2011 proved to be a step in the right direction for the Rutgers offensive line, proving definitely that scheme had been the problem the previous two years. Of course pass protection is going to struggle when a quarterback is taking seven step dropbacks with no extra blockers staying in to help. Of course the mere act of having a tight end and fullback on the field does wonders for keeping defenses honest. Solely through switching back to a pro-style offense, Rutgers was able to resurrect this unit out of the doldrums. It's not necessary reflected in the stats too, but in terms of raw pass protection, they actually were pretty good. Gary Nova and Chas Dodd had time to throw. The team's sack total was inflated because as good as these guys were in pass protection, they struggled just as much in run blocking. Teams didn't have to stay honest against Rutgers, instead teeing off on the pass, and not respecting play action.
That's what needs to change this fall, and it will have to happen with multiple senior starters departed. Des Wynn was a strong asset in 2011, while Caleb Ruch and Art Forst rose up the depth chart, and Des Stapleton fell down to a reserve role. In their place comes a largely-revamped line. Right tackle R.J. Dill actually brings a ton of experience from Maryland, and should prove competent, but I am not expecting miracles from him if Rutgers is sticking with a zone blocking scheme now that Kyle Flood has been elevated to head coach (Dill comes out of more of a man scheme with the Terps.) Last year's RT, Kaleb Johnson, is flipping over to the left side after a standout freshman campaign. Typically, college teams will throw their best player at left tackle, which explains that move even if he may not have the prototypical, Anthony Davis-size that you would ideally prefer there.
The biggest sign for optimism is with Antwan Lowery at left guard, who has all the talent in the world, but struggled and fell off the depth chart last season. Now Lowery is motivated, and by all accounts the light is starting to go on. He will be a strength, as should center Betim Bujari as a blocker. There are questions with Bujari in the sense that he's new to center, and will have to get a good handle on snapping and making line calls. Rutgers hasn't had a center with this kind of physical frame, one that can go toe to toe with big nose tackles, in quite a while. You have to go back to Darnell Stapleton probably. If all goes to plan, Rutgers should have a lot of success running to the left with Bujari and Lowery getting a lot of push off the line of scrimmage. Right guard is more of a question mark, where Andre Civil is clearly one of the team's top linemen. I don't know where the negativity from last year came from - he was decent in pass protection, especially considering his experience. Civil certainly has the athleticism to be a good pulling guard, but will have to show more raw power than he did a year ago.
One of the better signs coming out of this fall's camp was that Rutgers was able to put together a respectable two-deep, especially considering that none of the standout incoming freshmen were able to crack it. At tackle, Keith Lumpkin is still very raw, but is on track to be the team's left tackle of the future. On the other side, Devon Watkis brings back veteran depth, but has missed some time with injuries. David Osei has seen some time playing all of the positions on the line, although he's at guard for the moment, with former Hofstra transfer Matt McBride seizing the backup center job. Civil jumped Taj Alexander at right guard, who's another raw physical specimen who probably needs some more seasoning.
One of the bigger surprises from the past calendar year has been the surprising fall of JUCO transfer center Dallas Hendrikson, who was a favorite to start last spring before tearing his ACL. Not even cracking the two-deep is stunning. Frank Quartucci is no longer on the roster, leaving two other raw projects in sophomores Jorge Vicioso (who saw some second team action in camp with Watkis out) and Chris Fonti. The jury is still probably out until next spring for both, at which point Rutgers's fab five freshmen class will start getting thrown into the mix as well (the team only has two senior linemen in Dill and Watkis.) Guard Derrick Nelson, a solid recruit but probably the least-heralded of the bunch, actually came the closest to earning playing time in camp. There's plenty to look forward to though. Ryan Brodie, Chris Muller, and J.J. Denman could have attended any program in the ACC or Big Ten, and Brandon Arcidiacono is the rare blue chip center prospect to come around these parts. After years of questionable recruiting, it's preposterous how bright the future suddenly looks here.
The forecast for 2012 should be a steady improvement. Rutgers was solid in pass protection the year before, and should improve in run blocking based off of media reports from the spring and fall. Don't expect miracles; not with our poor TE and FB depth, but it will be better. The team ran for 2.8 yards per rush last fall, and a realistic goal for improvement would be that jumping to 3.5, setting up things nicely for a having a top-tier offense a year from now with most of these guys returning. Let's say 3.5 yards per carry, with a realistic play action threat, and a ball control scheme that can wear down opposing defenses late, and keep the Scarlet Knight defenders fresh. Expectations have risen beyond the level of hoping that these guys aren't a complete disaster, but any improvement is far more likely to be gradual than immediate. They won't be pancaking guys off the ball in two weeks, but it certainly would come in handy by November.