(This is part one of a two-part series on the offensive line.)
Rutgers Football made headlines recently with the unprecedented additions of four offensive linemen through the transfer portal. They are: JD DiRenzo, Mike Ciaffoni, Curtis Dunlap Jr., and Willie Tyler. Common questions we are seeing all over the comments section and message boards include:
Are we back to where we were a few years ago where the team’s weakest position group (back then wide receiver) has the most scholarships allocated? It better not! More on that later.
Could Rutgers have four new starting offensive linemen in 2022? Yes, in fact they could have five technically but ...
Should we expect four or five new offensive linemen starting in 2022? No.
For now though, let’s focus on the most important question, how much better will the Rutgers offensive line be in 2022 and how does that impact the rest of the team as a whole?
First off, our readers know I am a purist and dislike the transfer portal in principle, but at the same time the ends (ensuring entertaining, competitive college football) are no longer justified by the means of profiting off the backs of young people who were previously constrained in any number of ways. So just like baseball is now about swinging for the fence, basketball revolves around the three point shot, it behooves Rutgers to embrace this new world and bolster its lineup through the transfer portal.
Second, even though I value offensive line play as much as anyone who covers the team from any source, I’ve also probably been more bullish the past two years than probably anyone. I’ll do my best to explain why and incorporate other opinions, statistics, and data to make this as comprehensive as possible so it is far more than just my opinion on the matter.
How did we get here?
At one point in the Chris Ash era, spring 2019 if I am not mistaken, one anonymous “scout” (may have been classic misdirection from the Big Ten network themselves) was quoted as saying that Rutgers “had only one legit Big Ten offensive lineman.” I believe that scout was referring to a raw Raiqwon O’Neal (more on him later) and should have been talking about Kamaal Seymour (with the Las Vegas Raiders the last two years), but nonetheless this was harsh criticism at the time. It turned out to be false in retrospect, especially now that former Knight Mike Maietti also was second team All-SEC and likely to be drafted in April. Even though the point was exaggerated, Rutgers was not giving itself a chance in the Big Ten as an offensive line is only as good as its weakest link and skill position play can significantly impact optics. That 2019 version of the Scarlet Knights went winless in the Big Ten for the second straight year. During the season, head coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator John McNulty were fired. Then after the season, the team lost both Seymour and Maietti.
In 2020 when Greg Schiano became the head coach, Sean Gleeson the offensive coordinator, and Andrew Aurich the offensive line coach, Rutgers clawed their way to a 3-6 record, shocking everybody by equaling their best conference win total (2014 & 2017) since joining the Big Ten. Despite patching together an offensive line each week that effectively filled in for Seymour with a converted defensive lineman in Brendan Bordner and replaced Maietti with a combination of JUCO Cedrice Paillant and true freshman Bryan Felter, the team scored more points by a mile than any year dating back to 2015, the final year of the Kyle Flood regime. In the win against Purdue in particular, Rutgers simply just overpowered the Boilermakers for the entire second half with a ground and pound game that looked more like football from 1920 than 2020.
Was the offensive line actually broken in 2021?
With expected improvement from a group that returned all five starters (plus every reserve who started a game in 2020), Schiano in 2021 said on multiple occasions, “I said it at the beginning of the year...we’ll go as far as our offensive line will allow us to go.” This may not be popular opinion, but I don’t think it was “broken” in the sense that the level of play made winning impossible. Of course there is a saying at the NFL level that usually translates to the college level that a “good team can have a bad offensive line, but a bad team cannot have a good offensive line.” Rutgers as a team plummeted nearly in half from 26.7 points per game in conference play in 2020 to just 13.7 in 2021, and 339.1 yards per game to 301.
Upon a closer look though, the rushing totals were almost identical 140.3 yards per game in 2020 down less than a yard to 139.4 in 2021. Yards per carry were identical at 3.7. So by top level metrics, Rutgers was just as good in the run game as they were the previous year though touchdowns did drop from 13 to 9, though that is more of a symptom than a root cause.
The difference of course (again only looking at conference games) came in the passing department; 198.8 yards per game became 161.6, completion percentage dropped from 62.7 to 55.3, and average yards per attempt from 5.7 to 5.3. They did throw one less interception (9 to 8), but the killer was that touchdowns dropped from 14 to 5 through the air.
So if run blocking was the same on paper, was pass blocking atrociously worse? It was worse per Pro Football Focus grades, though it was not abysmal. The game that sticks in my mind was the Northwestern game, the one loss that came against a team Rutgers otherwise was surely better than. In that game, I charted the drop backs of both quarterbacks for every single passing play. What I found was that Northwestern’s Ryan Hilinski (18-33, 267 yards, 2 TD) within 3.5 seconds of the snap released every pass but one, a designed rollout that resulted in a long 3rd down conversion. Noah Vedral (18-30, 152 yards, 1 TD) for Rutgers on the other hand despite being sacked four times, was not pressured once until at least four seconds had elapsed since the snap. The purpose of this article is not to place blame on the feet of Vedral, backup Evan Simon (1-2, 7 yards), or to the receivers, but simply show that the offensive line was playing equal to, if not better than the opposition in pass protection.
Rutgers was actually without Raiqwon O’Neal at Northwestern which mattered more on the ground (RU averaged a pathetic 1.9 yards per carry), though his absence in the Michigan State loss the week prior was more evident as Vedral (16-30, 208 yards) was running for his life and to his credit was only sacked four times. Like Ryan Cubit, Ryan Hart, and Chas Dodd before him, Noah Vedral has shown he can take hits for the future of the program.
As a result of a four game losing streak heading into the bye week, Rutgers used the extra time and did the opposite of what I perhaps wrongfully recommended. They doubled down on their best run blockers at the expense of pass blocking rather than vice versa. To their credit it worked in a win at Illinois the next game (158 pass yards, 230 rushing) while also being a huge factor in the win at Indiana (102 pass yards, 218 rushing). Snaps that went to players in 2020 like Sam Vretman, CJ Hanson, Felter, Bordner, and Paillant (who also started the first six games in 2021 at left guard) went to true freshman Gus Zilinskas and converted defensive linemen Troy Rainey and Ireland Brown.
Rainey and Brown particularly had the brute strength required to man and down block in the run game even without refined technique, but their lack of experience and chemistry in the pass game was evident. So if the goal was to do what it took to win two Big Ten games and get on the precipice of bowl eligibility, the coaching staff did that. On the flip side in games when Rutgers could not run the ball, they were eventually completely overmatched (Wisconsin, Penn State, Maryland, Wake Forest) with no real shot to mount a comeback through the air other than a glimpse of hope with Evan Simon at QB against Maryland at one point.
So was this the right move? Truly time will tell, but the team got to a bowl game even if it was via a circuitous route. That was their stated goal, so I have to side with the coaches on this one over my idea to do the complete opposite approach down the stretch.
Schiano’s Offensive Philosophy
Greg Schiano was an old school, ground and pound coach early in his first tour of duty with the Scarlet Knights. Nowadays, especially after what we saw in 2020, he is willing to do what he did back in 2008 and 2009 when he allowed his offensive coordinators to open up the passing playbook AS LONG AS the team maintained a minimum standard ability to run the football. So what it appeared in 2021 was that Schiano following the bye week wanted to ensure Rutgers would be able to maintain a ground attack that would allow them to win any old school Big Ten dogfights they were in. Anything that the passing game was able to achieve was a bonus.
Schiano has always favored big, especially tall offensive linemen. Think back to him using Mike Fladell and Art Forst, both 6’8” at guard which was almost unheard of at the time. This is more than just having a team that looks good getting off the bus. Bigger guys can get by with less technique and added weight early in their careers while also helping to make it more difficult for defensive players to see backs, much like Tom Landry’s legendary shift aimed to accomplish. Theoretically bigger guys early in their careers have less mobility which is compounded by inexperience in pass protection, but Schiano is willing to make that trade off due to to a philosophical component of recruiting. It goes back to the old adage often used in basketball, “If you can’t be good, be big. And if you can’t be big, be fast.”
At the skill positions, Rutgers took some time to become good during Schiano 1.0 and has struggled similarly to do so the past two years. Not only that, the skill position players they do have for the most part are small with just a handful of speedsters. So with a supply of smaller, faster players more readily available to handle the ball than the Mohamed Sanu good, big, fast types that don’t come around often until your team is a consistent winner, economic choices must be made. Having to play more smaller backs and receivers requires for your team to have even average size on the field overall at minimum means it has to come from a bigger than average set of offensive linemen that are easier to find than the former. Other coaches have filled this gap with an abundance of tight ends (Jim Harbaugh at Stanford one example), but Schiano other than Clark Harris has not found success at that position as much as others.
As we look to 2022 and beyond, the approach to fill the ranks with as many linemen as possible indicates the primary goal in roster construction for this program right now is to have an offensive line now and over the next four years that is capable and deep enough to ensure the skill position players can be properly evaluated. How many times have the Knights themselves, as well as all three local pro teams: Eagles, Jets, and Giants failed to do this? Even if the line is plain average on a good day, it’s hard to be sure how good your quarterback can be. Rutgers needs to understand Gavin Wimsatt’s rate of improvement in 2022 because that will shape the trajectory of the program. The other quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers also can receive more accurate self-scouting as well, but right now the main draw is the young quarterback from Kentucky.
Join us for part two of this mini-series where I dive into the scheme a little more, data on the returnees, the likely impact of the transfers, true freshmen, and some way too early predictions.