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Finding stability along offensive line is key to progress for Rutgers

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New offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson and offensive line coach Andrew Aurich are working to develop a position group that has struggled in recent years.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan
Nick Krimin will anchor the offensive line for the Scarlet Knights this season.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 season kicking off less than two weeks from now, Greg Schiano and his coaching staff continue to navigate through this unique offseason. Due to the challenges they’ve had during this transitional year with limited practice time while revamping the program, Schiano waited until Monday to release the 2020 roster.

Schiano said on a call on Monday, “To say this year is weird is an understatement. I think the more flexible you are, the more you are ready to pivot on a dime, depending on the day the you are going to do and the less it is going to make you crazy. So I tried to do that as much as I can because nothing surprises me. I can tell you right now, this has been one heck of a year.”

In regard to making decisions with the depth chart, which will be released next Monday, Schiano stated, “A team is being formed as we speak.”

While who will start at quarterback is always a key question, who will be blocking along the offensive line is arguably an even more important one this season.

Three year starting center Mike Maetti transferred to Missouri and Mike Lonsdorf, who started 12 games over the previous two seasons, chose to opt out of this season due to Covid-19. For a unit that has struggled mightily in recent years, losing that experience certainly doesn’t help. Aside from the loss of Lonsdorf, two other players no longer on the roster are Owen Bowles and Anton Oskarsson.

Regarding the offensive line, Schiano stated, “Like every other position on our team, I think it is a work in progress. We have some guys that are really getting better. I think Andy Aurich is doing a really good job developing the line, he and Scott Vallone. We have some experience but not a ton. Nick Krimin would certainly be the elder statesman there and he is a real strong leader for us on the offensive line.”

Krimin started all 12 games last season at right guard and is crucial to developing continuity along the line this season. The redshirt senior also has the most size of any returning player among the group at 6’5” and 310 pounds. Other than senior Sam Vretman, who didn’t start any games last season, no other veteran weighs over 300 pounds.

As far as how the rest of the offensive line will shake out, Schiano said, “We have a bunch of parts and are trying to figure out, like most other positions on the team right now, what’s the best mix? How do we get the best five on the field and do we have the opportunity to play six or seven? Does that help us? Or do we want to ride with the best five the whole time? That’s what we are trying to figure out.”

One surprise addition to the offensive line is Brendan Bordner, who has played 20 games over the past two seasons, all on the defensive line. His switch to the other side of the ball speaks to the need of reworking this unit. Another key addition is JUCO transfer Cedrice Paillant. At 6’4” and 298 pounds, Paillant was rated the No. 15 JUCO offensive tackle in the nation by JCGridiron.com.

While it’s rare for true freshmen to contribute on the offensive line, there is opportunity for that to happen this season. It is notable that Isaiah Wright (6’3”, 299 pounds) from St. Peters Prep was ranked the 98th best defensive end prospect in the 2020 recruiting class by 247 Sports, has moved over to this unit as well. Other freshmen who could be in the mix is Tunde Fatukasi, the 6’4”, 298 pound brother of linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, and Bryan Felter (6’3”, 299 pounds), who played for assistant coach Nunzio Campanile at Bergen Catholic.

Who starts at offensive line and becomes part of the core rotation will be a key development worth tracking this season. Raiqwon O’Neal started four games at left tackle and has the talent to emerge as a reliable piece. C.J. Hanson seems poised to take over at center. Krimin is a lock to start at guard. Reggie Sutton played six games last season and could find his way as a starter, as could Paillant and Bordner, who likely changed positions because an opportunity to play right away was possible. With it being such an unorthodox season, it wouldn’t be shocking to see one of the true freshmen starting or playing key minutes as well.

With Sean Gleeson planning to run an up tempo spread offense, finding the right mix along the offensive line is key to how creative he can be this season. No matter who starts at quarterback, providing protection for them, as well as creating holes for an intriguing running back group led by Isaih Pacheco is a must for the offense to show improvement. Rutgers averaged under 14 points per game the previous two seasons and the inability to sustain drives consistently wore out the defense during Big Ten play. The struggles of the offensive line were a big part as to why.

There is talent within the skill positions this season, but having the time to allow them to make plays is essential to the offense’s success under Gleeson. Who the best mix of players along the offensive line ultimately end up being remains to be seen. As Schiano said on Monday’s call, “we are going to find out.” The first test for the new look offensive line will be when Rutgers kicks off the 2020 season at Michigan State on October 24 at noon ET on BTN.