Kyle Flood, when he was the offensive line coach at Rutgers broke down every block into three phases; approach, contact, and follow through. We will map those in a slightly different way to assess the performance of AJ Blazek’s unit in the Ash, “power spread” era.
Ash said countless times that that plays are the same even if the sets are different. “If you are going to run power, you are going to run power.” (9:20 mark) The new coaching staff philosophy differed from the previous two, as they installed a “power spread” rather than a “pro-set”. Since offensive linemen take some time to develop, the staff was left with four returning starters who needed to learn their 5th different playbook and were not recruited for this style. The team also attempted the implement a faster tempo, fueled by Kenny Parker’s strength program. So for the O-Line, Aj Blazek is a high energy guy who faced a tall task.
This unit was built across the last 5 recruiting classes and the table below indicates how various sources rated the scholarship players before they ever enrolled at the college level. Final starters are in red, rest of the two deep in gray. Each source has a slightly different methodology, i.e. Phil Steele does not differentiate by OL position in his rankings. Guys like Cole had scouts split as a guard or tackle prospect, for some rankings that does matter.
History Lesson: In 2013, Muller became a starter and Nelson the backup center. By mid 2014, Denman was splitting time at right tackle joining Muller on the right side of the line especially when the team had the lead and the ball. Miller joined Nelson in the two deep. For the 2015 season, Miller, Nelson, Muller, and Denman started barring injury with Applefield and Heeman getting occasional time. Venesky was a member of the two deep as a true freshman, but was not called upon and ended up as a redshirt.
Follow through 2016
From early in spring practice, the staff was sold on athletic marvel Tariq Cole as the replacement to NFL hopeful and three year starter Keith Lumpkin. The rest of the returning starters held onto their positions though by summer camp Denman had to hold off Heeman.
Games 1-4: The team began the season with Cole, Miller, Nelson, Muller, and Denman starting. In the opener at UW (D+), the much maligned QB, Chris Laviano, did not have a good game but he looked more like he was playing dodgeball with the speed Husky helmets were flying through the line. Every starter had at least one mistake and team morale had to be at an unexpected low when captain and four year starter Chris Muller was benched after getting embarrassed, replaced by Applefield.
For the next three weeks, the line rebounded nicely against less formidable competition. One bump in the road came when Cole was benched against Howard. After halftime he returned with a vengeance and simply destroyed whomever lined up against him on his way to getting props from PFF. (Team A-) They played a nice game against New Mexico (B+) and again against Iowa (B). RU actually outgained the Hawkeyes but drives stalled often because these five guys couldn’t block the entire defense who was lined up in the box in short yardage. Ultimately through the first four games, I give the unit a solid B.
The QB and WR play (3 completed passes) was simply abyssmal against the Buckeyes, this one was not on the boys up front (B-, only allowed 3 sacks). That wasn’t yet rock bottom as Rutgers played possibly the worst game in program history against the Wolverines, completing only 2 passes and not recording a first down until halfway through the 4th quarter. The line deserves an F. Cole was already injured and then Denman got hurt. He was replaced by Applefield as Heeman had started on the left side. The quarterbacks were not accurate but when you total 22 yards of offense, allow 13 tackles for loss, and set a B1G record for punts in a game ...
Finally facing their fellow cellar dweller, Rutgers outgained Illinois (B) but still managed to lose the game by committing 5 turnovers. How you score only 7 points when you only punt 4 times has to be some kind of record. The line played well enough especially when Robert Martin was actually getting carries, you can’t blame the boys up front when the skill position players are just kicking the ball around (no I don’t mean Bonagura). The team followed it up with their best offensive effort of the year against Minnesota (B+) when they opened up running lanes and gave Gio more than ample time to throw. For this stretch of 4 games, the unit deserves a C+.
With the Indiana game, the team decided to go with Kamaal Seymour as the starter at right tackle the rest of the way. They continued their momentum, by RU standards, earning a B-. Bookending a stretch of 7 straight three and outs, the team again looked like an actually division 1 offense. The offensive line play seemed steady, but Indiana constantly loaded the box and dared the Knights to pass. They only allowed 3 sacks, but Gio had to run 11 times for only 2 total yards. Michigan State also played a 4-3 over, how RU usually lines up, keeping all three linebackers to flow without blitzing. The result was RU QBs opting to call twice as many runs as passes, and were never sacked. Despite that, the line gets a C because the Spartan line facing seemingly an identical game plan took advantage by consistently getting their hats on the second level linebackers. Another bizarre happening, how do you get shut out without being sacked once when you don’t run the triple option?
The Penn State game was another shut out where the Knights called twice as many runs as passes, it looked Gio impersonated Laviano ending with a 4.6 QBR when he only took three sacks against a pretty stout defense. The line gets a C- in this one though because the team ran for 39 yards on 33 carries! QB “sneaking” it every time might have ended up better. They can’t earn a lower grade because what else are you supposed to do when the defense has more guys in the box than the offense can block? The Maryland game was the total opposite of PSU. I give them a C- because it wasn’t just the 7 sacks allowed, it was the manner in which they earned them. Basically blitzing off the Rutgers right side on what seemed like 4 straight 3rd downs, 3 of which resulted in drive killing sacks. These were not all out blitzes though so Gio couldn’t just throw a hot route to a wide open guy. On the other hand once RU figured out play calling while Muller and Seymour got it together, the Knights ended up with their top 2 runners (Martin and Goodwin) totaling 159 yards on 24 carries. The grade stays because the play calling limitations due to OLine, eventually called drives to stall. Final four game grade: C-.
One final thought on each player’s stack ranked will.
Tariq Cole, keep pushing yourself, the QBs need confidence in their blind side protection and the other guys need someone to aspire to.
Dorian Miller, stay consistent and become the leader as a senior.
Derrick Nelson, please leave your inspirational play and blitz calls to Zach Venesky or someone who can beat him out.
Chris Muller, please leave your knowledge of every playbook there is to someone else just in case the revolving door at OC continues indefinitely.
Kamaal Seymour, just do what Kenny Parker says off the field and what AJ says on it.
Marcus Applefield, come into the off-season acting like the starter at every position to push yourself and everyone else. Show that versatility so the 5 best can start. (he gets two thoughts for the V)
J.J. Denman, please leave your super strength and resiliency to someone who is a better fit in this offense for the day RU actually has a lead late.
Zach Heeman, learn from how opposing defenses attacked Muller and Denman so you don’t make the same mistakes.
Everyone else, please get bigger, stronger, faster, better, hungrier, smarter and quickly!
Offensive line play has a lot to do with chemistry. And this chemistry joke can’t be any worse than the 2016 Knights, “When you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the precipitate.” This accurately represents the play of Blazek’s boys in 2016 as they were far from the biggest problem for the team, but they did little to pick up the rest of the #10strong.
Follow through 2017 and beyond
First stab at the spring 2017 depth chart was here. Updated above. I covered the possibilities for the class of 2016 and 2015 guys previously. Vretman signed his LOI which Beaty and Clark may also do to enroll early, but I didn’t have to go to Delaware to know better than to count my chickens. I’m looking forward to a potential highly ranked group of offensive line recruits, if nothing else it will push the guys ahead of them like it did in 2012. This team needs to improve in every area, but stability and reliability in the trenches would be a welcome starting point.