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Cultivating new roots along the offensive line key for Rutgers

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The Scarlet Knights are struggling mightily up front but how the group is constructed moving forward is the biggest issue.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 21-7 loss to Northwestern last Saturday was especially painful because it signaled the reality of the situation for Rutgers football. My biggest concern about this team coming into the season was a lack of depth overall and that issue is really being exposed right now. There are injuries keeping players on the two deep out of games and there are injuries that players are gutting out but it’s taking a toll in their ability to perform to their potential. Thise who are playing hurt should be commended for doing so. The bigger issue is the lack of options to replace them that wouldn’t result in a significant drop off.

No group on this team is more impacted by depth issues than the offensive line and it’s completely sabotaged the offense. Quarterback Noah Vedral has played poorly and should be accountable for it, but at the same time it’s unfair not to look at the offense as a whole and understand the root of the struggles overall.

I think the most devastating injury on this team that has flown under the radar was the season ending loss of Reggie Sutton. He had started 12 games in a row at right guard and the offensive line has fallen apart since the Michigan game. With a position group that the coaches were mixing and matching with before the season even started, losing such a stable anchor at right guard, a position along with center that hadn’t shuffled, has thrown the line into disarray.

At the same time, the absence of Raiqwon O’Neal since early in the Ohio State game has been devastating as well. He suited up against Northwestern for emergency purposes but did not play. Rutgers cobbled together what they could against Michigan State and Northwestern, but it’s resulted in the two worst games that the offensive line has played this season.

“We had two starters not there, so I knew we were struggling a little bit,” head coach Greg Schiano said. “There were guys that really gutted it out today, who are playing with things that are very uncomfortable.”

Two freshmen have been thrust into the action in Troy Rainey and Hollin Pierce. They have started multiple games apiece and while they have performed admirably and have long term upside, it’s absolutely the worst case scenario to have them rushed into such big roles so early in their careers. Even though both are in their second year with the program, remember they’ve only had one true offseason of development time and are closer to first year players in that regard. Offensive linemen take time to develop and very rarely play significant snaps until their third year of college football. It’s not uncommon for an offensive lineman to wait to start until their redshirt junior season. It’s a position that literally takes years of development to get linemen ready to play in a power five conference at the FBS level.

There are exceptions like former Scarlet Knight Anthony Davis, but he was a 4-star recruit who had offers from every top school and ultimately went on to have a successful NFL career. He is not a reasonable model to base things on and he also didn’t have to lineup against Michigan and Ohio State as a freshman either.

The reality is that Big Ten teams aren’t going to be successful with freshmen playing a lot of snaps on the offensive line, especially in a unit that lacks continuity. Rutgers started two converted defensive lineman next to Rainey and Pierce against Northwestern. Brendan Bordner and Ireland Brown (formerly Burke) should be commended for making a position move to help their team, but it’s also incredibly difficult for them to be successful when they are not paired with veteran linemen as well. Bordner has worked hard in the last year in his transition and has been solid, but Brown made the switch LAST WEEK.

Even though part-time starter Cedrice Paillant is in his fourth year of college and came off the bench against Northwestern after starting previously, it is only his second season playing FBS football. “Cedrice played a lot today, it’s not like we are banishing him,” said Schiano. “It’s not like he played that poorly. I want to be fair to everybody to have a chance if it’s not going well.”

The other reserves that played against Northwestern were Gus Zilinskas and Bryan Felter, who are in their first and second years with the program.

Nick Krimin is an ironman at this point having started every game since the 2019 season and having played multiple positions. He really is the only truly game ready and proven offensive lineman out of the five that started against Northwestern. After starting 16 straight games at center, offensive line coach Andrew Aurich shifted Krimin to guard and played Zilinskas at center in the fourth quarter.

You have to applaud the coaching staff for literally trying anything and everything they can to maximize the performance of the offensive line. The biggest issue is that playing one or two of the inexperienced options they have tried requires stability with veterans around them on the line. With Sutton and O’Neal out, pairing Krimin with four inexperienced options against Northwestern was the biggest Hail Mary Rutgers has thrown all season. It failed miserably, but what choice did they really have?

Schiano summed up the situation by saying, “Again, I said it at the beginning of the year...we’ll go as far as our offensive line will allow us to go. You’ve seen, we’re trying different combinations, we’re trying to find an answer there. We just have to look at ourselves and say are we doing things they are capable of doing. Certainly does stink having a loss in your mouth for two weeks. But it’s an opportunity for us to assess everything. There are a lot of things to look at.”

The bye week will help the offensive line get valuable development time in, but realistically how much better can they get in a week? Hopefully, O’Neal can get healthy enough to play against Illinois. The offensive line allowed four sacks against the defense of Northwestern, which is not to be confused with the Fearsome Foursome. Things have to get figured out quickly or this season will continue to unravel.

The bigger issue is how does Rutgers improve along the offensive line next season and beyond?

There are nine offensive linemen classified as freshmen in their first or second years with the program that haven’t played and will hopefully benefit from having time to develop.

The staff has also prioritized adding talent with the 2022 recruiting class as six offensive lineman are currently committed. They include the top recruit in New Jersey, high school All-American Jacob Allen, who is ranked the No. 13 tackle nationally per 247 Sports. Three more tackles who are top 25 recruits in New Jersey will join him in No. 14 Taj White , No. 19 Joe De Croce, and No. 23 Nelson Monegro. The coaching staff went outside of the state to add two 3-star interior linemen in Kwabena Asamoah and Emir Stinette.

That being said, Rutgers also needs to make every effort to end the cycle of relying on offensive lineman too early in their careers. While adding lineman via the transfer portal or from the JUCO level is not easy to do, it is imperative the staff find help from those avenues as well in the offseason. They did add Temple transfer David Nwaogwugwu to the roster prior to this season, but he hasn’t made much of an impact yet.

The bottom line is expectations for this team need to be grounded in reality and it starts with the offensive line. This is a position group that is going to take time to elevate to a level that gives the offense the opportunity to be a capable unit in Big Ten play. It’s not just about improving next year. It’s about creating a sustainable development process that doesn’t rely on first and second year players on the offensive line, as well as players who switched positions to be there. Stop gaps are necessary this season but it’s not what the coaching staff wants to do long term. Depth and talent will hopefully improve with signing the six recruits in the 2022 class along with developing the many younger lineman already on the roster.

How Schiano, offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson and Aurich ultimately fix the current installment of the offensive line is a problem with no easy answer. How they fix it next year and beyond will be a major factor in how far Schiano can ultimately take the program up the Big Ten ladder in his second tenure.