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Rutgers OL Up to Speed with Spread Offense

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- What will the Rutgers offensive line look like in the up-tempo pace of the spread offense? Coach AJ Blazek, left guard Chris Muller and center Derrick Nelson break it down ahead of Rutgers’ visit to No. 14 Washington.

As the longest-tenured starter on the Rutgers offensive line, Chris Muller’s outlooks go a long way.

With 37 starts over the past three seasons, no offensive lineman brings a better perspective on Rutgers' scheme change than Muller.

“We’re going to have defenses having to play against us,” Muller said. “They’re going to have to fit our formations, they’re going to have to fit against us and when we drive the tempo, we really have to force them into thinking quickly and moving quickly. So the biggest thing is just being in shape and being able to handle under pressure when you’re moving back fast is just picking up the different blitzes off very short notice.”

With four returning offensive-line starters, the scheme shift on offense comes at the right time. But to get up to speed, Muller and the offensive line bought in with their intensified conditioning and improved nutrition.

The starting experience goes beyond Muller. Rutgers brings back a pair of fifth-year seniors in Derrick Nelson at center and J.J. Denman at right tackle.

Junior Dorian Miller earned his keep last year at left guard. Sophomore Tariq Cole takes over for Keith Lumpkin at left tackle.

“I think (experience is) a huge deal because then you’re just changing how they played,” he said. “… I think we play kind of quick right now. We’ve got to play a lot faster, and that’s still a part. When they get in games, they’ll understand the flow with officials and clocks and whistles, how that goes. It’s a little tougher to simulate in practice everyday.”

Rutgers will find out how much translated into the game speed when the Scarlet Knights open with No. 14 Washington on Saturday. The Huskies return a bruising front four with an average weight of 306.5 pounds.

But like Muller, Nelson said the focus remains on how Rutgers dictates the pace of the offense at the line of scrimmage.

“Personally, I feel like we’re doing a great job,” Nelson said of the speed. “I think there’s always room for improvement, but this game will be a great test for where we are mentally, physically and emotionally.”

At center, Nelson shoulders more of the responsibilities now when it comes to quick reads and alignments.

“As a center, you’re the one snapping the ball,” said Nelson, a first-time captain. “You’re taught in little league that you have to be the first one on the ball and everything else is set on you. My responsibility to get on the ball is obviously imperative to a successful tempo.”

The extra plus for Rutgers delves past the starters.

Backups on the two deep like sophomores Marcus Applefield and Zack Heeman gained beneficial game experience when they filled in last year. Heeman nearly beat out Denman as the starter at right tackle with a solid camp.

Blazek and head coach Chris Ash are optimistic about the progress of Kamaal Seymour after he swapped from defensive tackle to right tackle.

“This offensive line has extreme depth,” Muller said. “We’re going to be rotating a lot of guys to keep us fresh, so it’s going to be nice to be fresh at the end of the fourth quarter and just be able to keep the same tempo and I can rely on anyone because we’ve been switching around so much that I feel comfortable playing next to anyone. I feel anyone would be comfortable playing.”

How cohesive the spread offense runs will be revealed when Rutgers debuts it this weekend.

Up against a beefy defensive front on the other side of the ball, Rutgers stares into the frontline of what was the Pac-12’s top total and scoring defense in 2015.

Throw in a crowd of up to 70,083 at Husky Stadium and it only adds to how crucial attention to detail and awareness becomes.

“(Noise) can be a problem if we’re not all on the same page, so we need to know — anticipate is a better word — for the plays,” Nelson said. “So if it’s a specific play that we run, we check for a blitz and we know that there are certain looks that we have that we need to communicated along the line to run our plays successfully.”

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