Rutgers returns three starters on the interior offensive line, including two seniors with NFL eyes upon them. Big Ten games are notoriously tough in the trenches, and Rutgers has three, 300-pound starters inside with in-game experience.
By coming back for his senior season, left guard Kaleb Johnson passed up on a mid-to-late round spot in the NFL draft. Johnson will be the most heralded preseason lineman for Rutgers, and he deserves to be as he enters his fourth year as a starter. For the first time, Johnson will start at the same position as he did the year before. Johnson is strong, experience and competitive. He faces his biggest challenge yet in the Big Ten.
Betim Bujari remains a steady force at center, where staying healthy is the top concern. Bujari has been the most consistent center for Rutgers since Ryan Blaszczyk’s three years as a starter but has rarely been at 100 percent. Injuries put him behind Dallas Hendrickson last season.
Right guard Chris Muller won a starting spot as a red-shirt freshman and had an inconsistent first year on the field. Muller reshaped his body and showed he was willing to put in the work. The result was 12 starts last year and a likely starting position when the opener arrives in Seattle.
The starters are established, however sophomore J.J. Denman could push Muller for time after the latter missed spring with injuries. Look for Denman, Dorian Miller and walk-on Bryan Leoni to all battle to be the “first man in” with injuries at guard. Leoni and sophomore Derrick Nelson have snapping experience behind Bujari, and are both capable of stepping in if injury concerns linger.
Coach Kyle Flood was open about depth concerns on the offensive line this spring. Those concerns lessened with strong springs by Denman, Nelson and Miller. All three have starter capability down the road, and will need to continue their development under Flood and new offensive line coach Mitch Browning. The incoming freshmen on the offensive line were all told they will begin at tackle, but Tariq Cole and Jacquis Webb could both end up as guards based on depth. Converted defensive tackle Jamil Pollard begins his training as an offensive lineman this training camp.
Returning three starters on the interior of the offensive line is not a guarantee for success. But it’s a darn good start. Johnson, Bujari and Muller have a combined eight seasons of starting experience, and that is crucial. The Big Ten is known for its offensive linemen, and Rutgers’ bulk and experience inside eases the transition.