Five returning starters along offensive line face high expectations with continuity, new assistant coach
From the moment Mitch Browning stepped foot on campus in December, there was no mistaking the Rutgers football team’s new offensive line coach.
“He’s old school. He takes no crap from anyone,” said sophomore right guard Chris Muller. “That’s really what we needed — we needed someone that was stern and a veteran.”
Credit head coach Kyle Flood, who hired the man with 34 years of experience during 2013 Pinstripe Bowl preparations, and likely with Big Ten aspirations in mind.
From 2000-2006, Browning was an architect of one of the conference’s most historic running games. Minnesota set a Big Ten record with 6,430 yards of total offense in 2003, then became the first team in conference history to rush for more than 3,000 yards in three straight seasons in 2005 — all with Browning’s teachings up front.
Add him to a Rutgers unit that came into the season returning all five starters, and lofty expectations in one of the country’s premier leagues await.
“He just wants us to be physical up front, smash mouth and stay low,” said junior left tackle Keith Lumpkin. “Those are his key emphases on technique. It works, obviously, because we had a very good, successful running game against Washington State. Obviously, we bought in, because [his success is] proven. We’ve just got to keep carrying on.”
Indeed, a season-opening win last Thursday night in Seattle provided the Scarlet Knights’ offensive line a strong foundation to build on.
For starters, there were the 215 rushing yards gained on an efficient five yards per carry. Rutgers also generated nearly 500 total yards, and no penalties were assessed up front.
The Knights’ offense struck a crisp rhythm throughout the game, especially on the game-winning fourth-quarter drive, when it pounded the ball with junior running back P.J. James four straight times for 20 yards to begin the series.
But perhaps most important, the offensive line allowed only one sack, showing how continuity pays dividends in communication. Muller describes the unit as a fraternity.
“We’re a lot more mature as a line on being able to look at defensive fronts and being able to assess what they’re going to do. You have to assess the situation on hand,” Muller said. “Having a year of experience under my belt, and having guys like Keith Lumpkin who started 13 games at left tackle, [senior] Kaleb Johnson who’s had 38 starts ... is really nice knowing that they know exactly what’s going on because their football intelligence is so high.”
With plenty of rugged Big Ten defensive fronts looming, Flood now wants to see consistency.
“The important thing is that you’re able to take success and handle success and build on that,” he said. “If you focus all your energy on what you did well, it’s going to keep you from improving on the things you didn’t do well. I’m pleased with the production, I’m pleased with the performance, but I’m also pleased with the opportunity to get better.”
Staying away from complacency in Saturday’s home opener against Howard — a program Rutgers has historically dominated — would be a good start.
The Knights are adopting the popular coaching belief that teams make the most significant adjustments from Week 1 to Week 2.
“We have to improve on what we showed last week,” Lumpkin said. “That’s our focus for this week — to improve each and every week. From Game 1 to Game 2, you have to show an improvement. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing — we have to improve on our techniques and get better for the rest of the season.”
Given that it was the first time the pairing of Muller, Lumpkin, Johnson, senior center Betim Bujari and senior right tackle Taj Alexander played together since Oct. 10, 2013 because of late-season injuries, the unit’s chemistry still has room to grow.
And by honing Browning’s techniques in positioning and coming off the ball, Rutgers’ offensive line isn’t setting any bar on its potential.
“It’s really exciting to know that the sky’s the limit with the offensive front,” Muller said. “We want to be a dominant force no matter who we play.”
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