SPRING PREVIEW – OFFENSIVE LINE
Spring football camp probably cannot start soon enough for the Scarlet Knights, coming off an extremely disappointing 4-7 season during which Rutgers was expected to win seven games and qualify for a bowl game. Perhaps the need to wash away the sour aftertaste from 2004 explains why spring camp was originally scheduled to open three weeks ago, before the basketball regular season was even complete. This article is the first of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters spring camp. 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." The article reviews roster changes and injuries. The article also identifies issues that need to be addressed in spring practice and can be observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages.
After a surprisingly successful season in 2003, the OLine regressed significantly last year. A unit that had begun to show the ability to dominate games was back to being among the worst in Division IA. The chemistry from 2003 was gone. The motivation from 2003 was lacking. And the OLine Coach from 2003 – Mario Cristobal – had returned to his alma mater, Miami. New OLine Coach Rod Holder was unable to build upon the foundation that Cristobal laid. The conditioning of his unit was poor. The chemistry was lacking. And the unit was plagued with rampant breakdowns that afflicted every running play in the playbook. Rushing yardage decreased to 83 yards per game (from 139). The Scarlet Knights gained a measly average of 2.5 yards per carry compared with 3.3 last year. On the bright side, the OLine yielded only 20 sacks, down from 23 last year, which was as much a reflection of a quick-throw short passing game as it was proficient pass protection because it's almost impossible to sack a QB who drops three steps and throws quickly. The Rutgers offense remained solidly in middle of the pack in 2004 but was much less balanced. Rutgers was ranked #40 in total offense (out of 117 Division IA teams, up from #67) but only #113 (down from #69) in rushing offense. The deterioration of the OLine cost Holder his job. Schiano replaced Holder with former Delaware OLine Coach Kyle Flood. Flood is the fourth Scarlet Knight OLine Coach in as many years. This unit desperately needs an identity and stability.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
- C Ray Pilch (11 GS)
- LG Brian Duffy (8 GS)
- LT Ron Green (10 GS and 11 GP)
- RS Jr RT Cameron Stephenson (1 GS and 8 GP)
Ray Pilch walked onto the team as a sophomore in 2001 and played in nine games at both TE and FB, where he started two games. Schiano switched Pilch to FB in 2002 spring camp. Ray was primarily a blocking back although he actually caught a few passes. With an increased emphasis on power running and a desire to get more talent on the field at FB, Schiano switched Pilch back to TE in 2003 spring camp. Pilch laid claim to the open starting TE job and kept it, primarily on the strength of his blocking. Expected to play a reduced role at TE last year, Pilch instead switched to center immediately after spring camp when the expected starter was dismissed from the program. With only four months to gain weight and learn his new position, Pilch nonetheless beat the incumbent for the starting job. Undersized at 250 pounds, Ray was a convenient scapegoat for the woes of the OLine when, in fact, he was no worse that his larger and more experienced mates. The loss of Ray will be felt more off the playing field than on. He was the epitome of a selfless team player, willing to sacrifice himself for the betterment of his team.
Brian Duffy waited two years to play because of two separate shoulder injuries. Duffy has been a mainstay on the OLine ever since as a four-year starter. 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 2002 spring camp and started six games in 2002 before an ACL (knee) injury ended his season. Duffy missed 2003 spring camp while rehabilitating his knee but returned for summer camp. Switched to LG, Duffy strengthened what had previously been the weak side of the OLine. The NCAA granted Duffy a sixth year of eligibility since he missed two full seasons for medical reasons. Brian never looked completely healthy last year and played poorly. He was often beaten at the point of attack and was partially responsible for a chronic inability to run left. The cumulative effect of six years worth of injuries deteriorated Duffy skills. The void left by his departure is not what one might expect from a four-year starter.
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. Green never recovered from having missed an entire year of football. Green opened the 2003 season as the backup RT and eventually became a co-starter. Schiano switched Green to the vacant LT spot for spring camp last year. Ron arrived at summer camp badly out of shape but managed to keep his starting job because Schiano had no viable alternatives. Like Duffy, Green was also beaten repeatedly at the point of attack. Rutgers could not run outside to the left because Green was incapable of sealing the edge. Green's performance was so poor that he was eventually benched late in the season. Ron never realized the lofty expectation s for a JUCO All-American. He should not be appreciably missed.
Cameron Stephenson joined the Scarlet Knights last summer after two years at Harbor Junior College in Wilmington, California. Stephenson already used his redshirt season in JUCO but had three years of eligibility remaining (one of which he used last year). Recruited as a DT to a team with a glut of DTs, Schiano switched Stephenson to RT in summer camp. Stephenson earned the backup RT job in summer camp but played behind backup LT Pedro Sosa and utility OL Jeremy Zuttah in the pecking order. When McDonald was injured, Sosa was tabbed first (at LT, while Green moved over to RT). When Sosa struggled, Zuttah was next at RT (and Green returned to LT). When Duffy was hurt before the Temple game, Stephenson got his shot at RT (while Zuttah split time with Duffy). Stephenson played well in his only significant action but injured his ankle just as he was realizing significant playing time. With three senior DTs departing, Schiano switched Stephenson back to DT for spring camp, creating another opportunity for younger OTs.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Sr RG John Glass (11GS)
- RS Sr RT Sameeh McDonald (9 GS)
- So LG Jeremy Zuttah (5 GS and 9 GP)
- So RG Corey Hyman (6 GP)
- RS So LT Pedro Sosa (5 GP)
- RS Jr C Will Vogt (1 GP)
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. Once eligible, Glass immediately earned a starting job and started every game at RG in 2003. John again anchored the right side of the OLine last year and earned Second Team All-Big East honors. However, he too had his share of poor performances and may not even have been the best OL on the team. Glass is a lock to keep his starting job at RG and should again reap All-Big East honors this season.
Sameeh McDonald redshirted as a freshman in 2001. He cracked the two-deep in 2002 spring camp as the backup LT. McDonald displaced the ineffective starting LG in 2002 and started all but two the final ten games. Sameeh missed 2003 spring camp with a back injury but returned for summer camp. McDonald beat highly-touted Ron Green for the starting RT job in 2003 and opened eight of his nine starts at RT. Sameeh again started at RT last year but an ankle injury cost him a few games. Though Glass earned All Big East honors, McDonald was possibly the best performer on the OLine. He is a lock to start and will give Schiano a strong right side alongside Glass if Schiano does not switch his veteran to LT.
Jeremy Zuttah was the cornerstone of Schiano's 2004 recruiting class and the most coveted player that Schiano has yet to sign. Jeremy had over 20 scholarship offers. His versatile performance as a true freshman bespoke his ability. Zuttah practiced at every position on the OLine during summer camp and played every position but center during the season. He made the two-deep and, as a utility OL, saw more action than any other backup OL. His versatility will allow Schiano to pick the two best other candidates competing for the starting C, LG, and LT jobs; Zuttah will likely fill the third spot, where most needed. This will enable Schiano to promote his three best backups regardless of their best position.
Pedro Sosa was one of the most highly touted HS OL in the state of New Jersey in 2002. Sosa was good enough to break the two-deep as a true freshman but he never played, preserving his redshirt. Sosa maintained his backup LT job in summer camp last year and played early in the year but eventually was displaced by the versatile Zuttah. Sosa replaced the injured McDonald at Syracuse (Green switched to RT and Sosa fill in at LT) but was quickly pulled in favor of Zuttah. He played sparingly thereafter as Stephenson also played. Pedro nearly quit the team after the 2004 season but the coaching change on the OLine apparently has salvaged the situation. Sosa will compete for the vacant starting LT job against Zuttah, depending upon where lies the greatest need for Zuttah's skills.
Corey Hyman was a well-regarded Florida recruit who was overshadowed by Zuttah. Expected to redshirt, Hyman displaced the backup RG midway through the season and saw action as problems and injuries continued to plague the OLine. Hyman saw action at LG as Duffy battled nagging injuries, ahead of Sosa and Stephenson, while Zuttah continued to play behind the struggling Green. Hyman's playing time did not justify the loss of his redshirt. This is another move that may be regretted in Hyman's senior year. A shoulder injury will keep Corey out of spring camp and will put him at a disadvantage in the competition for one of three open starting jobs.
William Vogt technically was the backup center in 2002 as a true freshman. However, he never played and preserved his redshirt. Vogt practiced with the first team in 2003 spring camp while the incumbent starter was injured. Vogt returned to his backup role during the 2003 season, starting one game in place of the injured starter and playing in four other games. Vogt suffered a shoulder injury in spring camp last year and subsequently lost his starting job to converted TE Ray Pilch. Will barely played last season though he was listed as the backup center. Questions remain about whether the cause was a lingering shoulder injury or a simple lack of ability. Vogt underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason and will miss spring camp. When he returns, he is not expected to be more than a backup.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS So OG Mike Fladell (1 GP)
- RS Jr OG Randy Boxill (DNP)
- RS So OG Dan Mazan (transfer)
- RS Fr OL Mike Gilmartin (redshirt)
- RS Fr OL Jon Fields (redshirt)
- Fr C Dave McClain
Mike Fladell wowed Rutgers fans with his sheer size upon his arrival on the Banks. But Mike was considered to be a project and redshirted as a true freshman. He earned the backup RG job in spring camp last year but suffered a knee injury in summer camp. Boxill, Zuttah, and Hyman eventually displaced Fladell down the depth chart. Mike was not expected to contribute until his third year. He will compete for a vacancy on the two-deep. Most likely OG.
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 2003 spring camp and did not play that season. Randy split time on the two-deep last year in spring camp but, although he initially earned the backup RG job, again did not play during the season and was eventually displaced off the two-deep. Two true freshman and a converted JUCO DT played ahead of Boxill. Randy will have one final chance to break the two deep but is not expected to contribute this season.
Dan Mazan transferred to Rutgers last year after redshirting as a freshman at Penn State in 2002. Mazan missed much of his freshman year with a shoulder injury, which he continued to rehabilitate last year. Expected to fill the glaring void at center, Mazan reportedly has been practicing at guard, instead. He will miss spring practice while recovering from another shoulder surgery.
Mike Gilmartin signed with Rutgers after initially committing to South Carolina. He redshirted as a true freshman and may need yet another year to develop physically. Nonetheless, with a shortage of viable options, Gilmartin will compete for a spot on the two-deep.
Jon Fields did not practice with the team last season, allegedly because of a medical condition. He is not listed on the spring roster and apparently is no longer with the program.
Dave McClain was one of the most highly touted players in the 2005 recruiting class. A spring enrollee, Dave will be eligible to participate in spring practice. He will compete for the starting center job in the absence of Vogt.
The OLine was a disaster last year, for the third time in Schiano's four seasons. A veteran group of starters played poorly. And Schiano failed to develop depth essential to pushing the starters. The result was a unit that suffered frequent breakdowns at the point of attack that blew up plays before they started. The power running game lacked power, which compromised the short passing game. Flood must rebuild the foundation that Cristobal laid. Rutgers must rediscover its power running game. However, the progress will be difficult to measure against the Rutgers defense, which could not stop the run last year. However, if the running game struggles, that will be a tremendous cause for concern.
A series of nagging injuries on the OLine confirmed that Schiano has yet to address the ongoing depth problem that has plagued his OLine for four years. A true freshman (Zuttah) served as the utility backup and played every position except center. No other backup saw appreciable action other than emergency situations. Schiano has lost contributors on the OLine faster than he has recruited them. And he wasn't blessed with a surplus of talent when he arrived. Brian Duffy – a sixth year player – was the only holdover from the Terry Shea regime. No OL from Shea's final class remained on the team (i.e., no fifth year seniors). Only one OL (McDonald) from Schiano's first recruiting class contributed. No OL from Schiano's second recruiting class contributed. Only one OL from Schiano's third recruiting class (Green) contributed. Schiano filled his starting ranks with a transfer (Glass) and a converted TE (Pilch). Following three hollow recruiting classes, Schiano's third and fourth classes must step forward early and fill the breach. His third class comprises rising third year players. His fourth class enters their second year (but first spring camp). Three starting jobs and essentially all backup jobs must be filled.
The health of the OLine is again a concern, though a mild one. Two potential starters (Vogt and Hyman) and one likely backup (Mazan) will miss camp while recovering from shoulder surgery. The absence of Vogt is most critical because instability at center compromised the OLine last year. Their absence will provide further opportunity for second- and third-year players.
Last season, the running game again existed almost exclusively between the tackles. Rutgers ran outside even less frequently and less successfully than in 2003. Limited athleticism on the OLine impeded efforts to seal the edge on outside runs. Will Flood's unit be able to demonstrate the ability to open seams on the outside in spring camp?
In terms of the depth chart, here are the most interesting developments to observe:
- Who replaces Ray Pilch at center?
- Jeremy Zuttah is a lock for one of three available starting jobs. The only question is, which one?
- With Vogt injured, who will practice at center with the first team and who is the contingency plan?
- Does Sameeh McDonald get switched to LT?
- What is the composition of the second unit?
- Will any fourth year players contribute meaningfully on the depth chart?
Coming Next: Part 2 of my Spring Preview. The QB turmoil that appeared resolved in 2003 re-emerged in 2004. What options does Schiano have to lead his offense?
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