Rutgers opens the 2023 season less than a week away on Sunday, September 3 against Northwestern at SHI Stadium. The nationally televised game will kickoff at noon and air on CBS. While the Scarlet Knights enter this matchup and the season with many questions, the most unclear of them all is along the offensive line.
Three starters return from last season, but only one is in the same position. Ireland Brown, a converted defensive lineman, started 11 games at center in 2022. After a solid campaign in the middle of the trenches, he gives Rutgers some stability entering this fall. So does Hollin Pierce, who has switched from starting right tackle to starting left tackle. The former walk-on started 24 games over the last two seasons on the right side. Moving to the left means he’ll be protecting quarterback Gavin Wimsatt’s blind side and hopefully can become the true anchor for the offensive line.
In addition, Curtis Dunlap has 28 career starts at right guard, including all 12 games last season for Rutgers. The former Minnesota Gopher is now switching to the left side as well.
How Pierce and Dunlap perform following the switch remains to be seen, but its not even close to the biggest questions with the offensive line. Finding their replacements is.
Kobe Asamoah started the last three games of last season at left guard and is battling Mike Ciaffoni for the starting role at right guard this preseason. In addition, Tyler Needham and Kamar Missouri are battling for the starting right tackle role.
When head coach Greg Schiano was asked about the two deep for the offensive line on Thursday, the last time he met with the media, he explained the decisions on the right side have not been made.
“There’s some position battles still going on in the inside of the o-line,” Schiano said. “And again, we’d like to play just five eventually – but if it’s too close to call, we’ll play more than that. We haven’t made any decisions on that stuff.”
Is this a case of all four players competing to start playing at a really high level, are they failing to set themselves apart in a bad way, or is a decision already made and Schiano is playing coy?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that if they truly don’t have the starting five offensive linemen set, it’s not a particularly good thing. That’s not to say Schiano is doing anything wrong with not making a decision yet. However, it doesn’t breed much hope that the offensive line is ahead of schedule and on course to exceed expectations this fall.
Like anything, you need reps to gain confidence, build consistency and to improve. If Rutgers really has gone all training camp without solidifying the right side of the line, that’s a major concern. It doesn’t mean that this unit won’t take a step forward this season. But it certainly raises some question as to whether they actually will.
The other part of this is that there is no guarantee that switching Pierce and Dunlap from the right side to the left side will be seamless. There could be a transition period, especially for Dunlap inside, where he needs to adjust the footwork.
If the offensive line can’t effectively protect Gavin Wimsatt at quarterback and or not help generate enough push for a consistent run game, Rutgers will be in serious trouble. One thing for sure is that the lack of continuity and reps puts this group in a challenging spot.
The biggest reason for optimism is that Rutgers now has one of the most experienced and successful offensive line coaches in football to help figure this out. Pat Flaherty won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. He also worked as a consultant for Schiano at Rutgers last season. So he knows the personnel and obviously believes the changes along the line can work.
I’m not blaming the staff for trying as many options as they have along the offensive line. It’s just that moving returning starters to the opposite side of a center who converted from defensive line, as well as having two starting positions seemingly still in question, it’s a less than an ideal situation. That being said, having Flaherty as the boss of this group does mean some benefit of the doubt is warranted.
”He’s done a great job,” Schiano said of Flaherty last Thursday. “You know, he always says he’s got a few guys that help them out there – (assistant offensive line coach) Scott Vallone (is) the most senior of those guys, (graduate assistant) Alex Officer is in there, (quality control assistant) PJ Barr – there’s four guys that are all different stages in their coaching career. But I mean, is there a better guy to learn from than Pat Flaherty, for both the players and the coaches?”
Vallone, the former First Team All-Big East defensive lineman, enters his fourth season coaching with his alma mater. He’s been praised by Schiano in the past for his contributions.
Obviously, solving the offensive line puzzle at Rutgers has become an annual project. Perhaps this will be the season in which this group make significant progress. Flaherty and his staff will certainly have the offensive line as prepared for each game as possible. But at the end of the day, it comes down to execution.
“The end result is the line is playing as a more cohesive unit – doesn’t matter who’s in there,” Schiano said. “They’re identifying, making calls, staying on the block, straining more. So yeah, they’re getting better.”
The key is for that progress to show up on game days this fall. The offensive line’s first opportunity to show that strides are being made comes against Northwestern. Their defensive line is mostly made up of transfers and freshmen. It’s a good first test but one that Rutgers as a team must pass. The offense has multiple questions and concerns. However, if the offensive line can’t be serviceable and all of the changes and uncertainty leads to disaster, it could be a fatal blow for this team this season. Let’s hope Schiano and Flaherty can get the most out of the offensive line, potentially creating one of the best storylines this season for Rutgers.
For our full positional preview for the offensive line with David Anderson, click here.
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