Linemen look to aid run game with new coaching, experience
Much of spring talk has revolved around new offensive and defensive coordinators, but the Rutgers football team’s most important December hire could prove to be the man leading the battle for leverage up front.
With 34 years of experience at six BCS schools, new offensive line coach Mitch Browning brings a decorated resume to Piscataway.
As an assistant at Minnesota from 1997 to 2006, Browning guided a dominant running game.
The Gophers became the first team in Big Ten history to put together three straight 3,000-yard rushing seasons in 2005. Two of their backs rushed for 1,000 yards each of those years — an NCAA first.
When head coach Kyle Flood hired Browning during 2013 Pinstripe Bowl preparation, he did so with Big Ten priorities in mind.
“Mitch has brought a different level of toughness to that group up front,” Flood said yesterday post-practice. “He’s been very valuable to the offense. I do think we’ve made progress.”
With pro-style schemes, much of the Scarlet Knights’ offensive success relies on running the ball effectively. But in recent years, the Knights have lacked consistency.
Rutgers averaged just 3.7 yards per rush last season in the AAC, which would have ranked 11th in the Big Ten. Only two of 12 teams in the conference averaged less than four yards per attempt, with Ohio State leading the league at 4,321 total yards on the ground.
Entering a conference that places a premium on rushing, the Knights are embracing Browning’s teachings.
“He’s one of those typical old-school coaches — smash-mouth football, and that’s what he believes gets the offense going,” said junior left tackle Keith Lumpkin. “That only helps us out because last year we were 101st in the country in rushing yards [per game], and we can do better than that. I believe with him coming in and teaching us more physical and nasty mentality, I think that’ll help us out in the run game a whole lot this year.”
The Knights are also seeing the benefits of returning all five starters along the offensive line for the first time in recent memory — though senior right tackle Taj Alexander is out this spring with a lower body injury.
Lumpkin started all 13 games last year next to senior left guard Kaleb Johnson, who said one of the reasons he forewent the NFL Draft was to play with Lumpkin again under Browning.
The 6-foot-8, 315-pound Lumpkin was part of the unit’s shakeup last spring, when Flood promoted him from backup right tackle. That slid Johnson inside to guard.
But this spring Rutgers has continuity and more experience up front.
“Once you get the understanding of the game, it becomes second nature, it becomes easier to you,” Lumpkin said. “Having that communication with guys who already played and been through it helps out a lot.”
Familiarity in blocking as a unit has manifested on the field in picking up more blitzes, twists and stunts — switches and loops between defensive linemen and linebackers.
As a less experienced lineman a year ago, Lumpkin first had to learn to maneuver what was directly in front of him.
“Once you see it so often in practice it’s like, ‘He’s coming here. He’s coming here.’” Lumpkin said. “You’re communicating and you pick it up so much easier, and it makes your job a whole lot easier.”
Rutgers’ coaching staff has not yet decided how it will divide up the Scarlet and White teams for Saturday’s annual spring game, Flood said. The contest typically features first- and second-team players against backups.
But this year Flood plans on being more involved in running the scrimmage with the coordinators, as opposed to mostly meeting with recruits inside High Point Solutions Stadium.
“I want to control the scrimmage. I want to blow the whistles on the quarterbacks,” Flood said. “We’ll have Big Ten officials here, and when you put them in a situation where they have to decide if it’s a sack or not a sack, there will be certain plays I want to let go a little bit longer. ... I can control I think the pace and the tempo of everything better if I’m down there.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.