This article is the first of a six part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters the 2006 season. Long gone are the dreadful reminders of former OLine Coach Rod Holder. Upon Coach Kyle Flood's hiring the unit established the identity it lacked the previous season. Now entering his second season at RU, Flood's presence helps the unit gain an important attribute necessary to take the next step – coaching stability.
2006 PREVIEW – OFFENSIVE LINE
The offensive line became a mainstay for the Rutgers offense during 2006. Perhaps the most pivotal of off-season changes had little to do with anything related to recruiting. With the majority of the offensive line returning in much the same shape – in terms of player personnel – as the previous year, the unit seemed to thrive on the change of chemistry resulting from the arrival of former Delaware Asst. Head Coach/OL Coach Kyle Flood.
After a disappointing 2004 season, the offensive line once again showed promise in 2005. From the measly 2.5ypr (yards per rush) gained during 2004, the OL helped establish a presence that allowed RU to increase that total to 4.3ypr. The 4.3ypc gained was the same total that was allowed by the defense in 2004. The 83.5 yards per game (ypg) totaled in 2004 increased to 162.2ypg. Rushing TDs, a combination of both backfield talent and improved trench play nearly doubled, increasing from 9 (2004) to 16 (2005). A very misleading statistic, a substantial decrease in passing output from 2004 (3416 yards) to 2005 (2818), was more a reflection of the improved balance in the Scarlet Knight offensive attack. Indeed, Rutgers increased its output in terms of total scoring (269 points to 344), points per game (24.5 to 28.7), and perhaps most importantly, showed a sizeable improvement in rushing first downs (56 to 96, in 2005).
The improvement of 2005 was obvious to the naked eye and to the statistician. However, the success of the 2005 season also saw a pair of undeniably dependant linemen conclude their Rutgers careers. The Scarlet Knights will have to replace All-Big East selection John Glass and Sameeh McDonald.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Impact Players lost off the two-deep include:
RG John Glass [All-Big East] (23 GS)
RT Sameeh McDonald (22 GS)
Originally a Syracuse Orange signee, John Glass saw himself enrolled at Division II New Haven in 2001 after failing to qualify in 2000. He transferred to Rutgers in 2002 and practiced with the scout team while sitting out his transfer season. The start of 2003 saw Glass earn a starting job at RG, while 2004 brought more of the same. An All-Big East honoree in both 2004 and 2005, Glass graduated after having started 23 games at a position that was his for 2+ years.
Sameeh McDonald redshirted as a freshman in 2001, made the move to backup LT in 2002, beat highly-touted Ron Green for the starting RT job in 2003 while playing eight of his nine starts at RT. After starting at RT last year alongside Glass, McDonald's graduation leaves behind a combined 45 games started (between Glass and McDonald) on the right side of the OL.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP/INJURY
Players returning off of the two-deep and returning players from injury, include (position indicates prior status, not projected 2006 position):
RS Jr LT Pedro Sosa (17 GP + 12 GS)
Tr JR LG Jeremy Zuttah (18 GP and 13 GS)
RS So LG Corey Hyman (6 GP)
Tr Sr C Darnell Stapleton (12 GS)
RS Sr RG (2004) Cameron Stephenson (7 GP)
RS So RG Mike Gilmartin (3 GP + 1 GS)
RS Jr RT Mike Fladell (13 GP + 3 GS)
Jeremy Zuttah (Lindy's, Phil Steele, and Athlon All-Big East Preseason selection), the boy-wonder that saw significant action during his true freshman year – a feat accomplished by only the elite of offensive linemen – eventually found his home at LG during 2005. His versatility, in large part due to his tremendous athletic ability, allowed the Scarlet Knights the luxury to look for immediate needs at other positions while counting on Zuttah to perform at whatever remaining spot was left over (and where others could not) was considered a viable option. The RU OL is expected to be sealed off by Zuttah whose RT position is his, and his alone, for the next couple of years.
While Zuttah (pictured left) was the cornerstone recruit for the 2003 season, Pedro Sosa (Street & Smith, Lindy's, Phil Steele, and Athlon All-Big East Preseason selection) was the cornerstone recruit - another highly touted OL with major offers - in 2002. After serving as a LT backup during 2003, while not playing in any contests and thus preserving his year of eligibility, Sosa participated in five games during 2004 and emerged as the starting LT during 2005. At this point (due to his redshirt) on pace to graduate along-side fellow starter Zuttah - Sosa will be relied upon heavily to seal off the left side of the OL – Rutgers will maintain considerable veteran leadership on both edges of the OL for a couple of more years.
After seeing action in six games during the 2004 season, Corey Hyman was hampered by injury and missed the entirety of 2005. After seeing action at both LG and RG during 2004, Hyman is expected to come back strong in '06 and compete for a 2-deep spot at either of these positions - Hyman's versatility could also see him moved to the outside to LT in the case of an emergency.
The pleasant surprise of the 2005 season, as regards to trench play, was the emergence of Darnell Stapleton. By way of Union HS, and Hudson Valley Community College where he played both the C and Tackle positions, while becoming the only player in Hudson Valley history to start 21 consecutive games, Stapleton won the starting C job during summer training camp during a wide-open battle. After securing the starting spot Stapleton (Dave Rimington Preseason Watch List honoree) started all 12 games and helped pace Rutgers to seven 100-yard performances during 2005.
Cameron Stephenson, after joining the Scarlet Knights a couple of summers ago, after two years at Harbor Junior College (Wilmington, California) began his career at Rutgers on the offensive line. After receiving a medical redshirt during his time spent at JUCO, Stephenson was moved to the defensive line during 2005 due to the unexpected departure of Nate Robinson and Piana Lukabu. After playing all of 2005 at DT, Stephenson was moved back to OL and will be competing for a starting spot at the G spot during the 2006 training camp. Though he played all of 2005 on the DL, Stephenson saw action in 7 games on the offensive line during 2004, bringing in some amount of experience to the summer competition.
After redshirting his initial season (2004) at Rutgers, Mike Gilmartin cracked the 2-deep during summer training camp while seeing action during three games and securing his first collegiate start at Buffalo. Seeing time at a relatively early time during his career suggests that Gilmartin will be competing for a spot on the 2-deep and increased playing time during '06. The battle between Cameron Stephenson, Mike Gilmartin and Mike Fladell (see below) for two of the three remaining OL spots (RG, LG) should be one of the more interesting developments during summer training camp.
Mike Fladell's initial claim to fame was his superior size, even as a Tr FR. After an expected redshirt during his initial season, Fladell's body began to take shape and the idea of a truly imposing specimen at either of the G spots began to take on a more realistic outlook. Fladell has played in 13 career games and his experience may give him the upper hand to securing one or the other of remaining G spots come September 2nd.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Additional players to keep an eye on as they battle for a spot on the two-deep include:
RS Jr OG Dan Mazan (transfer + redshirt)
RS So OG/C Dave McClain
RS So Ryan Blaszczyk
Tr Fr Mo Lange
Sr C/G Mitar Rudanovic (transfer)
After the disaster of 2004, the RU OL emerged as one of the better units in the Big East in 2005. Positions thought to be headed for possible misfortune (i.e., C) turned out to be positions of strength instead. The 2006 version, although needing to replace a combined 45 starts from the right side of last year's version, retains significant experience. The three secured spots on the OL (C, LT, RT) boast an impressive 12 starts per player, or more, with both tackles returning for an additional year in 2007. Additionally, the boon that arrived by the name of Stapleton cannot be overemphasized.
Additional questions to keep in mind for the remainder of training camp and the beginning of the 2006 season:
How will the G spots play out? Who is in and who is out? Three are competing for 2 spots.
How will the 2-deep emerge and who will be relied upon as serviceable back-ups?
Last year, Rutgers went into the season with an abundance of questions, including not having a starting C – this year one of the primary questions going into training camp was who Stapleton's backup would be. Published reports indicate that job has been secured by Sr transfer Mitar Rudanovic - does the decrease in questions suggest an improvement in player development, the positive side effect of coaching stability, or both?
Coming Next: Part 2 through 6 of SOR's 2006 Preview. We'll be reviewing the RBs and QBs, the TEs and WRs and moving on to the defensive side of the ball as well.