The Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team’s spring activities have been cancelled just like all other NCAA spring athletic events. With the hope that fall football happens, even if it is delayed or there’s a limited summer training camp, we will proceed with our traditional spring position reviews. With the current worldwide global health crisis, we are living day to day, but hopefully both Rutgers Football and the world at large have brighter days ahead.
This series reviews the state of each positional group based on the best information we have today. In the absence of spring practice, naturally less intelligence is available than it has been in previous campaigns. Also, with the new transfer portal, eligibility questions are best guess and we won’t assume anyone who has already entered the transfer portal will return. The team’s official website does not currently have a 2020 roster posted.
We continue with the Offensive line.
Position coach: Andrew Aurich
Key players lost: Zach Venesky (graduation), Kamaal Seymour (graduation), Mike Maietti (grad transfer - Missouri), Sam Howson (grad transfer - LIU), Manny Taylor (graduation), Jim Onulak (grad transfer - LIU), Jamaal Beaty (transfer - TBD)
Key players returning: Raiqwon O’Neal (RSo.), Nick Krimin (RSr.), Mike Lonsdorf (RSr.), Reggie Sutton (RSo.), Owen Bowles (RJr.), CJ Hanson (RFr.), Omari Cooper (RJr.), Matt Rosso (RSo.), Sam Vretman (RJr.), Anton Oskarsson (RFr.)
Newcomers: Tunde Fatukasi (early enrollee), Cedrice Paillant (JUCO transfer), Bryan Felter (signed LOI), Isaiah Wright (signed LOI), Marquis Morris (transfer - William & Mary)
What they did well in 2019: Block the option by the end of the year.
Yes this is very specific, but there was little else to cheer in 2019 and the group deserves credit for adjusting on the fly and being serviceable in one facet of the game by season’s end. In the first game under interim coach Nunzio Campanile, there were so many unblocked defenders it was difficult to watch. A few games later and they ended up manhandling at the point of attack a Liberty team that was not undersized. Liberty is far from a Big Ten team, but they were bowl eligible and had good size on their defensive front.
The offensive line was the biggest mystery for the 2019 Rutgers Football team and even though they projected better in run blocking than pass protection based on personnel, the option run was not what any of us anticipated. The adjustments for quicker linemen like Mike Lonsdorf at tackle helped get out and do at least a little bit of blocking at the second level.
Needs Improvement: Winning one on one battles.
Having linemen get to the second level was all well and good ... as long as no one close to the ball was quickly defeated in their one on one battle. This happened too often especially against Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State when Rutgers backs had to alter their path almost as soon as they touched the ball. Only one lineman for RU (Kamaal Seymour) had the advantage regularly in terms of strength over the man he had to block. The other best man to man run blocker was Zach Venesky, but both of them are out of eligibility and RU needs to figure out how to replace them in the ground game.
In the pass game, Rutgers quarterbacks sometimes even had more time than anyone expected (26 sacks allowed on the year compared to 61 in 2010), much to their surprise at times when they threw interceptions without a ton of pressure. That’s not to say a few individual breakdowns against Iowa, Boston College, and Illinois didn’t turn those from competitive contests into blowouts seemingly in an instant. And against Michigan, it was as if Rutgers was not blocking the Wolverine pass rush at all. Rutgers against a four man pass rush usually tried to have center Mike Maietti (since departed to Missouri) help right guard Nick Krimin while everyone else manned up. This sometimes worked until opponents got smart and would often avoid sending a man at Krimin all together and he was left without anyone to block. Raiqwon O’Neal (more power) and Mike Lonsdorf (more agility) split time at left tackle with mixed results in pass protection. Give credit to opponents for taking advantage of RU’s shortcomings, Rutgers needs to produce more well rounded linemen to compete in the Big Ten.
Changes expected in 2020
The new position coach, Andrew Aurich, comes from Princeton where not only did he coach offensive line, he also took the torch from Sean Gleeson as offensive coordinator. Offensive line will probably get a lot of help from Augie Hoffman as well in trying to implement Gleeson’s approach to blocking both run and pass plays. I admittedly watched hours of Princeton film and Oklahoma State video to understand the approach that Gleeson and Aurich like. They prefer as much down blocking as possible with limited pulling to simplify the reads for the linemen (who will chip on their way to the second level) and the backs. If you’d like to see for yourself I suggest this Princeton tutorial and highlights from Oklahoma State’s game against Texas (this version isn’t as ideal as an offense only version I found previously). So without a full spring and summer training camp, Rutgers should be able to adjust better than they would in some other new offensive schemes.
Personnel wise, Rutgers loses Seymour, Venesky, Maietti, Sam Howson, and Manny Taylor from the two deep. The only full-time starter back is Nick Krimin who has a long way to go to be an above average Big Ten lineman. So the staff will have to cobble something together with existing personnel (they have 10 scholarship linemen returning) plus five newcomers including JUCO transfer Cedrice Paillant the most likely to get early playing time. That said JUCOs like Omari Cooper who remains on the roster have been unable to step in right away in recent memory. Schiano has had miracle turnarounds before on his offensive line and needs another one badly in 2020.
Way too early predictions
So unless a better option is made available, Krimin has the inside track to start again in 2020, probably again at right guard. Having lost both centers, a huge boost would be if Nick can play center since he has game experience and good size for the role. O’Neal is too physically talented and disciplined not to start somewhere on the line if healthy. Another year of development could make him more ready as a left tackle, but he might be more suited to the right side or even as a guard. Without other options in 2020 I think O’Neal has to play left tackle with Lonsdorf a fallback option on the other side for Paillant and Cooper as a dark horse. Without any spring practice information to go off of, center could be a battle between Reggie Sutton (reps at a tight end in 2018), Owen Bowles, and C.J. Hanson who have never really seen the field as offensive linemen but have the physical tools and mentality that coaches love. If none of them is ready due to the lack of practice time, then maybe Krimin has to slide over. The other guard spot has Sam Vretman as a front runner since he played a lot in 2018, but Matt Rosso could challenge him after making huge strides in 2019. Anton Oskarsson has more upside than a lot of these other players, but probably needs another year of development after coming over from Sweden.
A year ago I wrote “a line could not have been helped less by their quarterback than they were in 2018, so that has nowhere to go but up”. 2019 in some ways was worse than the year prior, but at least Johnny Langan helped the team establish a little bit of an offensive identity. 2020 is another roll of the dice so here’s to hoping for better play out of the skill positions to at least get a legit assessment of the offensive line play, and vice versa.
Above Average (slightly). The addition of four members of the 2020 class plus transfer Marquis Morris (335 lb. from William & Mary) adds a lot of much needed size up front for Rutgers. Only two of the scholarship linemen will be redshirt seniors so there will be surefire improvement after a year of growth in 2021 with plenty of bodies again. Offensive line is all about numbers; hoping two guys can become impact players and then there is enough depth around them to become reliable players in their later years with the program. There is still plenty of time in their careers for many of these prospects to develop into quality Big Ten linemen. To illustrate this point about numbers, Chris Ash filled out his first recruiting class in the final days with borderline 2-3 star prospects in Maietti, Howson, and Lonsdorf who all reached the two-deep, so it’s really difficult to project. The 2021 recruiting class looked awesome as it at one point reached #10 in the country, but there are no linemen yet so the staff has their work cut out.
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