SPRING PREVIEW – OFFENSIVE LINE
Spring practice will give Rutgers fans their first glimpse of the team since a surprising 24-7 demolition of Syracuse ended, on a positive note, a 5-7 rebound season for third year Head Coach Greg Schiano. Schiano carried that momentum into recruiting season and signed his best class yet in February. This article is the first of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters spring camp. The article reviews roster changes and injuries prior to spring camp. The article also identifies issues that need to be addressed in spring practice and can be observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages. I'll preview the offense first, since it was the strength of the team last season. And I'll start with the offensive line since the old axiom says, "football games are won or lost in the trenches."
Last season, the turnaround of the OLine was the catalyst for the turnaround of the entire offense. The 2002 unit was among the very worst in Division IA football. But, the addition of a new coach – departed OLine Coach Mario Cristobal, installation of a new offense – courtesy of new Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg, and the infusion of new talent – two new starters, and the development of incumbent players combined to forge a reborn OLine. An OLine that was soft and inept became tough and driven. A unit whose woeful performance previously unhinged the entire offense now imposed its will upon opponents. Rushing yardage almost tripled to 139 yard per game (from 52). Rushing attempts averaged 3.3 yards per carry, over double of the pathetic 1.5 yards per carry gained in 2002. The OLine yielded only 23 sacks, less than half of the 2002 total (51). An offense that had ranked statistically at the bottom of the Division I rankings moved solidly into the middle of the pack. Rutgers was ranked #69 (out of 117 Division IA teams) in rushing offense, #67 in total offense (up from dead last), and #55 in scoring offense (again, up from DFL). In its quest for continued development, the OLine must carry on without Cristobal, who returned to his alma mater – Miami – to coach alongside legendary OLine Coach Art Kehoe. Former Western Illinois OLine Coach Ron Holder, another Miami alum, has replaced Cristobal and must build upon the foundation that Cristobal laid.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- C Marty Pyszczymuka (11 GS)
- LT Mike Williamson (11 GS)
- OG Rich McManis (3 GS)
Marty P'zmuka redshirted as a freshman in 1999. A knee injury suffered in spring camp sidelined him for much of the 2000 season, limiting him to action in the final six games as a backup DT. Attrition and injuries on the OLine prompted Schiano to switch P'zmuka from DT to OL at the beginning of summer camp in 2001. P'zmuka started the first ten games at RG before missing the season finale with an injury. P'zmuka was the only OL to start every game in 2002, despite a broken wrist. P'zmuka missed spring camp while recovering from surgery on that wrist but returned for summer camp last season. He started all but one game and was named offensive team captain. Marty's leadership, durability, and toughness will be sorely missed. His plugged a hole in the ranks in a time of desperation and persevered to realize a resurgence of a long dormant offense. His departure leaves a gaping hole in the starting lineup.
Mike Williamson was the only contributing four-year OL from the 2000 recruiting class. Severe depth problems on the OLine created an opportunity on the two-deep in 2000 and Williamson saw early action but was limited to only two appearances. Severe attrition for the second year in a row put three starting OL jobs up for grabs with limited competition in 2001. However, two converted DL and a converted JUCO TE beat Williamson for the jobs, one of which included his designated center position. Williamson played in only six games and it took three injury-related DNPs to get Williamson a start in the season finale. Williamson suffered a concussion in summer camp in 2002 and a slow recovery limited him to backup duty as a utility OL. He started one game each at RT, LT, and RG. Williamson was the starting LT during spring camp last year as an injury to Sameeh McDonald created an opening. The influx of new talent was expected to relegate Williamson to backup duty. However, Williamson blossomed under new OLine Coach Mario Cristobal and earned the starting job at LT. After an early shaky start, Williamson settled in and performed commendably in both run-support and pass-blocking roles. Charged with protecting QB Ryan Hart's blindside, Williamson accomplished that goal. Had former Head Coach Terry Shea not burned Williamson's redshirt for a handful of snaps in 2000, Williamson would have been a candidate to replace P'zmuka at center. Instead, Williamson will have to settle for his abbreviated role in the Rutgers turnaround.
Rich McManis joined the program in January 2000 in a deferred enrollment after sustaining a knee injury while practicing for a summer high school all-star game. He played in seven games at LG in 2000 as a key reserve upon returning. McManis reinjured the knee in spring camp in 2001 and didn't return until Game 6 in 2001. With injuries mounting on the OLine, he was plugged into a reserve starter role almost immediately and started two games at RG and one at LG. McManis had chronic knee problems that limited his effectiveness and eventually relegated him to a backup role in 2002 after he started the first two games. A season ending injury to Brian Duffy afforded McManis another starting opportunity but he again was replaced after two ineffective starts by converted DT Davon Clark, who switched to RG mid-week. McManis continued in a backup role last season, playing frequently in the 7-man OL rotation at either OG position. McManis' toughness will be missed but the anticipated emergency of younger, healthier players should mitigate the loss.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Sr LG Brian Duffy (10 GS)
- RS Jr RG John Glass (12 GS)
- RS Jr RT Sameeh McDonald (9 GS and 11 GP)
- RS Sr LT Ron Green (3 GS and 10 GP)
- RS So C William Vogt (1 GS and 5 GP)
- RS Sr LT Clint Dato (5 GP)
- RS Jr RG Mike Clancy (11 GP)
Brian Duffy waited two years to play because of two separate shoulder injuries. Duffy has been a mainstay on the OLine ever since, starting every game for which he was available. Unexpected attrition forced Schiano to switch Duffy to RT in 2001, where he started the first ten games before missing the season finale with an ankle injury. Duffy switched back to his natural position at RG in spring camp and started six games in 2002 before a knee (ACL) injury ended his season. Duffy missed spring camp last year while rehabilitating his knee but returned for summer camp. Switched to LG, Duffy strengthened what had previously been the weak side of the OLine. Having missed two full seasons for medical reasons, Duffy applied to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. While approval is expected, there is no guarantee that Duffy will play next season. With a possible sixth year of eligibility still undecided, it will be interesting to see how much time Schiano devotes to a contingency at LG.
John Glass initially signed with Syracuse but enrolled at Division II New Haven in 2001 after failing to qualify in 2000. He transferred to Rutgers in 2002 and practiced with the team while sitting out his transfer season. Spectators observing practice dubbed Glass the best OL on the team. Glass lived up to the hype last year, starting every game at RG and leading the way for the RBs. Glass is a lock for a starting job – likely at RG – and could content for All-Big East honors this season.
Sameeh McDonald redshirted as a freshman in 2001. He cracked the two-deep spring camp as the backup LT. McDonald displaced an ineffective Rich McManis as the starting LG in Game 3 of the 2002 season and started all but two the final ten games. McDonald missed spring camp with a back injury but returned for summer camp. McDonald battled highly-touted Ron Green for the starting RT job and opened eight of his nine starts at RT. Although McDonald will open spring camp as the starting RT, McDonald will have to hold off potential challenges from Ron Green or Clint Dato to keep his job.
Ron Green initially signed with Rutgers as part of the 2002 recruiting class from Dixie Community College, where he earned JUCO All-American honors. However, Green did not satisfy eligibility requirements and deferred his entry to Rutgers until 2003 while attending Middlesex Community College. Having missed an entire year of football, Green started slowly, backing up Sameeh McDonald at RT. Green eventually became a co-starter. Schiano switched Green to LT for spring camp, where he will assume the vital role of protecting the QB's blind side. Having settled back in after a year out of football, Green is expected to have a big final season.
William Vogt technically was the backup center last season as a true freshman. However, he never played and preserved his redshirt. Vogt practiced with the first team in spring camp last year while incumbent starter Marty P'zmuka recovered from a broken wrist. Vogt returned to his backup role last season, starting one game in place of the injured P'zmuka. Vogt does not appear to have any significant competition for the starting center job. The bigger question is, how well will he be able to fill P'zmuka's shoes?
Clint Dato transferred to Rutgers from Cerritos Community College and joined the program in January 2002. Dato spent three seasons at Cerritos, where he was a two-year starter at RT. He immediately seized the vacant starting RT job in spring camp. Dato suffered a knee injury early in summer camp last year. Though not requiring surgery, Dato missed much of the season and was relegated to backup duty at LT. With Brian Duffy and John Glass entrenched at OG, Dato will compete to displace either Ron Green at LT or Sameeh McDonald at RT. Dato's status on the depth chart will be one of the more interesting developments of spring camp as he is the only backup perhaps capable of displacing an incumbent.
Mike Clancy redshirted as a freshman in 2001. Although Clancy cracked the two-deep in 2002 at LG, six different players – including two backup OTs and a hastily converted DT – started at OG ahead of Clancy, the designated backup. With the arrival of three veteran OL to the roster last year, Clancy was relegated to the second team as the backup RG. However, Clancy didn't play much as Schiano used Rich McManis as his backup OG in a 7-man OL rotation and John Glass rarely left the field. With the departure of McManis, Clancy is the early leader for the primary backup OG job. Can he withstand challenges from younger players to maintain that spot and see significant time in the OL rotation?
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS Jr C Mark Segaloff (DNP)
- RS Jr C Davon Clark (suspended)
- RS So OG Randy Boxill (DNP)
- RS Fr OT Pedro Sosa (redshirt)
- RS Fr OT Mike Fladell (redshirt)
Mark Segaloff redshirted as a freshman in 2001. Segaloff could not crack the two-deep in 2002. As only a second year player in need of further development, he would not have been expected to contribute. However, injuries created opportunities at RG and converted DT Davon Clark played ahead of Segaloff with only a few practices under his belt. Segaloff also could not break the two-deep last year. He enters spring camp as the backup center but will have to repel a challenge from Davon Clark to maintain his place.
Davon Clark reported to freshmen camp badly out of shape in 2001. Against the opinions of many, Schiano played Clark but only sparingly at first. Clark saw more action as he worked himself into shape, eventually cracking the two-deep. By season's end, Clark was arguably the best DT on the team. But Clark missed summer camp in 2002 as a disciplinary measure for academic and conditioning transgressions and didn't recover. Attrition on the OLine forced Schiano to temporarily switch Clark to RG, where he played three games (starting two). Disciplinary problems emerged again in 2003 as Schiano suspended Clark prior to spring camp for repeated violations of team policy. Schiano reinstated Clark this spring and switched Davon to center. Having missed an entire year of football, Clark likely will not displace the more experienced Vogt from the starting job. Clark will probably battle Segaloff for the backup job.
Randy Boxill joined the program in January 2001 in a deferred enrollment as a late qualifier. Expected to contend for a starting job, he suffered a knee (ACL) injury early in spring camp and missed the 2002 season with a medical redshirt. Boxill was not fully recovered during spring camp last year and did not crack the two-deep last season. This will be an important spring for this once highly touted recruit. Three slots are available on the second team. Will Boxill seize one and establish himself in the OL rotation?
Pedro Sosa was one of the most highly touted HS OL in the state of New Jersey in 2001. His early commitment to Schiano and Rutgers was a recruiting coup. His fulfillment of that commitment in the face of a demoralizing 1-11 season was equally impressive. Sosa had over 20 scholarship offers. He was one of the cornerstones of the 2003 recruiting class. Sosa was good enough to break the two-deep as a true freshman. However, he never played and preserved his redshirt. Schiano lost three OL off his 7-man OLine rotation. While the starting unit appears set, depth is still a concern. Can Sosa establish himself as a contributor on the two-deep and as a member of the OL rotation?
Mike Fladell wowed Rutgers fans with his sheer size (6'8" and 350 pounds) upon his arrival on the Banks. Schiano found Fladell in the NYC PSAL, which is not known for producing Division IA talent. Fladell has great potential but is incredibly raw. He likely will need another year of development before he is ready to contribute. Rutgers has a glut of OTs – Green, Dato, McDonald, and Sosa. So, Schiano will be able to bring Fladell along slowly. Fladell's performance relative to his peers on the OL during spring camp will provide a barometer of his progress.
As I detailed above, the OLine made tremendous strides last season, morphing from laughingstocks to dictators. The biggest issue facing the OLine this spring is the transition from Mario Cristobal to Ron Holder. Holder must imprint his stamp on the unit. However, he must do so without reversing the development of the unit. An OLine that once was incapable of defending itself – much less its QBs and RBs – emerged as a group capable of imposing its collective will upon an opponent and the game. Time of possession, once accrued because opponents scored so quickly against the Rutgers defense, now was compiled by a clock-eating, ball-hogging offense. Holder must continue the development of this process. Rutgers became a smash-mouth offensive football team last year. Holder must keep them busting jaws.
Lack of quality depth on the OLine has been an ongoing problem since Schiano arrived in 2001. Shea's last two recruiting classes were hollow in the realm of the OLine. And Schiano's initial recruiting, so impressive overall, further neglected the OLine as the 2001 class – other than Sameeh McDonald – has failed to make an impact and the 2002 class was short on recruits (only William Vogt and Randy Boxill). Belatedly, Schiano has addressed his talent deficiencies on the OLine. Transfers have provided veteran talent to plug some of the gaping holes in the OLine roster. For the first time in four years, the starting OLine is relatively set. Now, Schiano must focus upon building quality depth. Schiano signed two promising young OL in his 2003 recruiting class. They must start contributing as backups. Schiano also must get production out of his third and fourth year players. In spring camp last year, the dropoff in production between the first and second team OLines was precipitous. Can second team close that gap this year even though the first team has raised the bar?
For the first time in four years, the health of the OLine is not a concern. Three starters missed spring camp last year and some of the backups were not fully recovered from previous injuries. The entire two-deep is healthy going into spring camp. That ought improve the quality of competition and, thus, practice.
Last season, the running game existed almost exclusively between the tackles. Rutgers occasionally ran off-tackle and rarely pitched wide. Inherited an OLine in total disarray, Ver Steeg apparently wanted to develop the running game inside-out. Get proficient at running between the tackles before running outside the tackles. Rutgers accomplished that first step last year. What kind of focus on outside running will we see this spring?
In terms of the depth chart, here are the most interesting developments to observe:
- Three qualified players are competing for two starting OT jobs. Who among Green, Dato, and McDonald will emerge as starters? What happens with the odd man out?
- With Brian Duffy's eligibility still uncertain, who will practice at LG with the first team and who is the contingency plan?
- What is the composition of the second unit?
- Will any fourth year players will contribute meaningfully on the depth chart?
Coming Next: Part 2 of my Spring Preview. Last year, Schiano found a QB to lead his team. I'll look at this key position, which will be the key to success in 2004.
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