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Opinions wanted: Rutgers recruiting pipeline for Swedish linemen

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How big of a competitive advantage is it? If none, what do you recommend?

Navy v Rutgers
Munoz was a product of Schiano’s Florida pipeline. Florida is tougher to recruit now.
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

Rutgers Football secured a commitment from Anton Oskarsson, but the fans are more interested in the pipeline of linemen than Anton individually. For example, CrazyfoRU commented, “very glad to have this Swedish pipeline develop.” This makes sense because Anton likely won’t contribute in games until 2021 and no player especially lineman is a sure thing, but he’s a big kid with upside and you need to fill your program with as many of those as possible. So bigger questions remain; Why are pipelines so important? Is this the beginning of a true pipeline that will help the team win? How did this happen?

Let’s take a closer look.

Living in the Bay Area, I had a front row seat to the transformation of the league’s perennial laughingstock Golden State Warriors to NBA superpower without having a top five draft pick during the stretch. It makes you wonder why every team seems to think “tanking” is the way to go in (American) pro sports and yet the Warriors could win without purposely losing first. I happened to be “home” in New Jersey when the Warriors visited the Brooklyn Nets this past season and one of the Nets broadcasters made a comment that, “What you notice when the Warriors come to town is that all their people are first-class.”

That was it! But why?

What makes many of the great dynasties and programs in sports successful is that in very case they have good leadership who start with a plan, get everyone to buy-in (trust the process!), and then develop a competitive edge in at least one facet of their plan (usually taking a risk on outside the box thinking) which then snowballs in a good way. The St. Louis Cardinals minor league system, Branch Rickey’s talent evaluation, Red Auerbach’s team building (including making the first NBA draft pick of a black player), Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense, Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, and so on are examples of this innovation in action.

Is the Swedish pipeline a place Rutgers can build a competitive advantage by thinking outside the box?

The plan

The number one reason Pat Hobbs hired Chris Ash was that Ash had a well-defined plan for everything. Of course when Chris Ash walked into Pat Hobbs’s office in 2015, it’s unlikely that part of that plan was to heavily recruit Sweden for offensive line talent. Of course it’s easy to buy-in when you are joining a program who has already proven they can win, it’s much more difficult to start from ground zero. Those examples above are the facet of the overall plan that would become famous, but don’t forget Walsh for example had ideas down to the exact time the team bus would leave for the airport. That’s no guarantee that Ash’s plan in every area would work as Rutgers is already on the third offensive system in three years, but this shows Ash is willing to adapt like all great leaders, not just coaches, have done.

Greg Schiano had a plan for recruiting that at the time (before the era of social media particularly) that was almost perfect in retrospect. Schiano’s plan was simple; 1. make a 2.5 to 3 hour driving radius from Rutgers campus and win there, 2. leverage South Florida particularly for talent, especially speed, 3. relationships, relationships, relationships. Though that plan worked so well for Schiano, Ash could not use it verbatim.

Note for the first part that a lot more in recruiting happens now over social media than before and it’s easier for bigger programs to steal gems from smaller programs just by waiting to see who has offered a kid on 247sports for example. For the second part, USF, UCF, FAU, and FIU have risen in Florida alone making it more difficult, plus Rutgers is no longer in a conference that has Miami (FL), USF, or UCF for Floridians to use for perspective. (Todderick Hunt discussed in his interview with our editor Aaron Breitman that Ohio may be the new Florida.) The dynamics of the third part have changed as coaching staffs changed and schools like Paterson Catholic have closed since then, but all that said, this is still the most important facet.

The Swedish adaptation

Relationships are the most important part of recruiting and Ash’s staff have worked as granular as possible on this front it seems. The Hayek brothers, now the DeVera brothers, and the Clark-Beaty family. Ash has struggled to infuse the program with offensive linemen which made the move of offering Beaty (a three-star recruit himself) to help secure Clark (four-star) so critical because in his first few seasons, the number of guys recruited to play in the trenches on the banks has been limited. Getting Clark and Beaty to commit early cannot be undersold as a reason when this program returns to any level of competitiveness, but let’s wait for another day to discuss all those reasons except one: being able to take a chance on a Swedish lineman playing ball in Connecticut.

An ideal recruiting class usually has four or five offensive linemen and Ash had already secured two to enroll early in December 2016, so he and O-line coach AJ Blazek were more free to take a small chance on Sam Vretman. The staff did not have to travel internationally to initially evaluate Vretman who was playing at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut and showed his skill against solid high school competition. Despite not having played football all his life (we’ll get to that in a minute), Sam was listed by 247 composite as the 6th rated prospect in the state of Connecticut. Throw in the context that despite being offered by “in-state” Uconn, the Huskies were one of the losers in the 2014 conference realignment and in less bargaining position than Power-5 Rutgers.

Vretman came from a country with a very solid education system (we will not get into Scandinavian socialist economics), easily able to graduate and enroll early in spring 2017 alongside fellow linemen Clark and Beaty at Rutgers. So in spring practice, Sam made an immediate impression with the coaching staff, being on the two-deep at times and ultimately doing enough to play some snaps as a true freshman last fall. As a result, the staff was willing to accelerate efforts to recruit Robin Jutwreten, a friend of Vretman.

Jutwreten signed his letter of intent in January and a few months later Oskarsson was on a tour of camps in the US, most notably at Ohio State. Of course Chris Ash coached at Ohio State, Greg Schiano now coaches there, so Rutgers had a representative at their camp (relationships!) to observe Oskarsson first hand. AJ Blazek was already calling Anton weekly, but the Buckeye camp performance was enough to accelerate the conversation and ultimately have him commit yesterday.

Will this work?

Vretman, Jutwreten, and of course Oskarsson have not made a major on-field impact yet so answering the question at this point is still premature. Linemen take time to develop and as we know you still need a quarterback to be competitive no matter how good the rest of your team is. So we can’t say this will work.

Why I like the moves:

  1. Multi-sport athletes. We will dive into this more in a separate non-football specific post about why playing multiple sports helps the body work all its muscles, but in particular let’s talk hockey. Sweden is one of the five or six countries that compete at the highest levels of hockey which makes sense because it’s really cold up there! Since it’s cold, Swedes learn to skate, ski, or both at an early age. Skating requires tremendous balance, particularly when you are attempting to perform another task like whacking a piece of frozen, vulcanized rubber with all your weight concentrated on two 3/16” blades. Of course if you are shorter, you have a lower center of gravity and likely weigh less, making this slightly easier. If you are a big guy this is an excellent way to improve overall athleticism and continue to adjust to a growing body without having to do Lynn Swann ballet.
  2. Big, strong kids. thevinman made the point, “A lot of big really strong kids in Scandavania.” Unlike let’s say quarterback, developing a good offensive line is about quantity over quality. So how do you achieve this when there are finite number of human beings with the potential to be big enough to even have a chance? Get as many big strong kids with upside as possible and hope five of them are ready to start in a given season. Ok, so where do you find these needles in a haystack? With Florida out, and Ohio in, that’s great but Ohio State is still going to have an edge there. pj43 also offered up the idea a Samoan pipeline. This would be a good idea as teams like USC, Hawaii, Utah, and Boise State have shown, but Rutgers doesn’t have relationships there. HowRU made the excellent point that Rutgers may have a major recruiting edge in Sweden (perhaps Europe at large) if these guys pan out.
  3. Viking helmets. Kids growing up in America see tanking while European kids see leagues like English Premier soccer where last place teams get dropped to the second division. So they are aware that it takes something extra to be a part of something building up from nothing. I’ve never been to Sweden, but channeling some Rutgers pillaging of their own rather than R garden of New Jersey being pillaged might build a mental edge. Rutgers graphic design program has been a huge asset, I’m sure they can help outfit fans with a Viking helmet. RAS61 made this suggestion which at first seemed simply funny. The more I thought about it, this is actually a good idea especially if Vretman gets serious time this season. Judge’s chambers works pretty well for the Yankees, why not use a viking theme to make games memorable for fans and recruits?

So that was pretty long-winded, thank you for reading this far.

In college sports, there are no major benefits to finishing last. Rutgers isn’t getting the first overall pick in a Big Ten draft. Instead, the equivalent goes to a successful program like Ohio State, so RU has to take risks to close the gap. It will take a few years before we look back and make hindsight judgements on Ash’s tenure and the Swedish pipeline, but for now it has potential. Potential means hope, and as long as a program has hope they can move in the right direction.

Do you agree?

NOTE: Of course some believe the Schiano tenure was overrated, but I’ll point you to an article from Sports Illustrated in 2003 titled, “Why can’t Rutgers ever win?” Remember that a truly strong group existed that hoped to completely drop athletics at RU entirely.

P.S.: Though my last name is “Anderson” I have no direct affiliation with the country of Sweden. My relatives had been in Scotland quite a long period of time before coming to America from what I understand, hence the spelling.