Spring practice continues for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team after spring break ended this past weekend.
This series reviews the state of each positional group in spring practice that runs throughout March into April and concludes with the spring game on April 13.
We continue with the Offensive line.
Position coach: Pete Rossomando
Key players lost: Tariq Cole, Jonah Jackson
Key players returning: Kamaal Seymour (RSr.), Zach Venesky (RSr.), Mike Maietti (RJr.), Nick Krimin (RJr.), Mike Lonsdorf (RJr.), Sam Howson (RJr.), Sam Vretman (Jr.), Jamaal Beaty (RSo.), Owen Bowles (RSo.), Raiqwon O’Neal (RFr.), Matt Rosso (RFr.), Reggie Sutton (RFr.),
Newcomers: Omari Cooper (Jr. - transfer), Three true freshmen in summer.
What they did well in 2018: Early down pass blocking.
To try and jump start their passing attack, Rutgers did a lot of play-action or straight drop backs on 1st and 10. There were countless plays the average fan can recall where Art Sitkowski and at times Gio Rescigno stood there with a ton of time on early downs. Unfortunately, rarely if ever did these result on long completions. Instead it was either check downs to Raheem Blackshear, QB scrambles, unforced interceptions, or most often incompletions.
This protection also found itself true in the two minute drill. With defenses often not playing press man on the outside, the line was able to identify the rushers, plus an occasional 5th man blitzing and hold up. The times Rutgers was able to show life on offense came when they were able to get at least one first down and then get back up to the line quickly without letting the defense reset. Of course the danger is when you don’t get the yardage and return the ball to the opposition quickly, it looks like 2016 all over again at very little fault of the line.
Needs Improvement: Third down pass blocking and/or run blocking.
Ok, so I may have cheated here a bit, but the truth is it all fits together anyway. If your offense can’t get yards on first and second down then you set yourself for long third down conversion attempts. When you are losing, that means you simply have to pass and allows the defense to dig in and go all out in the pass rush. Of course if you have the lead, it’s ok to mix in an occasional run in the hopes you can break a few tackles to keep the defense off balance.
The place this was most evident was on the right side of the Rutgers line. Kamaal Seymour (right tackle) and Jonah Jackson (right guard) were effective enough in run blocking that defensive lineman on that side had to read and react. Unfortunately, neither possessed elite lateral quickness and were vulnerable to an all out pass rush. Jackson was the team’s best lineman in 2018 overall. He and Seymour both were in the lineup more for their run blocking, but Rutgers wasn’t guaranteed to gain at least three or four yards behind them every time.
On the other side, the revolving door at left guard and occasionally left tackle with Tariq Cole banged up never allowed cohesion to develop. In pass protection, Cole and Lonsdorf at guard was the best tandem, at times quite effective in the screen game despite some questionable chop blocks and illegal man downfield flags. It wasn’t until late in the season when Zach Venesky became the starter at left guard that Rutgers could generate any consistent rushing attack in that direction.
Anytime Cole was out, it was often a disaster despite criticism of him having regressed as a senior. With all the momentum in a comeback attempt early in the season against Buffalo, Rutgers was inside the 10 yard line poised to make it a two score game with plenty of time left. True Freshman Raiqwon O’Neal in place of an injured Cole got blown up badly twice, the second time being manhandled by a straight bull rush that got Rescigno sacked on a 4th down to end the threat.
Changes expected in 2019
Two and a half new starters will need to be identified. I say half because the front runners for vacancies at guard all got an opportunity to start in 2018 (Venesky, Vretman, Krimin, and Lonsdorf). The staff seems content with O’Neal and Seymour at the tackle spots, Maietti at center, and at press time, Venesky and Krimin at the guard spots. So that leaves Lonsdorf at the backup left tackle with newcomer Omari Cooper the understudy at right tackle. So far, offensive coordinator John McNulty and new offensive line coach Pete Rossomando have been hesitant to shift Seymour inside because Kamaal has only played right tackle for the last three years and Cooper is still getting acclimated to the playbook.
The wild card was that Rutgers was holding a scholarship open for South Alabama grad transfer Ryan Alexander, but he committed to Syracuse over the weekend.
Rossomando, a former head coach at Central Connecticut State as well as New Haven, brings with him more conventional blocking techniques. The players have not gotten into specifics but they seem to prefer this over former coach AJ Blazek’s atypical style. With 13 scholarship linemen in spring camp and three additions in summer, the bodies are there for guys to step up. Offensive linemen often take three, even four years to grow into their bodies with enough strength to hold up so all hope is not lost that guys like a Nick Krimin could be effective heading to the backstretch of their careers.
Reggie Sutton was used as a 6th lineman / tight end and could fill that role again. Without a true fullback on the roster, maybe we see some lineman in the backfield, Sutton or other as well. It’s a boost to morale and a way to reward the big guys if it works.
Way too early predictions
The offensive line will take some time to jell for sure. The loss of Marcus Applefield hurt more than anyone expected (other than he and I) last year, but if the added experience for his replacements can be converted to success, it may not look as bad in the long run. Cole was a stalwart at left tackle and despite criticism of his play at times, it was newsworthy the one time he allowed a big hit on his quarterback. Sitkowski took a shot against Ohio State (what QB across the country didn’t) and that influenced the perception of fans for the rest of the year. All told, Sitkowski ended up not missing a game and by my count in his three years as starting left tackle not one time did a Rutgers starting quarterback miss a game due to injury. I’m not counting Johnathan Lewis’s ankle injury in 2017 because he probably could have played if he was the starter. Losing Jonah Jackson who was the best lineman in run blocking for sure leaves another void.
That being said, I’m more bullish than most on the offensive line. Offensive line is a position where players improve consistently year over year with improved strength and the experience of seeing more scenarios play out in front of them. Rutgers has a lot of scholarship guys and thought enough to move Micah Clark to defense rather than trying him at center or left tackle. One reason is that communication is key and Mike Maietti is back for a third season as an undersized starting center. His ability to call out protections was underrated last year. Sam Howson is his backup, a fellow redshirt junior, who will also benefit from a second year in the same offensive system.
O’Neal looked the part when he arrived on campus as an early enrollee and ideally would have another year of seasoning before being thrust in the lineup at left tackle. O’Neal has to be the answer at left tackle. If he should be injured Lonsdorf is good enough in pass protection and an added year should help him in the run game as well.
Zach Venesky and Nick Krimin have taken hold of the guard spots thus far. Venesky on the left side likes to mix it up in the run game. A key to the entire offense is if Zach can blow some people off the line a bit to open a few holes. Krimin is a tall guard, not quite as tall as Art Forst or Mike Fladell, but more in that mold. By sheer size on the interior of the line is suited for pass protection so the question is whether he can generate enough low leverage in the run game. Playing alongside Seymour should help in that regard because Kamaal can usually control his own man without a chip on run plays. Vretman is an experienced backup who himself will be stronger with another crucial year of American football under his belt.
Again, offensive line is a position where players improve every year unlike others where the progress is more bursts than consistent. An offensive line can also look a lot better with a quarterback who has pocket presence so defenders can’t just run around the outside. A line could not have been helped less by their quarterback than they were in 2018, so that has nowhere to go but up. If the skill position guys can make a few plays to allow the line extra plays to feel out their opponents and see them lose a step due to fatigue, things will look a lot different.
Previously covered groups
As part of the ongoing #Robeson100, in just a few weeks the #PaulRobeson Plaza will be dedicated.— Rutgers University–New Brunswick (@RutgersNB) March 22, 2019
Take a look at how the work is coming along and learn more about how #Rutgers is celebrating Robeson's life and legacy: https://t.co/Y68tq5o3eJ pic.twitter.com/Oo44Aped7G