After a redshirt-freshman season where the bulk of Tariq Cole’s time came on special teams and at left guard, the sophomore continues his development as a left tackle.
Through three games as the starter, Cole knows his production is not where it needs to be.
“I still have a lot to do, especially playing in the Big Ten,” he said. “I’m still very new to the position. I haven’t had as much time as everyone else has at the position at college. So I really want to get used to playing.”
After the Rutgers staff benched Cole for a few series late in the second quarter before a 14-14 tie with Howard at halftime, he responded in the second half.
The 6-foot-6, 313-pounder returned to the game in the third quarter as the Scarlet Knights offense capped 52 unanswered points with 38 in the second half.
Rutgers broke out on the ground with 375 yards and three touchdowns on the day, and did not surrender a sack in the second half.
With all of that said, did Cole feel like he responded?
“Yes, certainly,” he said. “As soon as I got put back in, I played a lot more aggressive and not as lazy as I was in the first quarter.”
The security up front continued into week three as Rutgers (2-1) did not yield a sack. Sophomore running back Robert Martin had a career day with 169 yards and a touchdown on 21 attempts.
Offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer pointed to the progression of Cole and his response against New Mexico as a reason for the success.
“(Cole) was really good,” Mehringer said. “He was really good to when we sat him a little while (against Howard). He was excellent. He came back in and he finished later and he played well.
“Every now and then, people get ahead of themselves a little bit and maybe the game has gone a little bit fast or for whatever reason, just need a moment to calm down and check themselves. … That’s what happened to Tariq, and Tariq came back in and played well.”
Offensive line coach AJ Blazek agreed with his coordinator.
“Every day, (Cole) makes an improvement,” Blazek said. “And he’s a young player, in my opinion, just in as being an offensive lineman.”
Blazek broke down one big block Cole had against New Mexico as an example of progress.
“My favorite block of the whole day that showed his progression — he was just backside, it wasn’t a big factor but he got his elbows in and he dumped a guy,” Blazek said. “It wasn’t grab and hug and shuffle. ... But until you learn to move people and drive, there’s a physical aspect that goes with playing this game. So that’s where we’re at right now. Tariq made a big improvement.”
That area of the game is where Cole said he feels like he needs to improve the most.
“Certainly finish, still,” he said. “Putting guys in the ground. I want to try and be the most physical player on the field when I’m on there. I still think my technique and my footwork need to get a lot better playing against guys that are much faster and better.”
Iowa poses that potential problem with its defensive line. The Hawkeyes (2-1) boast a long and skillful threat off the edge with defensive end Anthony Nelson. The 6-foot-7, 253-pounder has 3.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss on the early season.
“They’re faster and certainly stronger,” Cole said of Iowa. “They play in the Big Ten, which is arguably the one of the best conferences in the nation. So they are going to be stronger and almost faster than me, so I need to play faster.”
Speed is one area where Cole said he needs to improve, with an emphasis on his footwork and technique.
“Game speed is certainly different from what we do in practice,” he said. “They’re a lot faster guys off the edges that are playing in all the different teams that we play, so kick stepping is still new to me. Progressively, I have to get better at it.”
With the Big Ten opener on Saturday, Iowa presents a challenge for the Rutgers offensive line and Cole. But Cole said he and the unit are confident in their approach.
“The preparation our coaches give us is something that’s on another level,” he said. “I’ve really been coached up really well by coach Blazek, so he knows what he’s doing and I feel like he’s prepared me for this.”