Spring practice begins Today for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team.
This series will review the state of each positional group in spring practice that runs throughout March into April and concludes with the spring game on April 14.
We continue with the Offensive line.
Position coach(es): AJ Blazek
Key players lost: Dorian Miller, Marcus Applefield
Key players returning: Tariq Cole (RSr.), Kamaal Seymour (RJr.), Jonah Jackson (RJr.), Mike Maietti (RSo.), Nick Krimin (RSo.), Zach Venesky (RJr.), Micah Clark (So.), Sam Vretman (So.), Mike Lonsdorf (RSo.)
Newcomers: Three true freshmen: early enrollee Raiqwon O’Neal, Matt Rosso and Reggie Sutton for summer camp.
What they did well in 2017: Run blocking.
When Rutgers was not in obvious passing downs, the offensive line held up pretty well. Despite the number of players who were shuffling in and out at center and right guard, it was rarely noticed by the average fan due to the cohesiveness of the group. When Rutgers did have a lead, the offensive line was able to bulldoze for some first downs and move the chains. Making this more impressive was how limited the team’s passing offense was, allowing defenses to play nine men in the box at times.
The Illinois game saw Rutgers offensive line impose their will to get Rutgers a Big Ten win, but the Maryland game was the best representation of this. Not since at least 2012 was I completely certain in a conference game that when Rutgers got the ball late in the game that 1. they would surely run the ball almost every down and 2. the other team could not stop it. Against opponents with more physically talented defenses Rutgers offensive line was unable to open as many holes, but it likely would have been a different story with any semblance of an aerial attack. The group loses two starters who were more known for run blocking than pass protection (Miller and Applefield), so expect some pain early in the year as the 2018 group jells together.
Needs Improvement: Adding more go-to run plays.
After getting absolutely demolished by eventual Big Ten champion Ohio State, former offensive coordinator Jerry Kill had two weeks to prepare for Illinois. Rather than add more wrinkles to his playbook, Kill had his running attack focus on just a small handful which the group perfected and absolutely bludgeoned the Illini. This was just enough to bring another win the following week where impeccable blocking sprung Gus Edwards for an early 75 yard touchdown against Purdue and RU held on for victory. After that though, Rutgers limited playbook hampered their ability to do much of anything offensively the final three weeks of the year.
Gus Edwards power left? That counter left with Raheem Blackshear, how many times did we see that play? According to Ash, the sets may be different with different offenses, but the plays remain the same. That may be true, but with a ninth offensive coordinator in nine seasons, you can understand how having to learn the same thing three, four, even five different ways for star left tackle Tariq Cole requires retraining the brain yet again. Kamaal Seymour was finally getting comfortable in his first full season at right tackle, so hopefully he and the new right guard (Zach Venesky the most likely at this point) can get on the same page quickly.
Of course if the line takes a significant leap forward and can block even the less common playcalls more effectively, that would make it easier for the quarterbacks and wideouts who absolutely need it.
Changes expected in 2018
Two new starters will need to be identified, but beyond that a lot depends on John McNulty. One thing that the most serious followers of the site know is how often I reference Mike Fladell as being a successful offensive guard despite his height (6’7”). With so many very tall offensive linemen on the roster, ultimately it behooves the staff to find ways for them to succeed on the interior of the line, not just tackle. Who was the offensive coordinator in 2007, Fladell’s senior year? John McNulty. And for the nth time, it REALLY won’t be surprising if Seymour (6’6”, 312) ends up inside at right guard, especially with yet another playbook.
Krimin is not quite as tall, but is close (6’5 1/2”) so the challenge will be for Blazek to continue to coach him up in the power run game as he was the backup left guard in 2017. Virtually everyone else who could earn the spot is also taller than the man they are replacing, Miller. The biggest factor here will be the effectiveness of Rutgers quarterbacks in throwing the deep ball and/or keeping the ball and running. McNulty was known as a deep play-action playcaller when he had Kenny Britt, Tiquan Underwood, and Tim Brown burning people deep, so if he can catch lightning in a bottle again with some long completions, it will make run blocking for the linemen a little easier. Or, if Rutgers quarterback can make some plays on the ground as Giovanni Rescigno did at times the last two years that will plant the seed in the defensive linemen’s minds that they have to be ready and less able to focus on blowing up the backfield.
One thing that is rather uncommon, especially for Rutgers is that they return two players with starting experience at the center position. Mike Maietti filled in admirably when Jonah Jackson went down. When Jackson returned, the staff experimented with him at right guard, but ultimately returned Applefield to his starting spot. Applefield elected to transfer for his 5th season to Virginia so perhaps Jonah ends up battling Venesky for that spot. More likely, Krimin keeps the left guard spot, but Venesky will be in a dog fight for the fourth consecutive year on the right side. Venesky will begin camp as the starter but be pushed by several players including former early enrollee and true sophomore Sam Vretman plus redshirt senior Zach Heeman (6’7). Redshirt sophomore Sam Howson also was neck and neck with many of these guys a year ago and should not be counted out.
Way too early predictions
The offensive line will be the second most stable unit on the team behind the linebackers. In an ideal world, the staff would play the physical Jackson at center, knowing they can always turn to the slightly undersized Maietti if needed. In that same ideal world, the staff would “get their five most talented offensive linemen on the field” by shifting Seymour to guard because prized recruit Micah Clark is ready to start at right tackle. Even with a full year in Kenny Parker’s conditioning program, it would be hard to expect Clark to be ready for the rigors of playing interior line in the Big Ten, but tackle is a possibility.
Mike Lonsdorf (RSo.) was the swing tackle in summer camp in 2017 and figures to be the backup to the durable Tariq Cole on the left side initially, though if the staff thinks Vretman is athletic enough for tackle, he could end up there. An injury to Cole and the staff would likely hand the keys to Clark who they view as the left tackle of the future. Redshirt freshmen Jamaal Beaty and Owen Bowles are joined by highly touted early enrollee Raiqwon O’Neal as guys with the physical ability to contribute on special teams right away, maybe more. If O’Neal impresses and makes the staff feel confident that he is the “next great tackle prospect at RU”, the staff may insert him behind Cole immediately and experiment with virtually everyone else on the right side. There is almost zero chance of him starting as a true freshman though as only Anthony Davis and Kaleb Johnson have done that in recent memory.
You are only as strong as your weakest link. The key to having a more than serviceable group is having three players above average in both run and pass blocking. Beyond Tariq Cole, it’s unclear at this juncture what other linemen are above average Big ten blockers in either facet. If Coach Blazek can develop two other guys into true anchors in addition to Tariq, RU has the manpower to surely find adequate players for the remaining two starting positions. Rutgers has come a long way from the day just three years ago when only eight scholarship offensive linemen were healthy enough to play the spring game. In football, depth turns into production eventually.
Previously covered groups
For a change of pace, check out the big boys trying out curling.