As training camp inches closer and OTAs near their conclusion later this month, the competition for starting jobs along the offensive line will begin to sort themselves out. Thank God for that, as I can't imagine there being any possible angle that we haven't discussed here on BTSC.
It occured to me however, that there's one guy who's name has been thrown around more recently that I know very little about: 2nd year C/G Darnell Stapleton. Who is he, where did he come from and what are his chances to make this team and then contribute? Let's take a look.
Stapleton was a 2-year starter for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in 2005 and 2006, following a 2-year stint at Hudson Valley Community College. At Hudson Valley, Stapleton impressed with his skills and durability. He started 21 consecutive games while there, a school record, including all 11 in 2004, and helped anchor an offensive line that paved the way for a ground game that accumulated 169.7 rushing yards per game.
It's not clear if Stapleton started out at JC instead of a 4-year university for academic reasons or simply because he had yet to fill out his big frame, but following his two-year stint at JC, Stapleton did not waste any time cracking the starting lineup at Rutgers. He secured a starting role at center during training camp in 2005, and proceeded to start all 12 games for a 2005 Scarlet Knights team that made enormous strides under head coach Greg Schiano before breaking through on the national stage in a huge way in 2006.
In 2005, the Scarlet Knights' offense had seven 100+ yard rushing games, and tailback Ray Rice, who will commence his NFL career this coming year, eclipsed the 1,000 yard plateau as just as freshman, the first time a RB has done so there since 1994.
In 2006, Stapleton followed up his junior year with an even more impressive senior campaign. Darnell again showcased his durability, starting all 13 games for a Rutgers team that was on the brink of an unthinkable BCS game appearance before flaming out against Cincinnati if I recall correctly. Regardless, the team set all sorts of school records. Ray Rice rushed for nearly 1800 yards, the second highest total in the nation, and a Big East Conference single season record. Although the Scarlet Knights' offense did not throw the ball much (for good reason(s) - their running game was elite and their QB stunk), Stapleton helped the team allow the fewest sacks in the nation (8).
Stapleton's solid play in 2005 and during the early parts of 2006 helped make him a finalist for the Remington Trophy, awarded each year to the nation's top Center. Other finalists that year included USC's Ryan Kalil, Michigan's Mark Bihl, Ohio State's Doug Datish, Arkansas' Jonathan Luigs, and West Virginia's Dan Mozes. Not shabby company.
Kalil will be the Panthers' starting center this coming year. Justin Hartwig, in fact, was released and is now a Steeler because of Kalil's emergence. Dough Datish was selected in the 6th round by the Atlanta Falcons in 2007; Mozes, the 2006 Remington winner, went undrafted and was cut this past year after blowing out his knee in August; Luigs won the Remington in 2007 for the Razorbacks and will be a senior this coming year for Bobby Petrino's Hogs; and finally, Bihl was signed as an UDRFA by the Chargers in 2007 but was cut in early September of last year.
Anyway, from the looks of it, Stapleton has a chance to join Kalil as one of the better centers to emerge from the 2006 and 2007 crop. As I mentioned last week, Stapleton seems to be impressing the coaching staff, at least so says Dale Lolley:
The coaching staff seems to really like Stapleton and the fact they feel comfortable enough to line the youngster up at guard as well as his regular center position speaks volumes about that.
As has been mentioned, the main reason Stapleton seems better suited to play and contribute this year is his weight. He's up to nearly 315 pounds, a dramatic increase from the 285 pounds or so he came in to the league at. And from the looks of it, it's a trim and cut 315 pounds.
Guys, here's the deal. One of the reasons we didn't panic in this year's draft is because we have guys like Darnell Stapleton and Willie Colon on the roster. Colon is just 24 years old (he turns 25 in exactly one week) and has a chance to be solid if he can improve in 2008 following a 2007 season when he struggled yet gained boatloads of experience. And Stapleton is not yet 23 years old. He's got a long track record of durability, he just now is at an acceptable playing weight and level of strength, and there's no reason to not at least think there's a chance for him to develop into a long-term solution at either center or guard in this league. Not every solid OL starter in the NFL is a first-day draft pick.
2008 may not be his time to start and shine for this team, but I feel more than confident saying that he will be a part of our 53-man roster. Be it at guard or at center, he may very well see action as well, and if early offseason practices are any indication of whether or not he is ready if called upon, he seems to be on the right track.