The Big Ten is a line of scrimmage league, and Rutgers has struggled to measure up for some time.
Greg Schiano and his staff will need to change that stark reality before the Scarlet Knights can begin to climb out of the conference basement. The process has started, but it will take some time. And right now, the adjustments lean heavily toward one side of the trench.
Rutgers added nine defensive down linemen in its 2020 recruiting class, including four FBS transfers and a four-star recruit. It was a desperately-needed infusion of talent for one of the Scarlet Knights’ weakest position groups in recent years.
But the offensive line is in need of a similar overhaul as well. Help is coming, but not immediately. Rutgers added just four linemen this past cycle, none having played a snap at a level above junior college. The Scarlet Knights also lost their best returning lineman to the transfer portal for the second straight offseason, as center Mike Maietti left for Missouri in similar fashion to Jonah Jackson’s 2019 departure to Ohio State.
New offensive line coach Andrew Aurich – the third man to hold the job in as many seasons – will have his work cut out for him with a unit that could hold the entire offense back if it does not make strides.
Here is a in-depth look at Rutgers’ offensive line room:
Three key questions
Opt-outs? The world awaits the Rutgers roster reveal. But offensive line is one of the position groups where an unexpected departure or two would be particularly impactful. A Big Ten team typically wants to have eight or nine healthy linemen it can trust to play meaningful snaps each week. If a player or players who can contribute opt not to play this season for concerns related to the novel coronavirus, depth could become a big issue before the season begins.
Can Cedrice Paillant step right in and start? Rutgers will get a real lift if the New Rochelle native, who spent the last two seasons at Monroe College, can be a plug-and-play starter at right tackle with Raiqwon O’Neal expected to be locked in at left tackle. The Scarlet Knights need to replace Kamaal Seymour, a three-year starter, and their options will be limited if Paillant doesn’t win the job, especially if they end up kicking Reggie Sutton inside.
What about C.J. Hanson at center? The St. John Vianney product figures to be the new center with Maietti no longer in town. Rutgers needs Hanson, a very good athlete, to step right in and be a productive quarterback of the unit despite little experience. It’s hard to come up with an appealing backup plan otherwise. The Scarlet Knights do have a solid returning starter in right guard Nick Krimin and several players with experience at left guard, including Mike Lonsdorf and Sam Vretman.
True freshmen do not typically play on the offensive line in the Big Ten. But Tunde Fatukasi and Bryan Felter could have an opportunity this year for several reasons. An extended offseason helps, as does the NCAA’s blanket eligibility waiver. But more importantly, Rutgers may need the depth at the interior line spots. The freshman could also be be some of the better linemen on the roster when everything shakes out.
Rutgers has four offensive linemen committed to the 2021 class, all three-star recruits: Tyler Needham (Penn Charter), Albert Reese (Clearwater Academy International), Kevin Toth Jr. of Hudson (Ohio) and Gus Zilinskas of Cherry Creek (Colorado).
New Jersey has had a bit of a dry spell producing offensive line recruits who make a Power Five impact since Red Bank Catholic’s Quenton Nelson, now a two-time All-Pro for the Indianapolis Colts, signed with Notre Dame in 2014. But Rutgers could certainly use a guy like Will Fries right now. The former Cranford star is entering his fourth season as a starter at Penn State and represents the type of in-state recruit Schiano needs to land if Rutgers is going to punch up a weight class in the Big Ten.
Key stat that must be addressed
Rutgers allowed 6.33 tackles-for-loss a game last season, almost a 1.5 TFL increase from the 2018 season. The Scarlet Knights are not good enough to have that many negative plays each week.
O’Neal and Paillant will be the tackles and Krimin and Sutton will be the guards, left to right respectively. Hanson will be the center.
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