Experience abundant as Rutgers offensive line adapts to new offense
When thinking about the power spread offense head coach Chris Ash and his staff are looking to implement in the Rutgers football team, the things that come to mind include jet sweeps, stretching the field with passing and the quarterback operating out of the shotgun.
But one of the most important aspects is often overlooked and taken for granted.
The offensive line, which returns 4 of its 5 usual starters from last season, is going through a similar adjustment to become the new offense, just like all the other units on the team.
After playing in a pro-style offense during former head coach Kyle Flood and former offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels ran, the Scarlet Knights are getting used to reacting more than thinking.
“In the pro-style, you’re ID’ing every guy, you got 40 seconds to get it all right and how many guys can we smash in the A-Gaps,” said offensive line coach AJ Blazek following practice Saturday. “This isn’t as taxing mentally, but everything happens faster so it’s a little reactionary. You gotta have that fluid athlete ... It’s moving, and that’s the difference.”
With every starter from last season barring left tackle Keith Lumpkin, who is graduating, at his disposal, Blazek has a solid foundation to build from.
But the former Iowa center isn’t satisfied with knowing who the first five guys out on the line will be. He believes to be successful in a league as grueling and competitive as the Big Ten, teams must have at least nine guys ready to go out on the field at all time.
“I’m telling you, if we just have five set, we’re not going to be very good,” Blazek said. “We need to find seven, eight (guys) first year. You start adding to that, that’s the big thing for us … we gotta create eight offensive lineman to play in the Big Ten over the long season.”
While the coaching staff has preached that every spot is an open competition, most positions have players with an edge due to game experience. With Lumpkin gone, the left tackle spot has no clear frontrunner based on experience alone.
Sophomores Zack Heeman and Tariq Cole are the leading candidates to fill in the hole. Heeman has more experience at the line of scrimmage, starting in two games last year at left guard. Cole, who was originally recruited to Rutgers as a left tackle, appeared in eight games on special teams.
The Long Beach, New York, native, who Blazek referred to as the unit’s “juice guy” for his high energy play after losing 40 pounds during offseason workouts, said he prefers the high tempo of the no-huddle spread offense over the pro-style he saw being operated in his first two years on the Banks.
“It’s a lot easier than the offense we were in before,” Cole said. “I was really confused some days when we’d run certain offenses, and then we’d just switch it up and do it all over, completely new. This offense is just go out, smash mouth football.”
Much is being made of the adjustment to a new style of offense.
There are habits from the former offense players must break. There are new habits that must be developed. There are reactions that are built through experience.
But prior to getting to this point, the players suiting up for the Knights have been playing football for the majority of their lives. While the game could be complex, some things don’t change.
“There’s certain things that you should know playing in an offense in general,” said senior center Derrick Nelson, who started 11 games last season. “There’s certain philosophies coaches have, but I mean, growing up and playing just offense in general … certain things are interchangeable.”
Nelson’s classmate Chris Muller, a stable at right guard in the past two seasons, has been out of action all spring due to a foot injury. Blazek said he was “ahead of schedule” in his recovery, and while he may not be able to participate in scrimmages, there is a possibility he will attend practice near the end of the spring.
With five months to go until Rutgers kicks off its season in Seattle against Washington, there is still a lot of schematic kinks the Knights have to work out.
There is one thing they can work on that doesn’t require a playbook, though.
“The biggest thing we’re working on is body language,” Blazek said. “An individual makes a mistake, he thinks its his mistake. Well, it’s ours, move on to the next play, we can’t change it.”