3 Offensive Questions Prior to Spring Camp

The official start of Spring Football practice begins on Tuesday, March 11th, for Rutgers Football. The 2008 version of the Scarlet Knights face several questions as they head into spring camp, although none may be bigger than the impending decisions the RU Staff will have to ultimately make: who will be Ray Rice's heir?

Rutgers Football ended the 2007 season on a positive note. The Scarlet Knights finished 8-5 overall, 3-4 in Conference play, and defeated Ball State in the International Bowl.  RU finished an idiosyncratic season tied for fifth in the Big East, but the end result of postseason play maintained forward progress of the program Greg The Architect Schiano had begun building years earlier.

The Scarlet Knights return 50 letterwinners from 2007 while losing 23.  RU returns 15 starters while losing 9.  On offense, the Scarlet Knights bring back only two-fifths of one of the top offensive lines in the nation, having lost Mike Fladell [LG], Pedro Sosa [LT], and Jeremy Zuttah [RT] to graduation, and likely, to the NFL.  It was an offensive line that aided the Scarlet Knights to major school achievements: scoring in a season [426], first downs [294], and total offense [5841].

Rutgers returns a pair of starters from its OL, in Jr. C Ryan Blaszczyk and So. RG Anthony Davis.  Blaszczyk will retain his position as the starting C, while the worst kept secret in college football since his Senior year in High School, will finally come to fruition: Davis' eventual home on the OL once he fully established himself - LT.  Davis played in all 13 games as a true Fr. while starting the final 8.

The offensive backfield, for the first time in three years, will have a different 'back taking handoffs than one Rutgers fans had been used to.  With Rutgers' greatest, arguably, running back in school history officially gone from the 'Banks, RU will have to fill in the greater than 2,000 all-purpose yards that Rice compiled during his swan song campaign.  There are several talented, though green, candidates to fill the position.

Having, very generally, summarized Rutgers' most glaring weaknesses we now take a look a the Top 3, in order of greatest importance first, Offensive Questions heading into spring practice.

1.  Replacing 3/5ths of the Offensive Line - Rutgers will have much replacing to do starting this spring as it looks for substitutes for 1st Team All Big-East honoree Jeremy Zuttah, 2nd Team All Big-East selection Pedro Sosa, and outstanding LG Mike Fladell.  The loss of this trio of young men is bigger than the individual replacements RU will have to find.  These three had formed the nucleus of an O-Line that had dominated the college football landscape for two consecutive years.  The OL, spearheaded by this group, helped pave the way for Ray Rice and RU's ground game, to the tune of 198 yards per game.  In addition, the OL allowed but 8 sacks in 2006 and 11 in 2007, outstanding feats for a group that sputtered badly prior to the arrival of Coach Kyle Flood.

There is talent waiting for its time in the spotlight. But, the OL position, more than any other on the field, requires cohesiveness among its members, for success.  Part and parcel of this cohesiveness will be a significant need for experience.  The most experienced of the returnees is true So. [LT] Anthony Davis and C Ryan Blaszczyk. Kevin Haslam brings tremendous versatility and some experience as he started 5 games and participated in 13 last season.  Mike Gilmartin has participated in the equivalent of greater than 2 years of competition, having seen action in 28 games.  Howard Barbieri and Mo Lange have played in 10 and 2 games, respectively.  Caleb Ruch, who arrived at Rutgers looking like a Division-I player more than one year ago, is expected to crack the starting lineup at RG.  Ruch's strength is his primary asset although he has shown the ability to pull as well during his High School days, a characteristic that will become quite useful at RU.

The question that will plague this group well into the season is not one of individual talent. It is one of unit play.  How well and how fast this unit can mesh into something resembling the elite O-Line play RU enjoyed during its last two seasons may very well determine the eventual success of the Rutgers offense.

2.  How do you replace a Doak Walker Finalist, a Maxwell Award Semifinalist, a 1st Team All Big-East selection, an All-American according to numerous publications, and 4926 career rushing yards?  Anybody with a straight answer to that question should have no issues finding employment in the coaching ranks.  The issue at hand goes well beyond the accolades and recognition, however. 

Rutgers will also have to replace better than 79% of its 2007 rushing total and better than 85% of its 2007 rushing touchdown total.  The easy answer may be to suggest an increase in output in other areas.  Unfortunately, RU's pro-style offense dictates that at least a significant percentage of Rice's yards will need replacing.  While Teel will have to undertake more of a burden, his success will critically depend on the cohesiveness of the O-Line, and the ability of the new 'backs to pick up where Ray left off. 

Kordell Young, a prized recruit that decommitted from UVA in favor of the home-state Knights, returns as the most experienced member of the backfield. Although he has played in 14 career games, Young suffered a season ending injury versus Norfolk State last season.  His burst of speed will be a necessary asset but the question of whether he will be able to fit the role of an every down running back is a fair one.  Regardless, Young will be eased back into duty this spring and is unlikely to participate in the Spring Game. 

Jourdan Brooks and Joe Martinek both have unique talents, though both are as green as green can get.  Both redshirted last season and neither has seen game action yet.  Brooks is more of a bruiser, a change of pace 'back while Martinek made the switch from the defensive backfield to assist on the offensive side of the ball.  Mason Robinson may have the total package and, outside of Young, will be the only 'back to have seen action in '07 (36 carries for 202 yards) that will practice in pads, take hits, and participate in the Spring Game.

Rutgers needs to run the ball to get its aerial attack on track.  Perhaps this year, RU will need to change tactics and throw first, to set up the run.  Whatever the method of attack, one thing is for certain - RU will need major productivity out of a group of four players that have a combined 52 career carries.  Which of these four will step up and carry the torch left by Rice?

3.  The 2007 version of the Scarlet Knights showed precisely why a second-string QB with significant experience is so necessary.  With Teel banged up for the most critical part of the Rutgers schedule, RU was left feeling the ill effects.

Jr. QB Jabu Lovelace appeared in 10 games but saw most of his action in the shot-gun, in run formations.  He played the majority of the game against Army, and even against the Cadets Lovelace was limited in his passing opportunities, attempting only 8 passes.  Against Army, he was able to put up impressive numbers, carrying the ball 23 times for 81 yards, but against upper echelon teams, the opposition was eventually able to stop him.  Lovelace only attempted 23 passes on the season. Though he has significant game experience, the limited passing situations made available to him leave him green in a significant component of the Rutgers offense.

The remainder of the Rutgers QBs (Paul-Etienne, Natale, DePaola, and true Fr. Shimko) have combined for 1 career pass attempt: DePaola's 15-yard TD pass to Kevin Brock on a fake FG versus South Florida.  Natale, who is fully recovered from his season ending injury from 2007, is up to 220-pounds and may very well be in the best shape of career.  Natale may have the best combination of athleticism, pocket savvy, and understanding of the offense and will challenge Lovelace for Teel's backup spot. 

Whoever it may be that wins this job will have to undergo a fire drill spring and summer camp in case Teel and his 3 years as a Rutgers starter - in some capacity, dating back to 2005 - are to go down.

Matei may be reached at mgeorge@rutgersfootball.com

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