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2011 spring practice: previewing the Rutgers offense

The Rutgers football team commences spring drills on March 29th, culminating a month later, April 30th, with the Scarlet-White game and surrounding Rutgers Day festivities. There has not been this much uncertainty surrounding the program since following RU's last losing campaign in 2004. The football program is similarly looking to course correct, and as a result there are plenty of story lines of interest and open positional battles entering the spring. For the Scarlet Knight faithful eager for football coverage, the upcoming month should pique your interest as one last infusion of college football before the barren desert of summer.

First up is the offense, looking to pick up the pieces after a miserable season in most respects. Co-offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca took the fall for ineffective spread mishmash, with a heavy dosage of the wildcat substituting for a standard running game. With a revamped coaching staff, and significant personnel turnover, this young group looks to get back to the approach that proved successful during the bulk of Greg Schiano's tenure. Check back in a bit for the defense and special teams.

QB: Chas Dodd will adapt to a pro style offense after playing in a spread last season, and all throughout high school. More importantly, he will have to learn the playbook while having to stay off the turf, making a no-contact policy not out of the question. Rutgers can ill afford an injury at quarterback, with Dodd the only returning player with any significant in-game experience. As important as it will be to see Dodd progress, new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti will need to see what, if anything, the trio of Steve Shimko (who will be limited returning from injury), Tyler Bellia, and Jason Friday can contribute before two incoming freshmen enroll over the summer.

RB: No position saw more roster turnover during the off-season. Jeremy Deering slides over from receiver with considerable (and deliberate?) obfuscation over his role. Is Deering going to be a conventional third down back that specializes in screen passes, or will his versatility be highlighted more with runs out of the Wildcat formation, and frequently lining up as a slot receiver? There is little remaining pressure on De'Antwan Williams with the widespread presumption that Savon Huggins will start as a freshman. Williams has a significant opportunity however to earn playing time. He is getting a fresh start in a new offense, and Cignetti showed a willingness at Pittsburgh to platoon multiple backs. Little is known at this time about backups Jawan Jamison and Aaron Hayward.

FB: Joe Martinek's move to fullback is garnering a lot of attention, but keep in mind that there is no guarantee that Martinek will line up as a traditional blocking fullback, and he will miss the spring recovering from a shoulder injury. Marcus Thompson here also deserves plenty of buzz. Thompson had a lot of potential on defense, and his switch to offense was surprising in that Rutgers should be young in their front seven this year. Fullback could be a good fit for Thompson though in that it would give him an outlet to channel his raw aggression on the field into constructive ends. He is one of the most-buzzed about players on the team. Underclassmen Robert Joseph and Michael Burton should also be in the mix with Martinek sitting out.

WR: This is the deepest position on the team, so much so that some depth here was sacrificed to shore up the backfield and secondary. Mohamed Sanu took a considerable beating last year between the wildcat formation and double coverage, and will not see any contact. Mark Harrison has an excellent opportunity to start realizing his NFL-grade athleticism and build on his breakout performance last fall against Cincinnati. Tim Wright is a wild card working his way back from an ACL tear. One possible breakout performer is Brandon Coleman coming off a redshirt. Sophomores Quron Pratt and J.T. Tartacoff have clearer paths to playing time in the slot with the spring's position changes.

TE: Frank Cignetti coordinated an offense at Pitt that frequently incorporated multiple tight ends, tasking Brian Angelichio with developing the likes of WR-hybrid Dorin Dickerson and blocking specialist Nate Byham. D.C. Jefferson and Paul Carrezola do not exactly fit into those boxes, but both should be strong beneficiaries of the new direction if Cignetti's past tendencies hold to form. Jefferson is still a work in progress, having limited experience at the position, but is good every so often for an explosive big play. Carrezola has been held back by injuries and scheme, but he enters the spring as the odds-on favorite to see time in double-TE sets, and brings a lot to the table as a blocker and receiving safety net. Malcolm Bush came to campus with the dreaded talented-but-raw label, and the spring should tell a lot about how his maturation is progressing. Junior Solice adds depth after previously lining up all across the roster.

OL: JUCO transfer Dallas Hendrikson is the odds-on favorite to start at center, and Desmond Stapleton likely returns as the starting left tackle. That probably leaves multiple spots up for grabs at guard, where Desmond Wynn and Caleb Ruch return the most experience. Art Forst moved back inside after struggling with speed rushers at right tackle, and youngsters Antwan Lowery and Betim Bujari are the future inside. Andre Civil and Devon Watkis manned right tackle down the stretch last fall. Spring should provide an opportunity to give players looks at multiple positions.

Nothing necessarily is a given here in light of last season's poor performance, as all starting jobs should be up for grabs. By retaining Kyle Flood as offensive line coach, Coach Schiano implicitly endorsed the argument that this group's recent struggles had more to do with scheme than talent. It remains unclear how everyone will look in a more traditional approach. David Osei and Matt McBride were technically on last season's two deep, with neither Jamal Wilson nor the other freshmen (Jorge Vicioso, Chris Fonti, Frank Quartucci) mentioned much at all.