Camp is almost a week in for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team. We continue a series of positional previews, working our way from the perceived weakest to strongest units that will be published every few days. Next up is the team’s offensive line who received a mix of praise and criticism in 2017. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach: AJ Blazek (3rd season)
Key players lost: Dorian Miller, Marcus Applefield
Key players returning: Tariq Cole (RSr.), Kamaal Seymour (RJr.), Jonah Jackson (RJr.), Michael Maietti (RSo.), Nick Krimin (RSo.), Zach Venesky (RJr.), Micah Clark (So.), Sam Vretman (So.), Mike Lonsdorf (RSo.)
Newcomers: early enrollee Raiqwon O’Neal, two other true freshmen.
Question 1: Can they be equally effective in the run game?
During the disastrous 2016 season, Head Coach Chris Ash said at one point the Rutgers offense was worse than one-dimensional, it was “no-dimensional.” In 2017, offensive coordinator Jerry Kill brought back a more traditional offense predicated on ball control. The team’s personnel up front took well to it, which made sense considering most of the players had been recruited to play in a pro-style system. With three durable bell cow backs and the explosive Raheem Blackshear, the formula to be average or better in the run game took effect.
The Scarlet Knights need to replace two starters on the offensive line, but return right tackle Kamaal Seymour and interior lineman Jonah Jackson who both are better in run blocking. Left tackle Tariq Cole may eventually play on Sundays at left tackle as well. With a number of players who could fill those spots, there should be enough time to jell and block as well as they did in the ground game. Only Blackshear returns at running back, but the other ball carriers including seasoned veteran Jon Hilliman should be able to offset the graduations, particularly if Rutgers can generate a complimentary passing attack.
Question 2: Are they ready for a bigger playbook?
After the team’s disastrous 1-4 start, Kill and the offensive staff scaled back the offensive playbook. The results were effective as Rutgers won three of their next four games (all Big Ten competition). The final game of that stretch against Maryland, Rutgers marched down the field on back to back drives late in the game where the Terps knew what was coming, but simply couldn’t stop it. Unfortunately, Indiana and Michigan State were ready and the last two games of the season were ugly.
For the ninth consecutive season (but who’s counting?), Rutgers has a new offensive coordinator. John McNulty returns to the banks and should run a lot of the same formations Kill did, so the line should be able to adapt in the run game and build on the number of run plays they use. Chris Ash said, it’s the same plays in the run game regardless of the offense; it’s just the sets that change (or not) and we should see a lot of familiar looks.
The pass game may be another story. Rutgers had an anemic passing attack in 2016 and pretty close again in 2017. McNulty likes to get the ball downfield which requires time be provided by the big boys up front. Last year the offensive line was partially to blame for the pass game, but better quarterbacks can help on that front especially if they can get the defense to back up a bit. For example, I was re-watching the Michigan game from last season and Kamaal Seymour got “beat” for a sack, but the defensive lineman ran far around the outside, he must have run a good forty yards in a complete circle before making the play. If the quarterback doesn’t stay in the pocket, the line won’t know which direction to block.
Question 3: What’s new?
The team needs to replace Dorian Miller, a multi-year starter, and Marcus Applefield who elected to play his final season at Virginia. Applefield was a serviceable at worst offensive lineman overall, especially in the 4th quarter run game. Whenever the staff wanted the shake things up, he was the scapegoat. With young players like Nick Krimin getting a lot of love, it’s understandable that Marcus found it best simply to move on. His absence will hurt initially because the Applefield-Seymour combo on the right side at times just manhandled in the run game. As the season goes on, one of the other guards should be able to grow into the role. To replace Miller, the battle is wide open and the candidates have a wide range of skillsets so it could be someone who has a longer body like Mike Lonsdorf or a grappler like Zach Venesky. Mike is currently running with the first team.
As of this week, Jackson has worked at guard over Krimin with Maietti at center.
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
No one gets hurt. Cole is the best left tackles in the Big Ten. Jackson and Maeitti stay in their current roles. One of the sophomores grabs the job at left guard, the beginning of a consistent presence for the next three years, perhaps Krimin is a stud right away. O’Neal is such a monster, he shifts Seymour inside to continue his development.
Quarterbacks don’t have good pocket presence so the staff experiments with Seymour at guard. The replacement at right tackle doesn’t fare much better. Injuries pile up and constant reshuffling prevents and chemistry from developing. None of the young guys are ready, and the team enters 2019 with even more question marks.
Seymour stays at tackle, Krimin is a serviceable guard. Maetti proves he can be the center for the long haul. Cole is among the better tackles in the Big Ten, but not a top NFL draft pick. Mike Lonsdorf is the starting left guard, but gets the Applefield treatment when things are not going well. O’Neal, Micah Clark, and Sam Vretman get reps in every game like Krimin did a year ago.
Players listed on the current roster
#50 Owen Bowles (6’4”, 298 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Bowles had a reputation of being tough in the trenches on both sides of the ball at the high school level. He redshirted as a true freshman, but possesses the upside to be dominant as a center or steady as a guard in the long term.
#51 Jamaal Beaty (6’2”, 295 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Beaty actually enrolled early with his stepbrother Micah Clark. He looked solid blocking on special teams in the 2017 spring game, but faded into the shadows for most of the days since. He has a good build for a guard and could grow into a starter one day. Worst case is he contributes on specials and provides depth.
#54 Kamaal Seymour (6’6”, 309 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Seymour is listed to have actually lost a few pounds, indicating Kenny Parker and the strength staff are trying to make him more lean in pass protection. It wasn’t a huge change so he should still be solid in the run game. If he can elevate from average to solid starter it should have a trickle down effect.
#55 Michael Maietti (6’1”, 292 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
The biggest surprise to the fan base in 2017 may have been Michael Maietti leapfrogging so many people to become the team’s starting center when Jonah Jackson went down. Though his listed height and weight seem normal, he doesn’t look in an eye test like some of the maulers in the Big Ten. It was impressive how he played last year and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be a two-deep center for three more years.
#56 Micah Clark (6’4”, 300 lbs.) Sophomore
Micah rejoined the team after missing the end of spring ball for personal reasons. He was the top recruit in the 2017 class but when people saw him, they felt he was looking like he might weigh less than 250 pounds. Since then, his body has been transformed to his now listed weight of 300. If he can still maintain some of the agility and quickness that had him at the top of so many recruiting services, his day might come sooner than later.
#57 Zach Miseo (6’3”, 295 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Miseo put on ten pounds himself. Zach drew plenty of interest on the recruiting trail out of Bridgewater, so it was a minor coup Rutgers added him as a preferred walk-on last year. You never know when a walk-on offensive linemen will appear on the two-deep, but it does happen somewhere every year. He was the backup left tackle in the spring game.
#58 Charles Zarzecki (6’7”, 300 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
From a walk-on in Miseo who was “too small” we go to the opposite extreme with Charles. Zarzecki has since lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 pounds. Had he been more trim coming out of his school in Boonton, a scholarship may have had his name on it in the FBS. Rutgers has another guy who lost a bunch of weight, Tariq Cole, and that worked out well. Boy would it be nice to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
#61 Mike Lonsdorf (6’6”, 302 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Lonsdorf was viewed by some as the next great tackle prospect at RU as Chris Ash and his staff scrambled to fill out their first recruiting class in 2016. With Tariq Cole anchoring the left tackle spot, Lonsdorf has expanded his game and is the front runner for the left guard spot. If Mike does get that spot, he is in position to be a three-year starter potentially.
#63 Jim Onulak (6’2”, 281 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Jim remains undersized, but showed some skills in spring games. The walk-on has a lot of people in front of him, but has three more years of eligibility.
#65 Tariq Cole (6’6”, 317 lbs.) Redshirt Senior
Cole has been the anchor of the offensive line for the past two years. For the team to improve its passing game, Cole needs to be as good or better than he has been. Tariq has done a great job of pushing off as much of NFL talk as possible and really focus on his role as a leader right now.
#66 Nick Krimin (6’5”, 308 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Offensive Line coach AJ Blazek said they had a plan to ensure Krimin get reps every game last year to continue his development. For the most part the staff stuck to the plan and now Nick is in the driver’s seat for the starting right guard spot.
#71 Raiqwon O’Neal (6’4”, 300 lbs.) Freshman
O’Neal was a nice get on the recruiting trail from South Carolina. He enrolled early and already looks the part of a Big Ten offensive lineman. Though normally it takes about three years for offensive linemen to be ready for Power Five competition, Raiqwon may be ahead of the curve.
#73 Jonah Jackson (6’4”, 305 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Jackson missed some time due to injury in 2017, but returned to form by the end of the year. In many ways, Jonah was the anti- Derrick Nelson who held the starting job in previous campaigns at the center position. Nelson was very calm, whereas Jackson plays with a visible “nastiness” and aggression. Jackson will start somewhere in 2018, either at center or one of the guard spots, which is looking like the latter at the moment.
#74 Sam Howson (6’4”, 292 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Howson surprised when he passed incumbent two-deep centers Skiy Pyrame (not on camp roster) and Zach Venesky in 2017. Sam has shown up on unofficial depth charts at guard, although in the limited clips we have seen from the first few practices, he is often shotgun snapping to several different quarterbacks. As a redshirt sophomore, he is on the normal schedule of development path.
#75 Zach Venesky (6’3’, 301 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
He was the backup as a true freshman at center but has appeared to be stuck in neutral from the outsider perspective. Zach has been involved in virtually every position battle for an interior line position since he arrived on the banks, but has not won yet. It’s a make or break year for him, now in his fourth season with the program.
#77 Sam Vretman (6’6”, 305 lbs.) Sophomore
Sam hails from Sweden and has since been joined by one fellow countryman and gotten a verbal commit from another. He’s a massive dude who like several others on this list appears slightly ahead of schedule. The staff seems to favor he and Mike Lonsdorf as the long-term answer on the left side of the line, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Sam at guard and Mike at tackle instead of the current alignment.
#79 Zach Heeman (6’7’, 310 lbs.) Redshirt Senior
Heeman is a senior who brings leadership despite a lack of playing time thus far in his career. He’s a big human being and yet as an advocate for suicide prevention, a very tender heart. With Seymour injured in spring, Zach manned the right tackle spot. If nothing else, he will be ready in spot duty and on special teams in his final season at Rutgers.
#70 Reginald Sutton (6’4”, 278 lbs.), #76 Matt Rosso (6’6”, 260 lbs.)
Both Sutton and Rosso are three-star prospects who join the aforementioned O’Neal, like most linemen probably need time to develop. With the new redshirt rule, they could get a look at some point if they really impress. The path begins with special teams.
Liam Flite (6’5”, 280 lbs.), Freshman
Flite out of Highland, got a lot stronger and more interest as a high school senior and chose RU over the Patriot League per James Kratch.
Long term outlook: Since you need five offensive linemen just to start, no team ever feels they have enough depth. So far Ash and Blazek have been a little bit lucky that thus far in their tenure on the banks, they have been able to fill just one or two spots on the o-line each year because no massive turnover due to graduations, injuries, and defections has hit this group recently. This trend should continue as the team only loses Cole and Heeman to graduation in 2018.
Kenny Parker deserves a lot of credit with the strength and conditioning program. The biggest test will be if the freshmen and sophomores are physically ready earlier than expected, a huge test in the Big Ten when full grown men are lining up on the other side. That seems realistic, aided by early enrollees in the previous two classes.
The 2019 recruiting class needs more bodies to ensure consistent depth. AJ Blazek has been as impactful an assistant coach as any on the staff in his recruiting both in and outside his position group. AJ brings a contagious energy that is important for any organization that is trying to excite people about the future, so keeping him in the fold may be the most crucial pillar to long term success.
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