We continue a series of Rutgers football positional previews, published every few days. Next up is the team’s offensive line who are really being questioned right now. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach: Pete Rossomando (First season)
Key players lost: Tariq Cole (graduation), Jonah Jackson (graduate transfer), Zach Heeman (graduation)
Key players returning: Kamaal Seymour (RSr.), Zach Venesky (RSr.), Manny Taylor (RSr.), Michael 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), C.J. Hanson (Fr.), Anton Oskarsson (Fr.)
Question 1: Is there enough talent with the departures?
In short yes, though they will be challenged in the passing game. Most Power Five teams roll out a starting unit of all three-star recruits with a few more in reserve. This is a big reason why teams with less depth (like some Group of Fives) can pull upsets early in the year but by bowl season are in trouble without the bodies a Power Five school can call upon. Even losing two players to graduation and another to transfer, Rutgers has 14 three-star or above rated offensive linemen on the roster. That doesn’t count starting center Mike Maietti who was only considered a two star out of Don Bosco Prep. RU currently has ZERO four-star recruited offensive linemen (Micah Clark moved to defense) which are in short supply as it is.
My general philosophy as it pertains to the O-line is three-fold. 1. You are only as strong as your weakest link. 2. Lack of chemistry for any number of reasons WILL sink the ship. 3 You need at minimum five healthy players who are at least average in run and pass blocking, with two (not necessarily the same two) being above average in one or the other. Caveat: Amazing skill position players can overcome deficiencies.
To have an elite squad in pass protection, you need one tackle who is so good that you can leave him on an island against anyone in the country without a worry in the world plus at least one other above average guy. Rutgers does not have that tackle currently. Raiqwon O’Neal is not above average in pass protection right now no matter what anyone says and Kamaal Seymour’s struggles in this area are well documented. As the roster stands now, only Omari Cooper even has the chance this year to be an elite pass blocker and that would require a lot of learning in the next few months to do so. Manny Taylor is probably the next best bet, getting some burn at right guard (not tackle) since coming back from defense, he has the athleticism at either spot. Beyond that, most of the rest of the group is just hoping to be average in pass protection for their positions. The best case scenario for the pass-pro (but not the team overall) is probably that Sam Vretman overtakes Zach Venesky at left guard because I think Sam can become an elite pass blocker on the interior based on his light feet and strength. When Mike Lonsdorf is in the game at guard rather than tackle, he is also a good pass blocker but gives up a lot in the run game.
So really there is very little chance this team is an even average Big Ten offensive line in their pass blocking and we know Rutgers doesn’t have star-studded skill position players who could offset the lack of upside in the trenches. My biggest concern with Rutgers Football for the 5th year in a row is the quarterback play, which is why a good run game is so critical to reduce the load on the signal caller.
Question 2: Can they be effective in the run game?
This was last year’s number one question. During the disastrous 2016 season, Head Coach Chris Ash said the offense was “none-dimensional”. In 2017, the team really looked good with their run blocking, especially when they had Dorian Miller, Jonah Jackson, and Marcus Applefield manning the three interior positions who could all win their one on one matchups without a double team. In 2018, the team regressed in this area as expected following the losses of Miller and Applefield. Now Jackson has also moved on and is expected to start as a graduate transfer at Ohio State, which is a great indicator of how good he is.
So what does 2019 look like? First off, Seymour is an above average if not elite run blocker at right tackle. Man up against most defensive ends and all linebackers/safeties, he’ll get some push especially if the defense has been out there more than three plays. Then on the opposite side, O’Neal takes up plenty of space and has a chance to equal Cole’s production as a run blocker this season. Maietti makes good calls and is surely not a liability at center, but he has yet to blow people off the ball. You never know how much stronger a collegiate offensive lineman will get as becomes a grown man, so Mike could be an above average run blocker for his position. Those three seem entrenched right now.
At the guard spots, Zach Venesky has emerged as the senior leader of the contingent. He brings toughness and nastiness like the departed Jackson did, which has been lacking otherwise at times. As our college offensive line coach used to say, the best hitters on a football team have to be the offensive linemen because it’s their job to hit someone on every play. Well Zach wants to do that every time he’s on the field and it’s contagious. Nick Krimin is a pretty high floor player who should be average in both pass and run blocking, which is fine if the other guys are big-time difference makers.
To fill out the rotation, Manny Taylor and Mike Lonsdorf are adequate run blockers at tackle, but don’t scare opposing defensive coordinators at guard. Sam Vretman may be a long term answer and Matt Rosso (pushing to be the 8th trusted guy per Rossomando) is still an unknown. Owen Bowles has all the makings of a good run blocker at center, though the team would lose a lot in other areas (experience, calling protection, etc) if they removed Maietti from that spot. Sam Howson has been around and brings a similar skillset to Maietti at center, while Jamaal Beaty may have the best upside in the bunch as a road grading guard if given the opportunity.
Question 3: What other questions still need to be answered?
First off, welcome new position coach Pete Rossomando. Rossomando was previously the Head Coach at New Haven and Central Connecticut State. Possessing a resume closer to Norries Wilson’s than Jerry Kill, adding another guy who has been a head coach before is an undervalued part of staff building. The Big Ten crew came away very impressed with the rigorous drills the offensive line was going through as a perk. Will this help them win one on one battles? They are going to need it because the Tight End group is banged up, inexperienced, and likely not a major help in 2019 blocking so there will be a lot more spread offense that isolates the linemen.
I have heard rumors that AJ Blazek preferred less conventional tactics and Rossomando brings the group back to “normal.” This seems a little overblown, but we should find out on Saturdays this fall. If it is in fact true, that could explain why it took all linemen not named Maietti a while to develop their skills in the Ash era.
The two true freshmen will add depth long term, but neither should be expected to play this or probably even next year.
Last but not least, with all the “limitations” last year spoken by Offensive Coordinator John McNulty and playing from behind virtually the entire game nine times, how on earth did Rutgers only allow 16 sacks all season? Biggest reason; fans will miss Tariq Cole more than they think considering two of those sacks were against Raiqwon O’Neal in the red zone against Buffalo while subbing for Cole.
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
The quarterback play is significantly improved and the rest of the team follows suit. O’Neal adjusts quickly and is not a liability against edge rushers. Seymour improves in pass protection to make him truly the NFL prospect John McNulty insists. Krimin or whomever else plays right guard pushes people back more than anticipated with another year of growth and development. Mike Maietti is Mike Maietti and Zach Venesky is what we expected he would become.
Everyone is just average in the run game meaning no major holes open up for backs. Both tackles struggle to pass block which is horrific considering how many third and long situations the team is in. Every first down is painstaking to achieve (see 2016 and 2018 film on repeat).
Seymour stays at tackle but is slightly better, still needing a chip on his side during obvious passing downs. O’Neal gets better over the course of the season but allows a few nasty hits on the QBs. Pass protection seems better due to improved quarterback pocket presence, but the sack total is higher than last year. One of the guards emerges as the guy you want to run the ball behind in clutch situations.
Players listed on the current roster
#50 Owen Bowles (6’4”, 300 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Bowles is getting reps as the backup center and even some opportunities to show what he could do with the starters. He’s a guy who likes to mix things up inside and is on the normal development trajectory.
#51 Jamaal Beaty (6’2”, 299 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Beaty actually enrolled early with his stepbrother Micah Clark and is quite stout on special teams. He may have the best upside of any lineman on the roster as a road grader. He’s on schedule.
#54 Kamaal Seymour (6’6”, 324 lbs.) Redshirt Senior
Seymour is listed to have gained 15 pounds since last year, though he had dropped weight after 2017. Hopefully the tinkering has gotten Kamaal to his most effective playing weight that will aid him in the pass game without giving up his excellent run blocking skills. We’ve seen him improve a ton, albeit slow and steady, can he take the next step?
#55 Michael Maietti (6’1”, 291 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
The one major success of the AJ Blazek era, Maietti has been the starting center for the last two years despite arriving as a two-star prospect. He, even more than the quarterbacks, is most responsible for the low sack total a year ago by A. calling great protections and B. never getting beat straight up the middle in the A gap for an immediate sack. His size has reached a fairly normal level for a center and if he can drive some nose guards backwards in the run game, it would likely cause a chain reaction in each direction.
#60 Omari Cooper (6’4”, 285 lbs.) Junior
Rossomando indicated Cooper plays as hard as any player has ever coached, which is incredibly high praise. He is listed at 285, but is now 295 according to the coaching staff. From what we see and hear, Omari is still very, very raw but with his level of effort is making huge strides. The team may need him to play high leverage snaps at tackle this season.
#61 Mike Lonsdorf (6’6”, 302 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Lonsdorf continues to be the swing tackle and also served as the left guard at times last year. He’s adequate at tackle and the staff trusts him to protect the left side if O’Neal were to be injured. As a guard, he’s excellent in pass protection borderline elite in the screen game, but is a little tall for getting low and blowing people backward. He’s exactly the type of player you want filling out the two deep.
#66 Nick Krimin (6’5”, 309 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Blazek’s commitment to giving him reps in 2017 may finally be paying dividends as Nick is running with the first team right now at right guard. Though the hope was he would be ahead of schedule (starting in his third season), he’s right at that mark now with two years of football to play. He has excellent size for a guard, so if he can get good leverage may turn out to be the team’s best run blocker.
#70 Reggie Sutton (6’4”, 280 lbs.), Redshirt Freshman
The emergency tight end is back again. The hope was Sutton could be the backup right tackle, but with injuries ravaging the Tight End room right now, Reggie is probably one of the three tight ends (or 6th lineman depending how you look at it) in short yardage. He has good mobility and if he can add strength and weight, could start at right tackle down the line. He’s still got four years of eligibility left.
#71 Raiqwon O’Neal (6’4”, 305 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
O’Neal probably benefitted more than anyone else from the new four game redshirt rule. He was forced into action in relief of Tariq Cole at times with less than stellar results. On the flip side, that experience helped enough for him to lead the left tackle battle from wire to wire thus far this offseason. Raiqwon has elite upside as a run and pass blocker at left tackle, so the key is just him continuing to get better every single day.
#72 Manny Taylor (6’5”, 312 lbs.) Redshirt Senior
Manny is back on offense after a year at nose guard. He got some run with the starters in last Saturday’s scrimmage when they were performing poorly up to that point. He moved quite well the last time we saw him at tackle (2017 spring game), one of the reasons writers and fans alike lobbied for Seymour to be moved inside to guard. This is Taylor’s final chance as a redshirt senior, let’s hope he saved the best for last.
#74 Sam Howson (6’4”, 292 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Howson remains a two-deep center, although he has been splitting reps with Owen Bowles. Howson has good size for a center and his career up to this point has been much more than of just a guy who helped fill out Chris Ash’s first recruiting class. He’s been the backup center for the last three years and the staff feels confident he can call protections and not be a liability if called upon. Again, even though he was not a highly coveted prospect out of high school, he’s still gaining “old-man strength.”
#75 Zach Venesky (6’3’, 306 lbs.) Redshirt Senior
Zach was on the cusp for a while before finally starting a few games last year. He loves to talk trash and be physical, two traits sorely lacking throughout the entire roster a year ago. As a team captain and senior leader, he needs to back it up with his play that should have a trickle down effect. If the season turns out to be a success in any way, a likely reason is Venesky filling Cole and Jackson’s leadership void.
#76 Matt Rosso (6’6”, 290 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
Bonus points for wearing number 76 on his jersey. He’s added 30 pounds in one year which is a huge change. Coach Rossomando talked two weeks ago about how Rosso is on the cusp of being a trusted member of the line if he were called upon in a game. We haven’t heard anything positive or negative since so we need to wait and see.
#77 Sam Vretman (6’6”, 305 lbs.) Junior
Despite playing high school ball in America unlike his fellow Swedes, Vretman still is behind the other linemen in actual game experience. Sam did get a start or two last year, I specifically remember the Illinois game where he was ok yet unspectacular. He definitely has the physical ability and could get more reps this fall. I do believe he has the highest upside in pass protection of anyone at the guard position.
#59 CJ Hanson (6’5”, 295 lbs.)
Hanson decommitted at one point, but quickly re-committed last fall. As an in-state prospect who easily could have gone elsewhere, seeing player like him have success at Rutgers is critical to recruiting the Garden State.
#79 Anton Oskarsson (6’5”, 270 lbs.)
Oskarsson is the third native of Sweden in as many years to join the Scarlet Knights. He manhandled his competition in Europe, but needs a little more size before seeing time at Rutgers. Raw players like him are the type Rutgers needs to take a chance on and hit a winning lottery ticket on to take the next step as a program.
#57 Zach Miseo (6’3”, 295 lbs.) RSo., #63 Jim Onulak (6’2”, 281 lbs.) RJr., #64 Jason Lavigna (6’4”, 270 lbs.) Fr., #78 Liam Flite (6’5”, 280 lbs.) RFr.
Long term outlook: Average. As mentioned at nauseam, Rutgers needs to keep filling the ranks with three-star prospects which they have managed to do despite the on-field team struggles in recent years. A third of them simply won’t pan out and those that do usually take about three years to develop.
The key is coaching up a few guys to be above average and ensuring every player is getting better each year. Another year of incompetent skill position play and the offensive line growth may stall almost completely though. No coaching staff would be overjoyed with this group as it stands now, but there are plenty of pieces that if one guy becomes a stud or a big time player is added to the fold for next year, the perception would look way different. Despite the losses, the cupboard is not bare of talent or experience.
2019 might not be great, but the group is not lagging behind most Power Five programs in the intermediate term.
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