(This is part two of a two-part series on the offensive line. Part one can be found here.)
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.
In part one, we explored how we got here, was the line actually “broken” in 2021, and the offensive philosophy in a Greg Schiano coached program. To implement any offensive approach requires acceptable play from the offensive line and in part one that appeared to be true from the eye test at a bare minimum. In part two we dig a little more into the data and film to undercover more evidence that paints an even clearer picture of what actually happened in 2021.
From there, will take some guesses about whether the team will alter its playcalling to make things easier for the skill position players if the line play can improve in 2022. It will be very curious if Rutgers continues to try to be an RPO team willing to subject its quarterback to a lot of option runs. With better run blocking overall can they reduce dependency on the quarterback and feed running backs a higher percentage? Or with better pass protection, does that mean more downfield threats that also have the bonus of opening up the run game with more space in the box? Let’s explore.
Scheme and play calling
Philosophy and scheme are not mutually exclusive, diving into the play design and play calling side of things brings the tactical elements of offensive football into focus. Mentioned in Part One, Schiano demands “a minimum standard ability to run the football.”
Why is that? There are two main reasons 1. It helps ensure you beat the teams you are supposed to beat and 2. Red Zone and short yardage conversions are more reliant on the run game than it may appear to the casual fan.
Rutgers is going to have their hands full with the Blue Bloods in the Big Ten East each year, so to ensure they at minimum avoid disaster and more importantly can capitalize on opportunities against undermanned opponents (think Indiana this year), running the ball is critical. Avoiding these type of crippling losses ensure the program is moving forward or at least treading water rather than slipping into the abyss that leads to decommitments and program upheaval.
If you think back to 2017, imagine if Rutgers had simply beaten Eastern Michigan, a program that had never defeated a Power Five opponent. Rutgers goes 5-7 assuming they still win three Big Ten games (not a guarantee) and Chris Ash avoids a waterfall of decommitments (refresh your memory here). How did Rutgers lose that game? They fell 16-13 at home partially because they completed just 17 of 37 passes even though RU was running the ball for 4.3 yards per carry in the contest. Even during the Kyle Flood era, honestly that would never happen (okay maybe once against Kent State) because Rutgers always was able to mount a competent offense running the ball.
For the red zone and short yardage, think about how critical the Langan package has been to Rutgers running the ball on 3rd down and near the goal line. Sure, you can complete passes to move the sticks in these situations, especially in play action to often wide open tight ends but that’s usually because the defense has to sell out in the run game. Passing the ball is great to gain explosive plays but very few teams are able to be successful once the field gets condensed and the defense has less area to cover.
And what is the most important ingredient to these two points above? You guessed it, a strong offensive line, especially when it comes to man to man blocking. Man to man blocking as the name indicates is about winning one on one matchups which requires your talent to be equal to or better than the man in front of them. The offensive line knows the snap count and who they are assigned on such plays so with proper talent and good coaching this forces a defense to overcommit which can then be used against them. Rutgers had this in 2020 and at times in 2021, but now that Raiqwon O’Neal has entered the transfer portal, they have lost their best lineman.
Extending out to the majority of the field between the red zones, it will be curious to see what adjustments offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson makes in 2022. Before Gleeson had even coached a game with the Scarlet Knights, we dove into some wrinkles in his offense here, and I was reminded of a video from back in his Princeton coaching days about getting the best athletes on the field which you can see here. I don’t necessarily think we will see a ton of two quarterback sets especially with how well Johnny Langan is doing at tight end, (more on that below) but the idea of getting the best athletes on the field and then getting the most out of them holds true. I’ll also point to one of the Princeton Tiger philosophies that Gleeson has brought to RU where the goal on first down is to get four yards. In 2020 and 2021 Rutgers did a lot of quarterback option and wide receiver screens, plays designed to simply keep the offense “on schedule” rather than go for home runs every time.
So in 2022, do the Scarlet Knights still want to still run a lot of QB option? Or was this primarily out of necessity? My sense is that the Gleeson offense installed now will not change dramatically, but we should see more of the pass in the RPO (run-pass option) than we did previously. Rutgers simply has to throw the ball better, so either Noah Vedral has to revert to his 2020 form or we will probably see more Gavin Wimsatt and/or Evan Simon.
To achieve this, does anything change with the offensive line? I don’t think so. The offensive line is still expected to execute many of the same fundamentals as this video from the Sean Gleeson youtube channel. My interpretation of the Gleeson scheme based on what we saw at Princeton, Oklahoma State, and now Rutgers is that he prefers the line simply build a wall rather than having to pull a lot of linemen like we saw in the 8 games that Nunzio Campanile led the offense in 2019.
For example, if Rutgers can throw the ball better it will help those stretch run plays fans hated Isaih Pacheco running too much east-west on to be more open because defenses will have to wait that extra half second before crashing down on. In the Michigan game in 2021, Pacheco had a ton of success when the Wolverines played it conservative. Every other team after that, except Illinois, realized this and forced Rutgers to beat them downfield rather than allow perimeter runs.
Other than the run-pass option, the rollout passing game was much less frequently on display in 2021 than it was in 2020. Noah Vedral is quick and since he lacks height has much better vision when outside the pocket, so why did we not see him roll out more? Was it because the offensive line could not protect him? Against Michigan State maybe, but this was not squarely on the offensive line the rest of the year.
Here’s an example of a play in 2020 that led to a touchdown against Purdue with Art Sitkowski at quarterback. On 2nd and 13 the defense is expecting pass and they start to bail early, willing to concede a short run from a back or Sitkowski himself. You can see in the screenshot below how with eight men in coverage in the red zone there are three albeit extremely tight windows (red circles) to throw the ball to on the strong-side. Sitkowski has above average arm-strength and if Rutgers had a big receiver who could go up and get the ball while taking a hit, maybe they would attempt a completion here. If Vedral started this game, AND if this play is even called, he does not have the arm strength to fit these throws in regularly and with his quickness, would be instructed just to tuck the ball get a few yards and set up a shorter third down. Note these are extremely easy blocks for an offensive line against a three man front. The back and tight end are also helping out which ideally Rutgers won’t need both of in 2022, but everyone (green arrows) is just building a wall and flowing to one side.
With Sitkowski in the game though, Purdue has to respect the pass more and can’t just start crashing down to stop a QB scramble immediately. They also have their defenders all flowing to the ball side of the formation to ensure those passing windows remain small which is both sound football and basic human nature. So what does Sitkowski do? He sees Shameen Jones run a double move (teal arrows), use the safety’s (off-screen) leverage against him and hit Jones for a touchdown all the way across the field. This is vintage Gleeson using the players he has available and the defensive tendencies against them for a huge score. Watch the full highlight here.
But this was just a one-off trick, right? Nope, it was Jones’s second TD of the game on a deep corner pass, almost a carbon copy of the first one which was a ball that had to be thrown high into tighter coverage.
People often say Purdue should have adjusted quicker to the RU run game in the second-half, but you can understand their aversion after getting burned twice early in that game.
The same concept worked against Maryland later in the season, even when ONE (only one) free rusher got pressure.
This is not me advocating after the fact for Sitkowski and reigniting that debate. I can totally see what Vedral brought that Art didn’t. It’s merely to show how the offensive line looks a lot better when the skill position guys can use the whole field and execute a play call that exploits it.
The critical stretch: Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois
In the 2021 Michigan State game, one reason Rutgers struggled to run the ball had nothing to do with the offensive line. With Bo Melton out and Aron Cruickshank injured during the game, Rutgers was missing its best blocking receivers. This may not sound like a big deal, but upon closer inspection, Melton and Cruickshank were ranked 2nd and 3rd in the conference as run blocking receivers behind only Jalen Nailor of Michigan State. Their replacements Shameen Jones and Brandon Sanders were well below average. Throw in the fact that the Spartans did not have to respect the pass as much and you have the makings of a lackluster offensive performance. The inability to stay on schedule caused plays like these where the offensive line allowed three players (red arrows) to get to Vedral. Noah rolled to the left as three defenders (green arrows) were able to follow him to that side:
The offensive line completely broke down here as it appears that Vedral wanted to stay in the pocket but had no choice. At right tackle, Hollin Pierce has the toughest job of all because his man can just keep running around the perimeter in space. The center and right guard with a double team block a man, but left guard Cedrice Paillant and left tackle Brendan Bordner are beat with minimal resistance. This will not get the job done against a four man pressure though. At least the communication was good enough to force all three defenders to the same side. And yet, Vedral somehow miraculously completed a pass to Cruickshank who kept one foot in bounds.
It goes to show that once in a while the offense can overcome poor blocking, but miraculous throws and catches like this didn’t happen all game while the pressure kept coming. Rutgers made three plays later in the drive by using Michigan State’s over-aggressiveness against them (two Vedral option runs) and one jet sweep to Cruickshank for a touchdown.
As the game went on, MSU put Rutgers in too many 3rd and longs, then used controlled but not overaggressive pressure by just staying in their lanes and flushing Vedral out. This 3rd and 8 near midfield below has Vedral release the ball with no good angle to throw a full five seconds after the snap. Yes there were men in the backfield, but the play was designed that way and simply could not work like it did against Purdue previously discussed:
Ironically Rutgers was gifted a first down by a late hit but on the next play Cedrice Paillant whifs on his block and Nick Krimin (red arrow) trying to help out can’t do so quick enough to avoid Vedral taking a good lick. Vedral was unable to roll right because Hollin Pierce missed on his block also (red arrow). Brendan Bordner does a nice job on this play, but ultimately took a lot of the blame after the fact for the group’s struggles overall as he filled in for Raiqwon O’Neal at left tackle. Again Rutgers gets an automatic first down because of unnecessary roughness, a complete gift from the officials.
In short, Rutgers had success against the 11th ranked Spartans when they stayed on schedule, but as the game went on they faced long third downs time and time again. Then when they did get close to scoring position, the condensed field and lack of red zone run game were an Achilles Heel. In short, the offensive line didn’t get the job done in the run game and was average at best in the pass game early, before obvious passing situations could not be handled late. Rutgers went on a streak of eight straight failed 3rd down conversions before finally getting the required yardage on a 3rd and 1, trailing 28-13 early in the 4th quarter.
The offensive performance against Northwestern was just a complete disaster as Rutgers ran for less than two yards per carry and the pass protection once off schedule was not in sync with Vedral. Overall though, pass protection wasn’t awful with Vedral getting so much time on his drop backs. There was also questionable decision making like this play below where Vedral has a wide open receiver for a moderate gain at the top of the screen (green box) but runs into an almost completely unblocked defender (teal arrow). It looked like Isaih Pacheco saw left guard Ireland Brown in his first career start at left guard (understandable after Paillant struggled against Michigan State above) get beat off the snap (red arrow) so he goes to help (yellow arrow), then a blitzer comes straight through the A-gap that Pacheco is only able to get a hand on. Brown improved as the season went along, but a cerebral Northwestern defense took advantage of his inexperience in tandem with Rutgers obviously trying to overly help on that left side. Even Bordner at left tackle partially abandons his man coming off the edge to squeeze the space with Brown.
Rutgers moved Vedral to the right side on rollouts time and time again away from their concerns on the left side of the line, with minimal success. Hollin Pierce’s lack of agility was capitalized on by smaller, quicker Wildcat defenders. Again third downs bit Rutgers as Northwestern stacked the box and was able to stymie the run game forcing RU to throw the ball to one side of the field. Rutgers even tried that same play to Pacheco on the back side that Sitkowski completed for a TD against Maryland, but it floated incomplete against good coverage. As the game went along, Brown and Bordner played pretty well, the few breakdowns came after four seconds. They were usually right tackle Hollin Pierce’s man just running all the way around the outside and eventually getting to the pocket or right guard Troy Rainey’s man eventually filling the space left by Pierce’s guy. In either case, it was not the kind of pressure that made completing balls impossible. Rutgers did themselves no favors in the run game and a few key plays throughout the day all went Northwestern’s way. Had RU been able to run the ball consistently and/or Vedral made some different decisions especially in his run lane choices, they probably win easily.
So what changed at Illinois? First off, those key plays that all bounced Northwestern’s way went the Knights’ way at the expense of the Illini whether they be balls touching the ground, ball spots, receivers staying in bounds, the game of inches favored Rutgers. Other than that, the return of Raiqwon O’Neal from injury at left tackle made a huge difference in the run game alongside a better effort from Brown in his second game at left guard. Rutgers was able to seal down the left side especially in short yardage because of them. In the pass game, Hollin Pierce was often facing bigger, less agile linemen and did a much better job at right tackle which made Troy Rainey’s job easier at right guard. After a nine overtime game against Penn State the week prior Illinois both had a let down emotionally and was physically a step slower. Tactically, Rutgers did more of the simple man and down blocking that allowed its stronger linemen to get leverage and rely on backs to make good decisions on gaps they were running towards. They also used more Johnny Langan as a quarterback than they did the previous two games which was critical to moving the chains in short yardage.
After the Illinois game, Rutgers would win just one more game when they trounced Indiana. In the remainder of the games the offensive line against Penn State wasn’t able to get much push in the run game, was completely dominated by Wisconsin, and was mostly average in all facets against both Maryland and Wake Forest.
So back to the original question, how much improvement can we expect from the offensive line in 2022?
Throughout the remainder of this article “player grades” are referenced. These numbers come from Pro Football Focus (PFF) which “analyzes every player and every play of every FBS game in the 2021 NCAA season” and every season. Naturally, the people who analyze and assign scores (0-100 with 100 being the best) are not in the huddle, so they take their best guess as to whether or not a player was able to execute his assignment on a given play.
With the loss of three-year starting left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal via the transfer portal after backup left tackle Brendan Bordner has already departed for Florida Atlantic, Rutgers currently has four players with significant collegiate experience at tackle on the roster: J.D. DiRenzo, Willie Tyler, Reggie Sutton, and Hollin Pierce. They are expected to collectively continue roughly Big Ten average quality tackle play per PFF or improve upon it in fall 2022.
Reggie Sutton was the starting right tackle in 2020, but moved over to right guard in 2021 where both the eye test and stats showed he was more effective. Schiano had said Sutton was the team’s best and most versatile lineman before the season began, but played just 192 snaps before being lost for the year due to a knee injury. In limited action, per PFF he graded out as the second best lineman on the team with a 68.3, behind only O’Neal’s 68.7 for the season. Sutton, if healthy, will start somewhere on the offensive line, but the additions put less pressure on him to rush his recovery and be needed at tackle. If others falter though, he could end up back there out of necessity where he has performed better through his college career than anyone other than J.D. DiRenzo.
DiRenzo arrived from Sacred Heart with one year of eligibility remaining. He consistently improved in his career from a 64.2 to 68.1 to a 82.4 in 2021 according to PFF. J.D. was simply awesome in 2021, ranked 33rd among all FBS and FCS offensive tackles on over 800 snaps. Of course, one season could be an outlier based on volume of snaps, but of any position on the field, offensive tackle is the least likely to be a mirage so he’s the best bet to start at one of the tackle spots in 2022 even with the step up in competition.
Willie Tyler’s grades at Louisiana-Monroe last season were mixed (59.4 overall, 63.5 in run blocking, just 44 in pass pro). He did grade out his best in games against SEC competition though, and like DiRenzo, better than anyone on Rutgers on running plays. On the flip side, his pass blocking would have been the lowest on the Knights of anyone with more than 50 snaps. From his high school tape, ratings, to the limited snaps of his that I watched in 2021, the upside is clearly there. He has good feet for such a massive guy and shows an ability to handle his man at the first or second level and simply bulldoze a hole. The former Texas Longhorn kicked the tires on Alabama at the last moment before sticking with a pledge to RU, so the Crimson Tide were willing to take a chance and that speaks volumes as much as anything else. Tyler has two years of eligibility remaining with a strong focus on NFL prep after already having his degree and will likely get the first crack to see if he can replace O’Neal at left tackle.
So where does that leave Hollin Pierce? As the season went along, it felt like the redshirt freshman Pierce was one of the more consistent and reliable players on the offensive line who graded out as the second best tackle on the team (59.8 overall). My opinion of his play dropped somewhat after re-watching the MSU, Northwestern, and Illinois games when he struggled with both speed rushers and when not helped by a back or tight end against the better Big Ten edge rushers he faced. For a guy who came out of nowhere though being a walk-on, not even of the PWO variety, it was still a successful season. Whether he starts in 2022 or not, his future is bright as he continues to get more agile, improve his technique, and be able to drop his pad level to be more effective in the run game.
The other returning players who saw snaps at tackle include David Nwaogwugwu (82), Matt Rosso (26), and Kamar Missouri (9). In such limited action, I don’t like to put too much stock in the PFF grades, but it is worth noting Nwaogwugwu and Rosso were the highest rated pass blockers of any tackles at RU in 2021. This “data” does not pass the eye test though because Nwaogwugwu really struggled against Michigan State which highlights why I don’t fully trust the Pro Football focus grades as gospel. Nwaogwugwu might be a better fit at guard based on the eye test and Rosso probably starts spring in the two-deep with a chance to solidify his position if he performs well. Missouri is a raw prospect who has flashed and has a bright future, though needs a Pierce like jump to see significant action in 2022.
Offensive Line coach Andrew Aurich has his work cut out because even though DiRenzo was an FCS First Team All-American, swapping in he and Tyler for O’Neal and Bordner (just a 45.4 rating in 2021, though was the team’s best tackle in 2020 per PFF at 63.3) is not a guaranteed upgrade as of today. Bordner took a disproportionate amount of blame in the Michigan State and Northwestern losses in retrospect and O’Neal may turn out to be the most under-appreciated player in the past decade at RU. On the plus side, there are more experienced options in 2022 to hedge against injury and even if Pierce starts only having improved slightly, at least the unit is moving forward and not backward despite the attrition.
Before getting to individuals, Rutgers was rated dead last in the league in its guard play overall by PFF, far and away the worst in run blocking. They fared slightly better in the passing game ranking 12th, better than both Illinois and Michigan. At center, Rutgers was middle of the pack in pass protection but bottom three (along with Maryland and Indiana) in run blocking. This is not going to get the job done, but note that teams did not respect Rutgers to pass over the middle at all for most of the season, so the interior linemen had their hands full with crashing defenders constantly. This prevented Rutgers linemen from being able to execute the double teams that cause a lot of minor errors to go unnoticed or have that extra half second to get to a second level defender and instead have every player constantly under a microscope where a simple error would be magnified. Despite the harsh PFF grades, as mentioned in part one Rutgers had almost identical conference rushing statistics in 2021 as they did in 2020 which put them between 8th and 10th in pretty much every statistical category both on a per play and per game basis on the ground.
Individually, Rutgers loses Nick Krimin after three plus years as an interior line starter. It’s a toss-up as to whether his best statistical season was 2019 or 2021 (when he led the team in snaps with 855), but I’ll give the edge to this past season as center is a tougher role than guard. His 52 career games (37 starts) of experience will be missed especially in pass protection as he was the second best pass blocker (behind O’Neal) among players on the roster who played at least 200 snaps.
The logical replacement at center after a tremendous true freshman season is Gus Zilinskas. Had he played just 50 more snaps to qualify, Gus would have been the 81st ranked center in FBS, impressive for an unheralded true freshman in the Power Five. In 223 total snaps, he graded out as the 3rd best lineman on the team behind O’Neal and Sutton overall, second in run blocking behind Sutton so the future looks extremely bright. Of course this is a small sample size and both C.J. Hanson and Bryan Felter have some experience at center, too. Hanson has played just four career games (zero in 2021) but was on the two-deep because teams usually like to have a backup center who only plays center to help practices run more efficiently which may or may not translate to backup status on game day. C.J though has the size to get snaps at guard if he performs well in spring. Felter struggled in pass protection, but was neck and neck with Cedrice Paillant as the second best run blocking guard on the team.
So what do we expect from Paillant in 2022? He started seven games in 2020 then six more to begin 2021 before a poor performance in pass protection (32.9) against Michigan State saw him replaced in the line up. Cedrice played significantly better in 2021 (58.1) than he did in 2020 overall (45.2), but his inconsistency is what got him ticketed for the sidelines. To his credit though when called upon in reserve duty, he remained effective in the run game especially keying some interior runs in the win against Illinois, a team with good interior defensive linemen. Ideally, either Paillant takes another major jump or someone else does to up the level one position on the line.
There had been whispers that O’Neal could shift to guard, but now that is no longer a possibility with him moving on, things are little more straightforward. If the aforementioned Sutton is healthy and the team can get production from at least two of the three main candidates at tackle (or a dark horse), Reggie is playing one of the interior line spots. The two current incumbents are Troy Rainey and Ireland Brown who started the second half of the season at the two guard spots after shifting over from the defensive line. Rainey at right guard was every bit as inconsistent as Paillant was in 2020. Troy was solid in the run game but struggled in pass protection against Michigan State, then improved against Northwestern, then great against a pretty good Illinois front. Brown had very few wow moments, but maintained his starting job by being predictable week in and week out. With a full off-season one or both players could make significant improvement. Sam Vretman is the only other experienced guard on the roster, though he did not play in 2021. He has 22 career games including five starts and was serviceable early in the 2020 season at guard.
The only other player to get snaps on the line was true freshman Tyler Needham, just five total for the season, all coming in the bowl game. In addition on scholarship (all with freshman eligibility) are Kevin Toth, Tunde Fatukasi, and Isaiah Wright. The good news is that all these players are on schedule with their development and should not be pressed into duty before they are ready because of the two transfers that arrived ticketed for the interior.
The first of those is Mike Ciaffoni, a Rutgers legacy who converted to the offensive line at Colorado State midseason. In 335 snaps at guard, he struggled in pass protection but would have been the second best run blocking guard if he performed as well at Rutgers (this is no guarantee though jumping into the Power Five). The main game I focused on was Air Force (field level view here) during which Mike showed an ability to hold up at the point of attack and good agility for his size along with some instincts to overcome his lack of experience at left guard at the college level. The second committed one day later, Curtis Dunlap Jr., who had a forgettable season by his standards (54.8) after registering a 57 or higher in his previous two years, one of which resulted in an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2019. Watching the film, Dunlap’s 2019 season was better by the eye test than any Rutgers guard season in the the past three. PFF did not score it as such though, so again take any of these grades with a grain of salt. Neither will be gifted a starting role, but bring higher short-term upside with proven success as run blockers better than the level of play Rutgers got on the interior in 2021.
JaSire Peterson recently decommitted from the 2023 class, but all seven linemen in the 2022 class signed in December. None will be needed to play a down this season, but per everyone with any knowledge Kwabena (Kobe) Asamoah has the best chance to play right away because he is the most physically developed right now. Asamoah and Emir Stinette are the only two certainly enrolled early as well which gives players a leg up to earn snaps in the fall.
Blocking from other sources
It’s worth noting that Johnny Langan was the top rated pass blocking tight end in all of the Big Ten in 2021, absolutely incredible for his first season. Jovani Haskins and Matt Alaimo were above average also with regards to pass protection, in 17th and 18th place in conference, though Victor Konopka needs another off-season to improve in this area. In run blocking, Haskins was 10th best in the league, Alaimo 15th, and Konopka would have been 12th if he qualified while Langan was one of the worst (fully expected). As mentioned above, Melton and Cruickshank were among the best in the league as receivers in run blocking, while Isaiah Washington was also above average. Cruickshank was also very effective blocking on screens which in retrospect was a major reason Rutgers struggled to execute the quick screen game after he was lost for the remainder of the season due to injury.
From the backs, Aaron Young came in as the 3rd best run blocker and Isaih Pacheco 13th in all of the Big Ten, which explains why the staff went to more two-back sets later in the season and may have felt more comfortable playing inexperienced linemen. Notably, had he registered enough snaps blocking on run plays, Kyle Monangai would have been 7th. Jamier Wright-Collins was used early in the year as a wingback, but was the second-lowest rated run blocker, hence him being replaced by another tight end like Langan or Konopka in short yardage. Wright-Collins made up for it in limited action in pass blocking though as he would have been the second best in the league as a running back in that regard, slightly ahead of Aaron Young who was 2nd among all qualifiers. Pacheco finished at 25th which was an improvement from earlier in his career, but the biggest knock on his NFL draft prospects because everyone needs to be able to pass protect in the NFL. Surprisingly because he looked more than adequate at blitz pickup, Monangai was rated even lower than Pacheco, albeit in a much smaller sample size.
In summary, Rutgers has a great combination of skill position players willing to block and coaching that has enabled them to be successful which is a sign of a team-first attitude. To re-iterate though, Pro Football focus grades are far from perfect for the aforementioned reasons magnified at the skill positions, but for the most part were in line with the eye test for Rutgers in 2021. Perhaps we see a 6th offensive lineman on the field in short yardage situations with Haskins moving on, but this tactic is not as critical as it would be if Rutgers did not have the personnel at the skill positions to help out.
I hate the term “dead weight” when referring to players who haven’t contributed, and at no position is it more foolish than on the offensive line. Remember that time Rutgers only had eight total offensive linemen available for a spring game so they all had to play on both the red and white teams? Yes, that was a real problem that is a gift that kept giving until now. It’s a key moment in timeline that got us here. Without at least 15 legit healthy, offensive linemen the level of practice competition is just so much lower and doesn’t help the defensive line improve as much as they could either.
But to have this many offensive linemen on the roster, this will be at the expense of? In the short-term, the NCAA approved a one-year waiver to allow schools a maximum of seven additional scholarships to account for lost transfers via the portal so the scholarship crunch has been kicked down the road for another year. Also after spring practice it’s very likely some players at crowded positions like offensive line may depart seeking more playing time elsewhere.
In the long-term expect other positions such as wide receiver, linebacker, and running back to see a reduction in scholarship depth. Power Five teams will look for impact players at those positions out of high school, but fill the ranks with mercenaries who have already proven themselves even at lower levels if needed. Quarterbacks are already on the move whether they are buried on the depth chart, starters, or anywhere in between so that’s an easy one. Defensive backs, defensive linemen, and offensive linemen are just too important in numbers needed for practice, game day rotations, and to properly self-scout that their numbers will remain unchanged or even rise. This conversation warrants a separate post entirely and I give Rutgers credit for being ahead of the curve in all likelihood.
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?
Of course, more attrition than O’Neal and Bordner is possible. Rutgers has 26 of the 92 (85 + 7) 2022 scholarships currently in the hands of offensive linemen. It’s going to be difficult for more than 20 players to get significant reps in practice. That could mean players from the 2021 roster ultimately decide to enter the transfer portal by the end of spring on numbers alone. That said it probably won’t be players on the two-deep because they will not be guaranteed a spot elsewhere in FBS. More departures should be considered a minor risk at this point, but even if we see more for any reason, with the recent infusion of talent through the transfer portal, Rutgers has hopefully amassed enough potential depth to offset attrition and injury risk.
Effectively, Rutgers has two lottery tickets to simply tread water at left tackle in DiRenzo and Tyler. Hollin Pierce will definitely improve and it’s possible he still will be a starter. If anyone else can make a huge jump and overtake them, that player will have earned it. Nothing indicates the level of play at tackle will all of a sudden be at the top of the league, especially since DiRenzo probably will take some time to adjust to the competition level.
At center, Rutgers should be expected to get slightly better play in 2022. Zilinskas outperformed Krimin as a pure center and with both Felter and Hanson competing in the two-deep they will be bigger and stronger after another year in the weight room.
At guard, I hesitate to say Rutgers could not be any worse because we saw what happened in 2010 without proper warning, but with everybody back there at minimum, there should be minor improvement. There are a number of scenarios though where major improvement could occur. The simplest plug and play is if Sutton is healthy and/or Dunlap returns to full health / 2019 form and/or Ciaffoni takes a massive leap as a pass blocker and/or one of the three returnees makes a massive stride as a road grader. That’s not even counting the possibility someone else (probably a freshman) surprises and takes a Hollin Pierce-like leap or all three tackles are so solid one needs to shift inside to get them all on the field.
Rutgers does not need to have a top offensive line in the Big Ten, but simply being league average overall would be more than enough to put them in position to return to a bowl game even with a tough schedule. The coaching staff did a great job of identifying one of the team’s weakest areas and doing their best to execute both a short and long-term plan to stabilize this unit. Will it work? Maybe, but if not at least there are several paths to success including simply better optics due to improved skill position play.
The next chicken and egg problem is whether Gleeson will be given more freedom to open things up if the offense has a higher floor and more explosive play potential or if a better line will cause a philosophy to ground and pound while avoiding turnovers even more so like the Big Ten West teams do. I hope it’s the former because college football is about passing the ball and relying exclusively on the run game just leaves too much margin for error.
Rutgers should be able to be a middle of the pack Big Ten offensive line in 2022. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments section, there is still plenty of time to speculate before spring practice even starts.