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Rutgers Football 2017 Preview: Offensive Line

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This group has a lot to prove in 2017.

Howard v Rutgers
Cole needs to protect the blind side and help the run game
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With practices for the fall season underway, we continue positional previews with the Scarlet Knights 2017 offensive line. (2016 review here). All of the players listed as offensive linemen will be reviewed in turn by jersey number, followed by the incoming freshmen.

#54 Kamaal Seymour (6’6”, 312 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Seymour hasn’t even been on offense a year yet though, so he should be able to show improvement out of the gate. Much was written about his transition last fall leapfrogging many other offensive linemen to become a starter in just a few weeks. He was improving until he was exposed against Maryland in a big way. His improvement is crucial to improved offense in 2017 because better communication alone would have saved some sacks in 2016. He has the size and athleticism plus three more years of eligibility.

#55 Michael Maietti (6’1”, 292 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

The former Don Bosco Prep standout Maietti’s was lightly recruited in comparison to his high school accolades. He has the size already and might end up being a nice find as a future first-team center. I don’t see Kill starting a redshirt freshman at center with an unsettled QB situation and Jackson looking good so far in that spot. Maietti will likely be the game day backup center initially. Like most offensive linemen he will get better over time.

#60 Dorian Miller (6’2”, 300 lbs.) Redshirt Senior

The lone offensive line recruit in the 2013 class, Miller enters 2017 as a 3rd year starter. He needs to remain a stabilizing force on the line and should be able to stay steady as a left guard after speculation he would move to center. In recent interviews the coaching staff seemed happy with the play at tackle and center but did not mention Miller at guard, despite his representing RU at B1G media day. To win, most coaches say your seniors need to play their best football and Miller is no exception. We will find out in the next few days if his teammates elect him a captain.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Indiana
Miller was a part of the incredible comeback at IU in 2015
Matt Kryger-USA TODAY Sports

#61 Mike Lonsdorf (6’6”, 300 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Lonsdorf was viewed by some, that he was the next great tackle prospect at RU ... and then Vretman and Clark showed up. He has a long way to go, but as we have seen with Keith Lumpkin and now Tariq Cole that distance can be closed very quickly. I thought he was another year away but on Thursday coach Blazek said he is the tackle to fill in if there is an injury to either of the two starters. A.J. acknowledged Mike has a ways to go physically longer term, but the staff feels most comfortable with him in either tackle spot based on how he has picked up the offense. He will be pressed by Micah Clark and maybe others at that swing tackle spot.

#63 Jim Onulak (6’2”, 282 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Jim is undersized at the moment, but with four years of eligibility remaining has plenty of time. The walk-on will serve scout team duty in 2017 and should be able to provide depth eventually. You can never have too many linemen on your roster.

#64 Skiy Pyrame (6’1”, 270 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

A season ago, Pyrame ended up on the two-deep at one point, much to everyone’s surprise. Despite being a walk-on, he is in the thick of a battle at backup center with Maietti and Howson. I’m surprised he is still listed at 270. A full crop of linemen recruited by this coaching staff probably hurt him in camp.

#65 Tariq Cole (6’6”, 320 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

Cole has come a long way from being over 400 pounds in high school to now considered the most athletic offensive lineman on the team. At one point in 2016 he was rated by Pro Football Focus as the best left tackle in the B1G. His spot is set for two more seasons barring injury or an early NFL departure if he improves. Oddly enough, had he not done such a good job on the blind side, would Laviano have been able to start so many consecutive games? He is definitely an early season contender for all Big-Ten but has struggled as times to contain Kemoko Turay in practice. Let’s hope that Turay is THAT good and the reps get Tariq ready to face the B1G’s best.

Howard v Rutgers
Cole is key to raising up this offense.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

#66 Nick Krimin (6’5”, 308 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Krimin is huge and his upside is high especially now that the Knights have returned to a more hybrid attack. Moving inside a la Art Forst or Mike Fladell has already happened as he battles Applefield and Venesky for the starting right guard spot. If he doesn’t earn the nod this year, he still has to be a front runner for 2018. His size alone will likely have him blocking on special teams units if nothing else. AJ Blazek mentioned that he’s a young guy working hard and will be in line for at least 5-7 snaps per game. Perhaps he can turn that into more.

#71 Marcus Applefield (6’5”, 308 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

Applefield would likely be entrenched as the starting right guard had he not been injured during spring camp. Now he is in a huge battle for the position where his edge in experience is slightly offset by the offense having a 4th different coordinator in his career. Even if he doesn’t get the the job initially, his versatility makes him the most logical choice as the 6th offensive lineman in the rotation. AJ Blazek in his press conference was very impressed so expect him to be named the starter in the next few days barring a late charge by Venesky.

#72 Manny Taylor (6’5”, 300 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Taylor hasn’t played much high-level organized football so it was a pleasant surprise to see how well he performed in the spring game, even on the first team offense. Listed as 6’5, 300, he is the prototypical sized offensive tackle I expect Rutgers wants for their scheme. His run blocking likely is behind Seymour but as a pass blocker he might be slightly ahead from the little we have seen. If either tackle gets injured or struggles in pass protection, I expect him to get playing time even though Lonsdorf is currently mentioned as the 3rd tackle.

#73 Jonah Jackson (6’4”, 299 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Jackson surprised some when he was listed as the backup center in 2016 and maybe even more when he took the job so convincingly early in spring. This kept Dorian Miller at guard which is likely the stability this team needs. Jackson is probably not as technically proficient as the player he is replacing in graduated Derrick Nelson. However, the team lacked energy and attitude in 2016 especially on the interior line and Jonah has showed a nastiness that will hopefully will be contagious away from the ball. There’s plenty of football left in him and his eligibility.

#74 Sam Howson (6’4”, 292 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Howson surprised me and others when he was the second team center in spring camp. He still needs time to develop as the second year of Kenny Parker’s strength and conditioning program continues. Maietti played better than him in the spring game but Howson could be more of what the staff wants in a backup center if Jackson were to go down with injury. He is probably not in line to start in 2017, but has plenty of time left in his career.

#75 Zach Venesky (6’3’, 300 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

He was the backup center as a true freshman in 2015 but didn’t get any action. He is another guy whose nastiness, toughness, and wrestling background may give the offense the jolt it needs. I have no doubt he will start at some point in his career and previously predicted he will win the current right guard battle. Even if Applefield gets the initial nod, Zach will keep coming and surely get time on the line in 2017. He’s been on the two-deep for 2 full years already!

#79 Zach Heeman (6’7’, 308 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

For Rutgers to have sustained success, when offensive linemen like him are in New Jersey, RU needs to secure their services. Like Applefield above, he has also received some playing time to help him continue his development even overtaking Denman, a multi-year starter for a starting spot in early August 2016 before losing it to Seymour permanently midseason. It’s entirely possible he gets better, starts next year and shifts Seymour inside. If Seymour or Cole were to get injured, he’s the only other tackle with experience and could start. The staff is high on Lonsdorf and Taylor has been good in pass protection, but Heeman is another huge guy with experience.

Incoming Freshmen

#50 Owen Bowles (6’4”, 291 lbs.)

Bowles appears to be a grappler inside who was more accomplished on the defensive side at the high school level. He adds some of the same nastiness that Jackson does at center and may eventually be his successor. Unless he shows something awesome, he will likely redshirt.

#51 Jamaal Beaty (6’2”, 291 lbs.)

Beaty was known more through recruiting as Clark’s stepbrother. Then in the spring game he probably performed the best of the four early enrollees, all linemen. He seems like a brick wall on special teams but if the staff feels good enough about older guys, might not burn his redshirt for that duty in 2017. There’s no reason to believe he isn’t at or beyond where the staff expected him to be at this point.

#56 Micah Clark (6’4”, 289 lbs.)

Micah has a lot of scrutiny coming his way as a consensus four star recruit, borderline five star. Unfortunately he went through concussion protocol the first day of camp before the team decided to use the extra padded helmet guards. Since then AJ Blazek mentioned he was just getting going once again, but in Chris Ash’s media day press conference, Clark was specifically mentioned as a guy who would probably “end up on the two-deep”. It might be as soon as the end of training camp. He seemed a little light in fall 2016, but the Kenny Parker program might have him ready to compete already. I don’t expect him to become a starter in 2017, but if the guys in front of him struggle you never know. Jerry Kill likes having a lot of personnel groupings so maybe we see Micah start out as a 6th offensive linemen in jumbo sets since we have heard about his agility.

#57 Zach Miseo (6’3”, 285 lbs.)

Miseo has a unique spot on this list as a walk-on true freshman. He garned interest from several Power 5 schools including Maryland, Duke, Purdue, Duke, and Boston College but elected to enroll at RU over an offer from Rhode Island. He just turned 18 and may contribute down the line.

#58 Charles Zarzecki (6’7”, 345 lbs.)

That is not a misprint with his listed weight as 345 pounds. His high weight (sounds backwards) is likely what got him less recruiting interest, similar to Tariq Cole, but with less athleticism. The guy is huge and in time could earn a scholarship. Watching his highlights, it doesn’t seem fair as he almost kills a quarterback trying to tackle him after throwing an interception. A great get by this staff as a walk-on.

#77 Sam Vretman (6’6”, 305 lbs.)

Sam hails from Sweden and is the first member of this freshman group to appear in the two deep as he is taking reps with the second teamers right now at one tackle spot. Coach Blazek acknowledged how tough he is and how much he likes to get physical on the line. Blazek also mentioned how he might end up inside, but for now it’s promising that he has the flexibility and agility to be at tackle. He could surprise and end up playing in 2017, but remember how he hasn’t played as much football as many of his teammates.

Predictions:

Personnel: Cole and Miller are returning starters. Seymour started the second half of the season and is the presumed starter. Jackson may not be more skilled than the graduated Nelson, but the staff is high on him and he is in line to start the opener at center. Right guard is still unsettled where Venesky, Applefield, and Krimin are taking turns with the first team, I thought Venesky would get the call because the staff realized they need more guys with more spirit and energy, especially on the interior. Then Coach Blazek praised Marcus Applefield a lot last week, saying he’s done a great job during training camp.

Krimin will get 5-7 plays per game for sure, likely at a guard spot. Mike Lonsdorf would likely get the nod at either tackle spot with an injury TODAY, but Manny Taylor and was a better pass blocker than Seymour in the spring game. Zach Heeman is in the mix somewhere and could end getting reps. At backup center the redshirt freshmen could get a look, either Maietti or Howson. The rest of the guys could probably use at least another year of development. Coach Blazek appeared to like having a “swing” tackle as in a guy who could play either tackle spot in reserve, a backup center who the QBs got snaps from in practice, and then another guy, likely a guard, so expect at least 8 guys to get action. If Kill runs plays with a 6th lineman, the loser between Applefield (versatility) and Venesky (agility) seems logical, based on his being able to play so many other positions. That is unless they specifically use Micah Clark in the role due to his combination of height, quickness, and upside.

With a full group of incoming linemen, it would be ideal for the program and the players’ development to be able to redshirt all four scholarship true freshmen, plus the walk-ons. Even though Beaty was the best looking guard on special teams in the spring game, hopefully RU won’t need to burn his redshirt for that. Caveat #1 is that if one of the freshmen can open up holes in the run game at guard, he will be in there like Kaleb Johnson and Anthony Davis before him. Caveat #2 is at right tackle, where there is a chance Micah Clark really comes on and shows the athleticism to pass block without help. If he can pass protect without needing a tight end or back to help him, it will be hard for the staff to keep him off the field, as no one else could do that in 2016. The staff might also give the true freshman some action as a reward for his commitment and to show potential recruits it is possible to see the field their first year.

Scheme: In 2016, it was hard to discern the chicken and egg problem of Rutgers quarterbacks being horrible versus the offensive line not giving them any time to make plays. Rutgers played a power spread rarely with a tight end or H-back a season ago. The Big Ten Network crew described this year’s offense more as a shotgun out of an I-formation. Simply having a tight end should allow an inexperienced tackle, either Seymour or someone else a little more room for error. Last year what killed the offense was third and long, everyone knows you are going to pass and defensive ends just go all out for the QB. Having Grant back in the screen game should also help the line have a little more time. Better QB play in any capacity should help. Unlike other position groups that figured it out over the course of the season, the offensive line did not play their best game against Maryland. If they had, Rutgers may have had a more realistic chance to actually win the game.

Despite the highly hyped stable of running backs, don’t expect the offensive line to overwhelm opposing teams in 2017 in the run game for huge gains all over the field. A key to the season will be if the experienced Cole and Miller on the left side can create just enough push for RU to feel confident in gaining those third and short or goal line plays behind them without resorting to trickery. Seymour, whomever is at right guard, and Jackson, will need to get a little push in the run game or this team is in trouble. In the passing game, expect less free rushers from the outside as Seymour has more experience, coupled with potentially Applefield, who is more of a pass blocker type than Muller, who was in there the last 4 years to open up holes in the run game. Some articles referenced that Rutgers gave up too many sacks in 2016, but the total truly wasn’t that astronomical, despite the number of passing situations. It might be more a product of how few plays the team ran overall and how conservative some third down play calls were. The offensive line will need to give the staff confidence they can hold up for plays to develop, especially in long situations.

Long term outlook: The plus side of Miller being the only senior is that this group should be stable and a reliable part of the team in 2018. Even if a guy like Vretman redshirts, he might be able to leapfrog a returning starter next year. You have to believe by late 2018 Micah Clark will be in the mix. Nick Krimin has a very bright future.

The position group may be shaped more appropriately for Rutgers’s scheme, so Rutgers fans can have hope going into the season, despite the graduations in 2017. If the offense can throw and catch the ball, this group could surprise in the run game, a la 2014. Only two plus weeks until the season begins!

Don’t Miss the Other Previews in our Series:

Wide receiver

Defensive line

Tight end

Linebacker

Special Teams