Rutgers looks for O-line improvement

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- It's one of the great mysteries of the 2009 Big East season. How did Rutgers' offensive line, blessed with veterans and pro prospects, not come anywhere near expectations?

Guard Art Forst says he watched film of last year and the only conclusion he can come up with is that the unit underperformed. And he vows, "We won't underperform again."

Easier said than done. But how much the offensive line can come together and improve may well hold the key to the Scarlet Knights' fortunes in 2010.

It's a very different cast from last year. Gone are tackles Anthony Davis and Kevin Haslam and center Ryan Blaszczyk. In are ... well, we're not entirely sure yet.

Forst is back, but Howard Barbieri -- who was slated to take over at center -- suffered a knee injury and is out for the rest of spring. Desmond Wynn is penciled in as a likely starter at one of the tackle spots but he, too, has been hurt this spring.

Head coach Greg Schiano likes what he's seen so far out of Desmond Stapleton, who backed up Davis the past two seasons. Stapleton has been playing left tackle, and Schiano said he's provided worry-free performance. His older brother, Darnell, was a Rimington Trophy candidate at Rutgers and a starting center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The most intriguing prospect on the line is Antwan Lowery. He was Rutgers' highest-rated recruit a year ago as a defensive lineman. After his redshirt season, he asked to make the switch to the O-line, Schiano said. The 6-foot-4, 325-pounder is obviously raw, but his size and skill can overcome some inexperience.

"He's incredibly explosive," Schiano said. "We have to get him good enough. We don't have guys like him, so it's almost to where we've got to make it work."

"He does some things to our best defensive linemen where you sit there and say, 'Are you kidding me?' But then he'll do something [dumb] and you're like, 'Are you kidding me?' So there are kidding-me's both ways."

Rutgers gave up more sacks (40) than any other Big East team last year and it struggled to run the ball effectively for large stretches. This year, there's little depth behind quarterback Tom Savage, so the line simply must protect him for the team to succeed. The group is still mixing and matching parts and probably won't have its pieces together until fall camp when Wynn and Barbieri return.

Still, Schiano is optimistic.

"I've just got a feeling we're going to be better," he said. "I can't tell you why. I don't know if it's chemistry or whatever. But confidence means nothing unless you do it."

And unless this offensive line does it better than last year's, Rutgers won't be going very far in 2010.