Spring Preview - Part 4

I've finished previewing the defense. After a punt, the offense now has the ball. Let's start with the foot soldiers of the offensive line.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Carpe Yesterdiem!  Well, the recent launch of Rutgers Insiders answered the question, "Why a spring preview after spring camp?"  I wanted to run this series on the new site.  But, unfortunately, the kickoff of the new site was delayed until after spring camp opened.  So, I continue with a belated spring preview.  I‘ve finished previewing the defense.  They forced a punt.  Now the offense has the ball.  The infantry has long been considered the queen of the battlefield.  Let's start up front with the foot soldiers – the offensive line.  This preview is based upon information released only prior to the opening of spring camp.  My thoughts likewise share the same perspective.  This belated preview still offers some useful insights into spring camp because it allows the reader, with a post-camp perspective, to answer questions developed before camp opened. 

This article is the fourth of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp.  The article reviews roster changes and injuries at the outset of spring camp.  The article also identifies issues that needed to be addressed in spring practice and were observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages. 

Last season, the offensive line re-enacted "All Quiet on the Western Front."  Casualties were incurred early and often.  A unit supposedly returning four of five starters lost two more starters before summer camp even opened.  Three other players entered summer camp with back injuries and a fourth was recovering from knee surgery.  Since Terry Shea's teams were notorious for their lack of depth on the OLine, the unanticipated absence of six OL was devastating.  In desperation, Head Coach Greg Schiano switched one DL to OL in spring camp and switched another early in summer camp.  Schiano also signed a JUCO TE in July with the promise that he would have an opportunity to compete for a job on the OLine.   

 

PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP

RG Travis Mills (2 GS and 10 GP) is the only player lost off of the two-deep.  Mills started four games at RG after transferring from junior college.  However, he was declared academically ineligible after four games and missed the remainder of the season.  Mills never reclaimed his starting job but was the primary backup on the OLine.  As a backup on a horrible unit, Mill's absence won't be missed.   

 

RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP

Players returning off of the two-deep include: 

  • Sr LT Trohn Carswell (6 GS and 8 GP)
  • RS Jr LG Marty Pyszczymuka (10 GS)
  • Sr C Bryan Boehrer (8 GS)
  • RS Sr RG Mike Esposito (9 GS and 10 GP)
  • RS Jr RT Brian Duffy (10 GS)
  • RS Sr Howard Blackwood (6 GS and 9 GP)
  • Jr LG Rich McManis (3 GS and 6 GP)
  • Jr C Mike Williamson (1 GS and 6 GP)
  • RS So Rob Dinsmore (5 GP)

Trohn Carswell transferred to Rutgers from junior college but didn't join the program until the 2000 season was actually underway.  The late arrival limited Carswell to one appearance.  Schiano switched Carswell to OT in spring camp last year because of the dearth of talent and depth on the OLine.  Although starting LT Howard Blackwood was badly hobbled with back and knee injuries, Carswell didn't see action until Game 3.  Thereafter, he unseated Blackwood and started 6 of the final 7 games at LT.  Though Carswell is still raw and needs further development, Schiano likes his skills.  Expect Carswell and Blackwood to resume their battle for the starting LT job this spring. 

Marty P'zmuka was actually redshirted as a freshman.  And it wasn't a medical redshirt, either.  An ACL injury cut short 2000 spring camp and sidelined him for much of the 2000 season.  P'zmuka eventually returned for Game 6 and played the final 6 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.  P'zmuka tried every position on the OLine and, despite his inexperience, claimed a starting job at LG.  P'zmuka started the first 10 games before missing the season finale with an injury.  P'zmuka, undersized at 260 lb and inexperienced, was manhandled last season.  With a year to mature physically and a season under his belt, his performance should improve this season. 

Bryan Boehrer transferred to Rutgers from junior college and joined the program in July 2001.  Boehrer was the first surprise story of summer camp because his signing was not previously announced.  A JUCO TE, Boehrer was offered the opportunity to compete for the starting center job.  Despite his inexperience, Boehrer won the starting job.  He started the first 8 games before a broken ankle ended his season.  Like P'zmuka, Boehrer was manhandled because he was undersized (250 lb) and inexperienced.  With a year of seasoning as well as strength and conditioning behind him, Boehrer also should show improvement this year.  And, if he gets displaced from his starting job, that would imply a further upgrade at this position. 

Mike Esposito was recruited as a DL but was switched to OL after his redshirt season.  Espo cracked the two-deep but didn't play much in 1999 as Shea played badly banged-up starters ahead of the reserves.  In 2000, Espo lost the battle for the starting RG job to JUCO transfer Travis Mills but started the final 7 games after Mills was declared academically ineligible.  In summer camp last season, Espo outdueled Mills to keep his starting job at RG.  Both players were hampered by nagging injuries but Espo fought through it.  Espo started 7 games at RG and 2 more at center after Bryan Boehrer was injured.  Espo is the leader of the OLine but his health is a concern.  How will he hold up during spring ball?  And can he maintain his spot in the starting rotation? 

Brian Duffy waited two years to play.  One of Terry Shea's most highly touted recruits, Duffy was redshirted as a freshman.  A shoulder injury then shelved him his second year.  2001 spring practice was the first chance Rutgers fans really had to observe Duffy.  He spent spring camp at OG but the unexpected loss of starting RT Julian Ross to very belated academic ineligibility (two year old violation) created a gaping hole in the starting lineup.  With OT Krzysztof Kaczorowski sidelined indefinitely with a back injury, Schiano switched Duffy to RT in summer camp.  Duffy started the first 10 games at RT before missing the season finale with an injury.  Duffy lacked the foot speed to play OT; he was repeatedly beaten on outside pass rushes.  Before spring camp opened, Schiano announced that Duffy would be switched to his natural position at OG this spring. 

Howard Blackwood has been a mainstay on the OLine.  Redshirted as a freshman, he was one of the few reserves to see action in the disastrous 1999 season, when Shea repeatedly demonstrated a total lack of confidence in his backups by constantly refusing to pull starters with nagging injuries from the lineup.  In 2000, with four of five starters departed, Blackwood won the starting LT job and started every game.  Blackwood was expected to be the best OL heading into summer camp.  But, badly hobbled with an injured back and knee, he was arguably the weakest link on the OLine.  Blackwood must answer concerns about his health this spring.  Can he provide adequate pass protection on the outside?  And can he reclaim his starting job at LT? 

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.  With little competition, McManis earned a spot on the two-deep once he rehabbed his knee.  He played in 7 games at LG in 2000 as a key reserve.  McManis reinjured the knee in spring camp last year.  The resulting surgery cost him spring camp and summer camp.  McManis didn't return until Game 6.  With injuries mounting on the OLine, he was plugged into a reserve starter role almost immediately.  Despite all the missed practice time, McManis started 2 games at RG and one at LG.  McManis needs to make up for lost practice time.  Can he stay healthy enough to do so?

Mike Williamson has been the most visible OL from the 2000 recruiting class but has yet to really assert himself.  Severe depth problems on the OLine created an opportunity on the two-deep.  Williamson technically earned the backup center job but Shea primarily used an 8-man rotation on the OLine.  Mike Esposito actually handled both backup OG and center assignments.  When academic ineligibility sidelined Travis Mills, Espo became the starting RG and Rich McManis became the backup OG.  Though a starter, Espo still served as the backup center.  With such an arrangement, Williamson was limited to only two appearances – a fine use of a potential redshirt season, don't you think?  Severe attrition for the second year in a row put three starting OL jobs up for grabs with limited competition.  However, two converted DL and a converted JUCO TE beat Williamson for the jobs, one of which included his designated center position.  Not only did Williamson fail to earn a starting job, but he was only the 9th OL in an 8-man rotation.  Williamson played in only 6 games and it took 3 injury-related DNPs to get Williamson his line start in the season finale.  Woeful depth problems have provided playing opportunities that Williamson couldn't realize.  With nearly a heretofore unseen three-deep in spring camp, it will be interesting to see where Williamson fits on the depth chart. 

Rob Dinsmore has been even less visible than fellow 2000 recruit Mike Williamson.  Unable to win a spot on the two-deep, he was redshirted as a freshman.  As with Williamson, Dinsmore was unable to win a starting job in an improvised lineup.  Although Dinsmore technically earned the backup RT job last year, Schiano primarily used an 8-man rotation on the OLine.  Dinsmore played in only 5 games, usually when there was an injury among the 8-man rotation.  One is led to a discouraging conclusion about Schiano's appraisal of Dinsmore's potential considering the tremendous immigration of players to the OLine.  As with Williamson, Dinsmore's evolution (or devolution) on the depth chart will be something to watch this spring.  

 

NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP

Players trying to crack the two-deep include: 

  • RS So OL Jacob Garner (DNP)
  • RS Fr OL Mike Clancy (redshirt)
  • RS Fr Mark Segaloff (redshirt)
  • RS Fr Sameeh McDonald (redshirt)
  • Fr Randy Boxill (spring enrollee)

Jacob Garner is the only remaining member of Shea's final recruiting class yet to play in a game.  Given the glaring depth problems on the OLine, the rash of injuries last season, and the resulting opportunity for playing time, Garner's relative silence speaks volumes.   I expect that Garner will be relegated to the 4th team by summer camp. 

Mike Clancy, Mark Segaloff, and Sameeh McDonald redshirted last season.   As injuries depleted the depth chart on the OLine, Clancy broke the two-deep late in the season.  However, he never played and preserved his redshirt.  He enters spring camp ahead of his 2nd–year peers but trailing his 3rd–year teammates.  McDonald and Segaloff will be competing with Clancy and Boxill to climb the depth chart.  One slot is open on the two-deep.  If more than one of these four is to break the two-deep, they likely would have to displace Williamson and/or Dinsmore. 

Randy Boxill signed a letter of intent to play with Miami last season but did not qualify until fall.  Freed to re-open his recruitment, Boxill signed with Rutgers because Schiano had recruited him while working as Miami defensive coordinator.  That Boxill was good enough to sign with Miami is a ringing endorsement of his potential.  While he might not have been expected to crack the Hurricane two-deep last year, this year he has the benefit of winter conditioning, spring practice, and another year of maturity.  And Rutgers isn't exactly Miami……  Expect Boxill to crack the two-deep during spring camp and actually play this fall.   

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

As I stated above, the OLine last season was notorious for its sieve-like performance.  In my defensive previews, I stated that, relatively speaking, the defense was better than the offense last season.  But one can't truthfully use degrees of "good" to describe either unit.  Rutgers ranked last in the Big East in rushing defense (231 yards per game, or #109 nationally) and sacks (18).  While the OLine appears improved, performance in spring camp against a suspect DLine can hardly be used as a barometer of quality. While I would expect the DLine to outperform the OLine, total domination by the DLine will be a bad sign.  A very bad sign.  Because our DLine is still likely to be in the lower half of the conference. 

The health of the OLine is a very big concern this spring.  Seven different OL combinations started games last season.  That's a troubling lack of continuity for an experienced unit.  Never mind a unit loaded with guys that never played OL before.  The health of Howard Blackwood, Mike Esposito, and Rick McManis particularly will be something to watch. 

Lack of depth on the OLine was another tremendous problem last season.  An inherited lack of depth was compounded by unexpected attrition and a weak class of 2nd year players.  Schiano relied primarily upon an 8-man rotation; the 8th and 9th OL played a total of 11 games.  It will be interesting to observe the OL rotations in spring ball.  Will evidence indicate that Schiano plans to use a deeper rotation than 8 men?

The evolution of the depth chart will be the most telling development of spring camp.  Most opponents manhandled our offensive line – disrupting the running game with penetration into the backfield and quickly pressuring the QB.  Maturation of inexperienced starters playing out of position will contribute towards improvement.  So, will the displacement of non-performing starters with new, more talented players.  OL  can better be judged against peers at the same positions rather than their counterparts on defense.  Of particular on the OLine will be the following: 

  • Trohn Carswell and Howard Blackwood will resume the battle for the starting LT job.  Who earns the nod?
  • Rich McManis's return last season nearly coincided with the loss of Brian Boehrer.  That opened a starting slot for McManis.  Who among P'zmuka, Esposito, and McManis will emerge as the starting OGs?
  • Will any of the 2nd year players displace 3rd year players from the depth chart?

Coming Next:  Part 5 of my Spring Preview.  Although the performance of the offense starts up front with the offensive line, the QB is the single most important position because Rutgers uses a pass-oriented spread offense.  I'll look at this key position, which was a source of great angst last season.   

Please send any comments to bump86@earthlink.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.


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