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Rutgers football 2011 season preview: offensive line

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In 2010 Rutgers set a modern NCAA record by allowing 61 sacks; an average of over slightly over five per game. For a program seemingly defined over the past decade by subpar line play, this performance was unfathomable. From 2005-2008, this group were an unquestioned strength. That 2008 was young, and it showed early in the year, but they gelled exactly according to plan as the season progressed. Entering the following season, all signs pointed to Rutgers once again fielding a stellar starting five. They proceeded to play rather badly, startlingly so given the previous year's performance. Kyle Flood's tenure had been defined by continued excellence.

No offensive line coach this side of Rick Trickett had seen a better run over the preceding few years. 2009 was a blip, an aberration, on an otherwise-impeccable record. Surely that level of poor performance could not possibly be repeated again? In reality, Rutgers fell to new depths of futility. What stood years before as possibly the greatest front five in the country (three 2006 starters made NFL rosters, with two more receiving cups of coffee in training camps) was, absent lottery pick (and presumed wastrel) Anthony Davis, left to whither on the vine. Was Davis unfairly blamed in 2009 for factors outside of his control? Was the maestro Flood losing his touch?

Before dissecting the corpse of 2010, this forensic investigation requires revisiting the initial scene of the crime in 2009. How could a line that played so well down the stretch in 2008, which returned everyone, and was expected to be the Big East's best, collapse into complete oblivion? What changed? It certainly didn't help that Rutgers lost a number of skill position stalwarts after that season, including QB Mike Teel, WRs Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, and TE Kevin Brock. However, Rutgers had a plethora of top-ranked recruits to replace those guys. The linemen were all coming back, and everyone reasoned that former blue chippers like Anthony Davis and Art Forst were ready to take the next step up to greatness.

The bigger change than personnel was offensive scheme. When John McNulty called the plays in Piscataway, Rutgers ran a traditional, pro-style offense; you establish the run to set up the deep, play-action passing game. Kyle Flood's zone-blocking scheme was a bit of a unique wrinkle, with Rutgers favoring athletic tackles like Jeremy Zuttah even when they lacked prototypical height. When McNulty left for the Arizona Cardinals, Kirk Ciarrocca immediately started transitioning to the spread offense, which featured several aspects particularly unfriendly to offensive lines:

  • Deep passing - McNulty loved to air it out down the sidelines, but even he wouldn't leave Teel out to dry repeatedly with five and seven step drops every down, and this approach was augmented by a strong running game. What was so befuddling about Ciarrocca's offense was that the prototypical spread (think Mike Leach) tends to be a short passing attack.
  • Lack of a traditional running game - if you're calling plays out of the Shotgun, with three or four receivers on the field, it's not impossible to have a running game; spread option teams like West Virginia have proven that in recent years. Those teams all had running QBs however; not pocket passers like Tom Savage or Chas Dodd. Hence, the impetus for the Wildcat. With no threat of a running attack, opposing defenses could focus exclusively on defending passes.
  • As a result of the new scheme, Rutgers de-emphasized the tight end and fullback positions in recruiting, and possible roster candidates at those spots shifted to other positions. If RU then wanted to use them, they were in a bit of a numbers bind.

If you're looking for a reason for optimism why the offensive line (and consequently, RU's offense as a whole) could immediately jump from the bottom of the bowl subdivision into the middle of the pack, here's your answer. If Rutgers even gets a passable, below-average performance in 2010, they easily finish 8-4 (Tulane, UNC, Syracuse, and USF were all close losses), and possibly don't even pack it in for the last quarter of the season.

As bad as this group was on the field last season, on an individual personnel level they don't even look all that bad on paper. Desmond Stapleton was the team's only lineman that performed up to snuff last year at left tackle; now he's off to the right side. Partly that has to be seen as an acknowledgement that converted-defensive end Andre Civil is the superior athlete, but Flood has precedent for putting his top player at right tackle in the case Jeremy Zuttah. Guard Desmond Wynn wasn't as good as Stapleton last season, but is the only other returner that started twelve games in 2010. David Osei looked good in the spring and during training camp after junior college transfer Dallas Hendrikson went down. Antwan Lowery at right guard is more of an athletic lottery ticket than anything else.

Not having Hendrikson hurts the depth somewhat, but it's still halfway decent. Devon Watkis is the primary backup at both tackle spots, with Matt McBride a fourth reserve tackle, and true freshman Kaleb Johnson waiting in the wings. Guard Betim Bujari should be a three-year starter come 2012. Caleb Ruch has starting experience at center and guard, but has had snapping issues in the past, and struggled over the past two seasons after a respectable 2008. True freshman Keith Lumpkin is a probably redshirt this fall, with defensive lineman Marquise Wright a strong possibility to slide over to guard next spring. With Stapleton and Wynn graduating this year, the early leaders for next year's starters are Civil-Bujari-Osei-Lowery-Watkis.

Speaking of two straight poor seasons, guard Art Forst has turned into a whipping boy for an angry Rutgers fanbase. Forst looked reasonably good at guard as a true freshman, leading everyone to believe that he was following in Anthony Davis's footsteps. Then 2009 and 2010 happened. Forst's repeated struggles in pass protection were a big part of those struggles, although plenty of blame is certainly attributable to the offense itself, or to Flood's scheme. Forst is a lineman who should be flinging defenders into the turf on every down. He's not the prototypical Rutgers lineman, a Zuttah, with uncanny athleticism and agility. Rutgers fans owe Forst all the gratitude in the world for deciding to stay home for college, but in retrospect, he would have been better off schematically playing in a man-blocking scheme with more of an emphasis on size and power.

If Rutgers is ready to resume their own unique brand of mediocrity in 2011, it all has to start here. One's confidence in Rutgers this year ultimately depends on a willingness to attribute the blame for 2009 and 2010's poor performance to situational factors (Kirk Ciarrocca), or inherent, immutable flaws with the roster makeup. Evidence-wise, these guys don't just have a proven track record of success, they were a downright team strength until Rutgers changed offensive coordinators. Either it was a blip that has been corrected, or the start of a longer downward trend. Not only does history point towards the former, but early returns over spring practice and fall training camp lean that way as well. Warranted skepticism is fine, but everyone predicting doom and gloom for not only this unit, but the entire roster tend to be harping on every possible flaw here, while excusing all manner of other sins across the league. If you're being consistent, and just weighing everything in terms of expected value, a significant positive regression towards the mean is both probably and likely.