Battle Brewing at Right Tackle

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Rutgers has five returning starters on its offensive line, but will they be the ones to take the field for the first snap against Washington State? Head coach Kyle Flood has three weeks to find the best five, and develop a second-team line, and multiple new faces are in the mix for an opportunity.

Returning five offensive line starters is no reason for Rutgers to get complacent at the position. Every spot on the line must be won in training camp, the more than five guys plan on battling for those spots for kickoff against Washington State.

The inaugural training camp depth chart lists the same starters – Keith Lumpkin, Kaleb Johnson, Betim Bujari, Chris Muller and Taj Alexander.

In reality, head coach Flood plans for everyone to get a chance to win playing time.

“I think any time the pads are on, you get a really good evaluation of those guys up front,” Flood said. “I think we’ve got some younger guys who are makings some progress. Now, we don’t have any preseason games, so we’ll have to try to create that pressure.”

Fifth-year senior Bryan Leoni and sophomore J.J. Denman both received spring opportunities with the first team. That carried over to the first week of training camp as Rutgers searches for depth.

“I’ve gotten my opportunities, and I feel like I’ve used them to get better,” said Leoni, who walked on in 2010. “Every day is a big opportunity, and coach Flood told me that I would have my opportunities. Everything he’s told me has come to fruition.

”I need to show him consistency. There’s nothing more valuable than life. I need to show him that no matter who I’m with – ones, twos, threes. Whatever happens, I can consistently be physical while knowing me assignment and doing the right thing.”

Leoni, who dropped from more than 400 pounds to 260 in high school before enrolling at Rutgers, built himself back up to 290 pounds as a senior.

“I came in here and I didn’t really have to waste any time losing weight like some guys that came in heavier,” Leoni said. “My foundation was able to be built right away. After that foundation, we were just building everything up. I’m in great shape. Since the day I got here, I was able to run with everyone.”

Denman earned similar opportunities with a spring injury keeping Muller out of action. Muller returned to full action this summer at right guard, but Denman continues to see reps in the first week of camp.

“I definitely learned a lot,” Denman said. “Playing with the ones is really the best opportunity for you to get better. Things with the ones, the speed of the game, things kind of fall into place and stuff. Personally, I have more trust with guys on the first team and better relationships. When that happens I feel a lot better.”

Alexander returns as the projected starter after splitting the job last season with Andre Civil. Aware that others are pushing for playing time, he aims to step up his game with the pads on. An offseason with the rest of the returning starters is reason to feel confident, he said.

“It’s a big deal, but we still have to improve,” Alexander said. “As far as being a close unit, I feel like we were always that. I think that when times get rough, we’re able to count on each other. We get around each other. We all know how it is. There’s no breaking somebody in. There’s no first-game jitters. Everyone has experienced that.”

Communication is up and penalties are down as a result.

“We’ve definitely been working with each other on [penalties],” Alexander said. “We’ve had a lot of reps together, so we know what we’re thinking and we can communicate. We’ve watched a lot of film together. We’ll go through a play, and if something bad happens or something good happens, we’ll know what the guy next to us immediately. It helps to have that tightness on the offensive line.”

After an early camp practice, Denman spoke with about his opportunities and relationships going into year three.

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