Projected 2010 depth chart:
OT: RS-JR Desmond Stapleton (6'5, 285), RS-SO Devon Watkis (6-7, 310)
OG: RS-JR Desmond Wynn (6'6, 290), FR Betim Bujari (6'4, 292)
C: RS-SR Howard Barbieri (6'5, 304), RS-FR David Osei (6'4, 266)
OG: RS-JR Caleb Ruch (6'4, 290), RS-FR Antwan Lowery (6'4, 302)
OT: JR Art Forst (6'8, 311), RS-FR Matt McBride (6'6, 280 lbs)
The Rutgers offense needs to bounce back from a a dismal 2009 campaign, and no unit on the team symbolizes that central worry more than the guys up front. It's the linemen who are expected to set a tone for physicality and open holes for their teammates at the so-called "skill" positions. These guys are taken for granted when they do their job effectively, and thrown under the microscope when they don't live up to expectations, as was the case last season.
The most depressing thing about those repeated struggles were that Rutgers football had keyed its turnaround as a program behind standout line play. Kyle Flood quickly established a reputation as an absolute miracle worker soon after he first stepped foot on campus. Sure, there was some falloff in 2008, but the narrative that year went about exactly as could have been expected. A super-green line struggles early with run blocking, and then rounds into form through November and December. By any reasonable standard they should have returned last fall with a vengeance.
But they didn't. It's hard to draw any conclusions from Anthony Davis reporting to camp slightly overweight, but any dreams of winning a Big East title quickly collapsed with a thud just as soon as Ricardo Matthews was repeatedly bolting past Davis to slam quarterback Dom Natale to the turf. How exactly does an All-American candidate who had nimbly disposed with top pass rushers a year before, and would go on to ride his unmatched raw talent to a #11 selection in the following April's NFL Draft, suddenly look ineffective against second-tier challengers?
Davis's campaign was an inconsistent adventure from week to week. He'd go from laughing off Greg Romeus one game, to struggling with anonymous underclassmen the next. With nothing left to prove on the college level, was he merely going through the motions at times with certain millions guaranteed in the future? Now, he did eventually round into form after anonymous NFL voices started openly questioning his effort to the media. There's no question either that Anthony was still far and away the team's most effective lineman by a considerable margin.
That's because his linemates didn't really fare much better to be honest. Guard Caleb Ruch missed most of the season injured, with his reps split between Des Wynn and Howard Barbieri. Art Forst looked awkward and inexperienced inside. Center Ryan Blaszczyk brought veteran savvy to the table and made the line calls, but he and tackle Kevin Haslam were particularly ineffective run blockers. The frequent, sisyphean sight of Joe Martinek or Jourdan Brooks being met two or three yards behind the line of scrimmage by a trio of defenders on nearly every single running play felt like figuratively slamming one's head into a brick wall. It's little wonder that the entire offense was one of the worst statistical units in all of the FBS level on the year.
With Davis, Blaze, and Haslam out the door, and several rounds of positional reshuffling in the books, how much room for optimism is there?
“From the day camp opened to now there’s been a huge improvement in the offensive line play,” Barbieri said.
You could certainly say that the line was horrific last year and has to replace three starters, one of whom will start for the 49ers before he can legally drink in the United States. That's true, but the easy retort is that all three had their struggles, and Davis certainly did not play up to his billing in every game. Bottom line: we're in trouble if last season was part of a downward trend. If it was a one year aberration (Flood's lines had never before disappointed), then the offense should be able to get its act together.
“It’s the nature of college football,” Flood said. “You’d like to have five guys back. You’d like to sign them all to 10-year contracts. But that’s not how it works.”
One reason for so much lingering uncertainty here was that several expected contributors missed time during the team's spring practices.
“It hurts with the continuity,” Forst said of the makeshift offensive line Rutgers had to work with this spring. “You play with a different guy next to you almost every day until you have the right fit because you have so many key guys injured. Obviously, it hurt a little bit. Three guys who came into the spring as starters aren’t there? It has to have an effect.”
Wynn and Barbieri were out, with reserves Lowery and Watkis sitting out at points to boot. Even more disturbing was the fact that Ruch, the presumed center of the future, struggled with snaps to where he was replaced by Osei. The only real sign for encouragement was Des Stapleton's emergence at left tackle.
For all the talk of inexperience, it's interesting that all of the projected line starters actually have started games (even Stapes against Army, which I forgot about). even if not always particularly well. However,. it's Stapleton who fans are pinning their hopes on for fixing the offensive line, which is almost entirely based on his older brother Darnell being a brilliant center here in '05-'06.
"He has done a good job,'' said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano today on the final day of camp. "He had to -- and he did. It's his time, as we've said. He needed to be the guy and right now, he's doing it.''
He didn't earn a starting job last year on the merits when the line was terrible. On the other hand, coaching staffs usually show loyalty to upperclassmen if a position battle is close, and many linemen usually don't break out until they're juniors.
That's certainly the hope with Art Forst. While not at the level of Davis, it's easy to forget how big a recruiting coup Forst was for the program several years back. He earned a starting job at guard midway through his freshman year (echoing Davis), showing improvement down the stretch as the entire line gelled into form. Guard is usually easier than tackle, but Forst is so freakin' big that he could be one of the rare exceptions that are a better fit on the outside. Honestly, he just looked kind of gangly and miscast out there trying to area block interior linemen. Let's hope the position switch does some good, and Art finally lives up to his billing as a road grader on the edge.
The former walk-on Howard Barbieri moved to center last spring in order to stabilize the middle of the line with his experience and leadership. He started for most of 2009 between the two guard positions. Camp reports indicate that Barbieri is by far and away the team's best option to start at center this year, although there are still concerns about his ability to snap in the Shotgun formation. A healthy returning Caleb Ruch is expected to start at one guard spot, and was the primary backup at center during fall camp. Des Wynn is big and moves pretty well considering his size. That had him being mentioned as a candidate to play tackle this year, but nothing ultimately came of that proposal.
As far as the backups go, Devon Watkis is considered a good athlete, and has stuck around the two-deep for a while now. Betim Bujari and Antwan Lowery were both fairly big recruits, and for now are considered future multi-year starters inside once they become more polished. The Rutgers staff quickly offered David Osei two years back once Mark Brazinski decommitted. The high school wrestler could use another year of weight training with Jay Butler. The coaching staff initially passed on McBride in 2009, but accepted his transfer last year after Hofstra dropped their football program, so hopefully they heard a few good reports through the grapevine. Either he or Jamal Wilson (who was there in the spring, and saw some reps last week) should be the second string RT.
Ultimately, there's only so much that can be gleamed from camp and practice reports; what matters is in-game performance.
"But you know what? In the country, if you polled 120 Division 1 coaches there would be very few who say their offensive line is where they want it."
Considering how little has actually gotten out to the public during the month of August, these guys are going to have quite a bit to prove. As miserable as 2009 was, it's important not to overreact that much to one season, considering how strong past Rutgers lines have been. On the other hand, it can't be emphasized enough how much this group holds the key to the team's entire season. If the line can't block, then the offense can't score points or stay on the field, and that will wreck havoc on what looks like a very good defense on paper.
Would you sign up today for a repeat of the 2008 performance? If the line is passable, and rounds into form as the schedule gets tougher, then that should more than constitute success. (Hopefully, in that scenario there won't be another hangover in 2011.) No one is expecting miracles against Romeus and Sheard, or with UNC's cavalcade of All-Americans, but outside of those two and West Virginia there don't appear to be any other significant tests on the schedule.
It comes down to whether or not Coach Flood still has it, along with rising players like Art Forst and Des Stapleton who need to prove themselves worthy of their high school press clippings. Considering that the alternative is a repeat of last year's uninspired performance, Rutgers fans don't really have a choice here but to engage in wishful thinking, and hope that long term trends overwhelm the immediacy of last year's struggles.