Starters settle in on Rutgers offensive line
The offensive line is still a work in progress for the Rutgers football team, but the Scarlet Knights in the trenches were able to glean some confidence from their 63-13 opening week blowout of Norfolk State.
After losing Betim Bujari, who started all 13 games at center last season, head coach Kyle Flood looked for someone to step up.
Enter Derrick Nelson, the junior offensive lineman assigned to fill Bujari's shoes. Nelson played in only four games in 2014 and with inexperience plaguing both sophomore quarterbacks, starter Chris Laviano and last week’s starter Hayden Rettig, it was crucial for Nelson to get acclimated quickly.
After the Spartans chewed up the Knights defense with a five-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown on the opening series, Rutgers answered back with a score of it’s own.
But it wasn't until the second offensive series, with Rutgers in the redzone, that Nelson announced his arrival to the 47,353 fans in attendance.
Rettig took the snap from Nelson and dropped in the pocket only to find his receivers were covered. Rettig scrambled to his right and turned downhill toward the endzone, hurdling a Spartan on his way in for his second score and first rushing touchdown of his career.
But it was Nelson’s pancake block that sprung the sophomore quarterback into the endzone.
“It was a good play. I was really excited for Hayden, it was designed like that and it turned out it was pretty effective,” Nelson said of the block that spurred Rutgers to a 14-7 lead, while pinpointing when he was able to settle down in his first start. “After the pre-game jitters come to a close and you start feeling the chemistry with the offensive line, things started to jell."
Junior right guard Chris Muller engaged in competition with Nelson throughout the spring and summer camps. But after starting all 13 games in 2014 at guard, Flood felt most confident with Nelson at center.
Muller got rolled up in the second half of week one and in a somewhat puzzling move, the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder trotted back out on the field after the game had been decided. But as always, he will be ready to go Saturday against Washington State.
“It’s all about conditioning, especially on these hot days,” Muller said. “(Strength and conditioning) Coach (Jeremy) Cole has got us in the best shape I’ve ever been in, so I could have played 20 quarters if football was that long of a game.”
Although Flood said later in the week that he planned to continue to play up to seven different lineman during the course of a game, at Monday’s press conference, he drew a line of demarcation for the starting five.
“I still feel like we have five starters," Flood said. "I believe there is a separation there."
The leader of the offensive line is not debateable, Keith Lumpkin is the guy the other linemen look to when things become difficult.
Lumpkin, a fifth-year senior, started all 13 games at left tackle last season and his charge is to protect the blind side of starting quarterback Chris Laviano when the Cougars come to town Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Lumpkin certainly has the length and size needed to play one of the most important positions on the offensive side of the ball at 6-foot-8, 325 pounds.
But his vocal leadership rarely comes in the form of tough love. The offensive line committed a few silly penalties in week one, including a false start by Lumpkin, but he says when addressing these mistakes the player knows when he messed up.
“You just talk to them, something calm. You don’t ever wanna be overly aggressive towards someone because that just frustrates them more. Obviously they’re frustrated because they jumped offsides or (had) a little penalty,” he said. “You don’t wanna commend them, but you don’t wanna be overly aggressive. So, you just tell them, ‘You’re good, don’t worry about it. Put it behind you and move on.'”
In the second quarter Paul James fumbled the football while climbing through the Spartans secondary, but there Lumpkin was to fall on it.
Flood commended Lumpkin for the heads up play while praising the Montclair, New Jersey, native for his effort and play throughout the contest.
“I thought Keith Lumpkin really played like a fifth-year senior left tackle should play," Flood said. "I was very pleased with how Keith played, not just in his performance but in his effort and in his ability to finish plays."
Regarding the fumble, the head coach said there would be no special prize for his senior left tackle. But that didn’t take away from the significance of the play Lumpkin made.
“It's not necessarily a sticker on the helmet, but it's a big play in the game," Flood said.
The average size of a Rutgers offensive lineman is 6-foot-5, 304 pounds. If the Knights are going to have success against Mike Leach and Wazzu, Rutgers' titans of the trenches will be a major reason for it. They were successful in week one, but their head coach wants more.
“I'm pleased with what they did,” Flood said. “I really believe we can be better. And I think we can be better in the run game, I think we can be better in protection.”
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