planet Theory in action. Quality linemen are so scarce that NFL teams are willing to the roll the dice on complete projects. I can't imagine that they won't go nuts over a true monster like Davis.

If A.D. does turn into a complete player, there might not be anything left for him to prove on the college level. He needs to stay focused, and obviously keep his weight in check. Ten pounds seems like splitting hairs, but that's what Coach Flood demands. What Davis picked up on the banks in terms of conditioning, scheme, and technique will serve him well in the pros whenever he does eventually move on.

There's been an interesting wrinkle in the past few days with Coach Schiano's uncertainty about whether to start Howard Barbieri or Caleb Ruch at left guard this season, after Ruch entered fall camp as a starter. Ruch has a lot of potential, but did make his share of rookie mistakes in '08.

"When I look at myself on tape last year and compare it to this year, you can see I'm so much smoother in everything I do. I'm confident in myself now," he said. "I've been able to slow things down in my head now and I'm not worrying about a lot of outside things. Most of the time now I have the right technique for the assignment -- and I'm not worrying about how I'll look later on."

Once Blaze graduates, Ruch is probably the odds on favorite to slide over to center next fall.

Speaking of Blaszczyk, the three-year starter and team captain has a chance to be one of the more-accomplished linemen in school history. There's a bit of Shaun O'Hara in Blaze, in that he doesn't have a lot of bulk and athleticism, which can lead to struggles against bigger linemen. Blaze though, he'll make up for it in smarts and savvy. That's just like the way O'Hara did it, in working his way from a walk-on at the worst program in the country, to a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion. He's a preseason Remington Award candidate.

Anthony Davis gets all the attention, and for good reason, but right guard Art Forst was no slouch when it came to prep hype. He's following the Davis/Zuttah plan of seeing time at guard as a true freshman, in preparation for an eventual move to tackle. Make no mistake, it's in the works down the line. Forst showed a lot of potential inside last season, but like Ruch, made his share of rookie mistakes.

"I feel more comfortable than I did the first time I took a snap at guard -- what was it? -- two months ago, that's for sure," said Forst. "But I still feel like I have a long way to go."

Art's status for next year ultimately depends on what Davis decides to do. If A.D. returns, Forst will slide over to right tackle. Otherwise, he'll take over as the line's blindside protector at some point. Typically, college teams will always put their most talented lineman at left tackle. Forst has the size, and has the arm length. He'll go to LT, and not RT, if he has the quick feet required for Flood's zone-blocking. In the mean time, Forst could very well have a big year at guard.

Returning at right tackle will be senior Kevin Haslam. He's the team's primary backup at left tackle, and would likely play that position if he wasn't blocked by an elite talent. Certainly, Haslam's skill set is better suited for left tackle. He's a good athlete, with long arms, and has a lanky frame that he could easily support far more muscle. He's bulked up over time, but almost looked like a Tight End at points.

NFL evaluators look at guys like that and do a double take. They're arrogant, thinking that they're far smarter than the opposition. They see a Haslam, and a figurative light bulb goes off in a bubble over their head as the scouts think "left tackle". As such, you can probably expect Haslam to go much higher than expected in next year's draft. Depending on his play, Kevin even has a realistic shot at the fourth round range.

I'm not the biggest fan of Haslam on the field, although he is raw (along with most of the line) and has room to improve. He looks like a left tackle, but isn't the greatest pass protector. His awful game against Pittsburgh stood out like a sore thumb. Haslam has the technique to keep up with top pass rushers, but had major holes with his technique, and (sort of) admitted as such.

"Last in the league in rushing, I think I take offense to that more," Haslam said. "Sacks can be fixed with blocking techniques and things like that. But rushing offense, that’s on us as a whole."

That's another thing with Haslam. Dude is skinny, and lacks strength at the point of attack. He's not a bad tackle, but was miscast as a guard. That's why I can only laugh and roll my eyes when the likes of amateur internet talent evaluators or even NFL.com's Gil Brandt could be so far off the mark on Haslam, judging him an unathletic stiff with good strength who will probably have to move back inside to guard. That's not accurate in the slightest, so far off the mark and contrary to fact as to be comical. Certainly, neither writer actually saw him play (and line play is hard to evaluate with the naked eye, viewers gravitate towards the ball). Haslam only played guard for a couple games last year before moving to tackle, and he's obviously a better fit on the outside.

There's probably like one scouting evaluator who works for a service like BLESTO that gets out in front with all every prospect in that region. That scout forms evaluations based on a game or two (like say, the first two of the year), passes them on throughout the scouting community, and those incorrect first impressions become entrenched as stereotypes. I mean, how else could anyone honestly criticize Kenny Britt's play last year when KB was being double and triple coverage, and was STILL dominating? How could anyone say that a Ryan D'Imperio lacks toughness and doesn't have much of a future in football?

That's not to overgeneralize and write off the scouting community and NFL evaluation process. I'm not making a blanket criticism, but rather a specific indictment of laziness and groupthink. Lots of them do good work, and I'd imagine that most do. However, the good ones keep their lips sealed a little tighter at this point in the year. I'll try to have more thoughts on this point at a later date, specifically focusing on what the pros seem to look for in their evaluations of players at each position.

Anyway, the line's top reserve is former walk-on Howard Barbieri. He's in the mix with Ruch to start at left guard, but almost falls victim to the same pitfall hampering Andrew DePaola: Barbieri is so valuable as a reserve swing lineman that you almost don't want to make him a starter. If there's an injury anywhere, he's probably switching positions. If Barbieri and Ruch are relatively close in play, then maybe Ruch should be the starter if only for continuity's sake. In that case, if someone goes down, you can sub Howard in without disrupting everything. Just a thought. He plays every position on the line except left tackle, and also will see looks at TE and possibly FB in short yardage or max-protect situations.

The other reserve likely to see time at the hint of injury is redshirt freshman Desmond Stapleton. Making the two deep at his age is quite an accomplishment, and bodes well for his future on the banks. He's one of the two top reserves this year, and is likely to start at guard or right tackle in 2010. Desmond, of course, is the younger brother of the excellent Rutgers center Darnell Stapleton, now of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers.

Less likely to play on the two deep this season (any injuries will result in a lineup shuffling, instead of purely elevating second stringers) are tackle Devon Watkis (who impressed last season on the scout team), and converted defensive linemen Matt Hardison and Des Wynn.

If Barbieri does start at guard, then RU may look to a reserve like backup center Marlon Romulus to see snaps at TE. Coach Flood liked Romulus as a potential center down the line, but he hasn't been able to crack the two deep at this point.

Reserve Mo Lange has been in the two deep mix at times, but wasn't mentioned all that much in fall or spring camp. Like Romulus, he was another Flood special project out of New York. Richard Muldrow was a touted recruit in the same class as Stapleton, but hasn't been able to earn the backup right tackle job yet to this point. Flood's good, but developing rawer linemen will always be tricky. Cam Stephenson looked like a bust before the light finally came on for him as a senior. On the other hand, a guy like Keith Newell ends up transferring, and Muldrow (along with defensive tackle Wayne Thomas) keeps waiting for his turn.

The OL was possibly the only place in RU football's 2009 recruiting class where the staff didn't necessarily fare as well as they would have liked. They brought in two freshmen; ideally, you want one more (conceivably, a DL like Holmes or Lowery could move, although it's unlikely). That's why they're taking five this year. Jamal Wilson was a solid get. He could be in the mix at right tackle down the road. Center David Osei has a high school wrestling background, and has a lot of conditioning work to go. He's a bit of an unknown and a project, but the staff likes him.

Overall, this is a very deep group of linemen, with a good mix of youth and experience (returning starters on the OL supposedly portends good things). Rutgers has a strong two deep, and can even field a three deep if it so chose. This unit took their lumps last year, got all the growing pains out of their system, and is now poised to reap the rewards. Now, owing to attrition around the country, and their recent track record, they're looking like the best line in the conference, if not one of the better ones in the country.

There's good reason to be excited. RU was #30 in sacks allowed in 2008, and most of those can be attributed to youth and inexperience (don't forget, the backs needed to learn to pass protect as well). The run blocking had a lot more room to improve, but looked back up to recent standards in spring and fall camp. These guys are a fairly solid bet to meet or exceed our very high expectations if Rutgers can indeed batter foes into submission once again.

If the Scarlet Knights going to have a big season, it will have to start up front. They have to win the trench wars, giving Martinek and Brooks room to run. That will keep Schiano's blitzing defense fresh, and will have the added benefit of tiring out opposing defenses. In this case, one only has to look up the Turnpike to East Rutherford for a proven model for victory. Give opposing defenses a steady dose of Brooks in the first half to tire them out, then, once again, the plan should be to unleash Martinek's fresh legs in the second half to sprint past worn out defenders. Just like in 2006, they may not win every game with style points. They'll win though, more than they lose, which is all you can fairly ask for.