2007 Preview: Offensive Line

This article is the first of a six part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters the 2007 season. Gone are the days of fan's wonderment upon a win here and a win there. These days are perhaps some of the most glorious on the Banks ever, with enthusiasm running at an all-time high, both within the program and throughout the state's boundaries.

 

2007 PREVIEW – OFFENSIVE LINE


After becoming a unit to be respected in 2005, the Rutgers Football Offensive Line elevated its game not one but two notches in 2006.  Under the guidance of Offensive Line (OL) Coach Kyle Flood, RU established itself as a quality rushing team in '05, but as a national phenomenon in '06.  Recruiting had little to do with the improvement evident in 2006 but more to do with the philosophical consistency that had been established from a second straight year under the tutelage of Flood.  Moreover, player turnover was limited and all of the 2006 starters had already seen significant, quality playing time the previous year, suggesting the improvement in chemistry between teammates familiar with one another's qualities and tendencies was a prime reason for the continued upward trend.

Flood's arrival on the Banks brought an immediate shot of adrenaline to a previously floundering and underachieving unit.  Under his predecessor's tutelage, the RU rushing attack managed a meager 2.5 yards per carry (ypc).  During Coach Flood's tenure thus far, the RU OL has shown continued dramatic improvement enabling its tailbacks to 4.3ypc in 2005, and 4.7ypc in 2006. The per game rushing output also showed significant improvement during Flood's initial year, eclipsing triple-figures (from 83.5 yards per game [ypg] to 162.2ypg).  In 2006, the RU OL helped pave the way for RU 'backs by increasing their output from the previous year to 180.2ypg.  Rushing first downs, one of the better measures of trench play, has quite remarkably, more than doubled since Flood's arrival: 55 rushing 1st downs in '04, 96 in '05, and 112 in '06).  The OL unit did not just thrive in the rushing game, however, as the trench stalwarts also managed to lead the nation in fewest sacks allowed by the conclusion of the 2006 season (8). 

Coupled with the increased run production in 2006, as compared to 2005, was a substantial decrease in passing production (from 235ypg in '05 to 165ypg in '06).  Several reasons contributed to this.  The departure of then-Sr. QB Ryan Hart, who would show substantial improvement during his last collegiate year, paved the door for talented and much respected, although very 'green', Mike Teel.  The increased efficiency and comfort among the members of the OL in 2006 permitted the RU staff to bring Teel along at a slower rate than was necessary for Hart.  As a result, passing opportunities dwindled at the expense of a rushing attack (number or rushes increased from 454 in '05 to 496 in '06) that took full advantage of its additional opportunities.  Indeed, scoring went up from 2005 to 2006 (344 points to 387) as did points per game (28.7 to 29.8), but not total offense.  In 2006, Rutgers simply learned to do what it had to better - led by the OL, the offense became more efficient.

The continued refinement of an improved 2006 OL was most evident during Raymell Rice's Big East leading rushing output.  As opposed to the previous year, however, Rutgers does not have to replace talent and experience at either of the bookend positions. Beginning in 2006, newcomers had to step in and replace All-Big selection John Glass and his 23 games started (GS) and RT Sameeh McDonald and his 22 GS.  A chief part of the rosy outlook for the 2007 version of the Rutgers Football Scarlet Knights is due to the continued and undeniably dependent presence of a number of linemen that saw significant action in 2006.  Nevertheless, RU does have two significant holes to fill and will have to replace a pair of current NFL players in C Darnell Stapleton and RG Cam Stephenson.


PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP

Impact Players lost off the two-deep include:

*       C Darnell Stapleton (25 GS)

*       RG Cameron Stephenson (20 GP + 12 GS)

By way of Union HS, and Hudson Valley Community College where he played both the C and Tackle positions, Darnell Stapleton became the only player in Hudson Valley history to start 21 consecutive games.  By the conclusion of his initial summer training camp Stapleton won the starting C job in what had been a wide-open battle.  The following year, Stapleton had secured his starting job and helped anchor one of the top OLs in the country.  Stapleton is currently a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent (FA) and had shown significant promise early during camp before going down with an injury.

After two years at Harbor Junior College (Wilmington, California) Cameron Stephenson joined the Scarlet Knights on the OL, but was immediately 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 saw significant time at the RG spot during the 2006 season before securing the starter's role. In 2006 the RG spot belonged to Cam, as he is affectionately called by his coaches and teammates.  Stephenson had an outstanding '06 season, one that saw his stock rise dramatically wherein once Day 2 of the NFL Draft arrived, the Pittsburgh Steelers opted to go the route of the former RU OL in selecting Cam with the 19th pick in round 5.


RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP/INJURY EXPECTED TO HAVE AN IMPACT

Players returning off of the two-deep and returning players from injury, include:

*       RS Sr LT Pedro Sosa (30 GP + 25 GS)

*       RS Fr LT Howard Barbieri (No Game Experience)

*       RS Sr LG Mike Fladell (25 GP + 16 GS)

*       RS Sr OG Dan Mazan (transfer + redshirt)

*       RS So C Ryan Blaszczyk (No Game Experience)

*       RS So RG Kevin Haslam (4 GP)

*       RS Jr RG Mike Gilmartin (15 GP + 1 GS)

*       Tr Sr RT Jeremy Zuttah (31 GP + 26 GS)


At the LT spot, Pedro Sosa was the top OL recruit in his class having received 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 the '05 season.  After locking up the LT spot in '05, Sosa kept the position to himself for the entirety of '06, and along with Zuttah, helped seal off opposing defenders as two of the better tackle tandems in the country. For 2007, the veteran leadership and game experience at the tackle spots should ensure another successful year of rushing and pass protection.  Teel's blind spot will be secure in '07 due to the tremendous game experience by one of the top tackles in the Big East (BE).

Mike Fladell's claim to fame when he was first recruited to Rutgers was his superior size.  Fladell redshirted his initial year and played in 1 contest during his RS So year, after which he saw a significant increase in playing time appearing in 11 of RU's 12 games in 2005.  In 2006 Fladell started all 13 games at LG where he is expected to perform similarly in '07.  A Pre-Season All BE 1st Team selection by a number of media outlets, Fladell serves as the epitome of the sort of player development under the watching eyes of Head Coach Greg Schiano.

A lightly recruited lineman by way of Middletown South HS, Barbieri helped the team as a member of the scout team in '06 where he showed significant promise.  Barbieri is expected to see action in some games this year, allowing him to hone his skills and provide invaluable game experience for the future.

After transferring in from Penn State, Dan Mazan sat out the 2004 season per NCAA guidelines, helped as member of the scout team in 2005, and participated in 3 games at LG in 2006. 

Ryan Blaszczyk has not taken one snap during his collegiate career yet but earned the starting C role, replacing Darnell Stapleton, during pre-season camp.  A first team All-State pick in 2004 by the Star-Ledger and Associated Press, Blaszczyk has already been named as a Pre-Season All BE 3rd team selection by Phil Steele.

Kevin Haslam saw action in 4 games as a RS Fr (after redshirting his initial year at RU) and seems to have secured the RG spot for the start of '07.  An impressive athlete that lettered in basketball as well, Haslam has put on good weight during his thus far short stint at RU allowing him to physically compete against the bigger collegiate linemen he did not see in HS.

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. Gaining game experience at a relatively early time during his career suggested that Gilmartin competes for a spot on the 2-deep, a forecast that proved true.  While Gilmartin would not start during the 2006 season, he provided important depth off the bench, playing in all games save for RU's home opener versus the Illini.  Gilmartin should see a similar role this year before having an opportunity to compete for a starting spot in his final year on the Banks.

Jeremy Zuttah (Lindy's, Phil Steele, and Athlon All-Big East Preseason selection prior to '06 season), the do everything boy-wonder that played on the OL as a true FR – a feat accomplished by only the elite of offensive linemen – is a member of the Rotary Lombardi Watch List (honor granted to nation's top lineman), is on the Outland Trophy Preseason Watch List (honor granted to nation's top interior lineman) and has received a number of additional preseason conference and national honors.  Zuttah's versatility is his main attribute, allowing him to play a number of positions at the collegiate level.  The RU OL, as in 2006, is expected to be sealed off by Zuttah at the RT spot.


ADDITIONAL CANDIDATES
TO KEEP AN EYE ON

Additional players, some new to the team, to keep an eye on as they may see significant time as the year progresses:

*       RS Jr LG Corey Hyman (8 GP)

*       Tr Fr RG Anthony Davis

*       Tr Fr C Caleb Ruch

*       Tr So Mo Lange

 

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.


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