- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) - With all eyes on the quarterback competition between Hayden Rettig and Chris Laviano, one of Rutgers’ most important battles in training camp is between the guys that protect the signal caller.

Three offensive linemen graduated - center Betim Bujari, left guard Kaleb Johnson and right tackle Taj Alexander - meaning Rutgers is rebuilding the offensive line. The most experienced player left sees a positive difference from last summer.

“You can actually see the hunger of people trying to compete for these spots,” senior Keith Lumpkin said. “I think the line with the amount of new open spots for people, now there’s more competition to get the spot.”

The senior Lumpkin anchors the line, having started 26 straight games at left tackle. After rotating with Alexander last season, J.J. Denman - who won the Mark Mills Second Effort Award, given to the most improved offensive lineman during spring practice - has solidified a spot at right tackle.

“It was definitely crucial,” Denman said of the eight games he played in last year. “Any experience that any player can get is positive, so I definitely use that to my advantage and build upon it like I’m doing right now in camp.”

Chris Muller is the other sure starter, but the question is where. After two years at guard, he is rotating between right guard and center. He and Derrick Nelson are listed as co-starters on the pre-training camp depth chart.

“They’re just going to see if they’re going to see if they can use me to whatever advantage they have. I’m comfortable at both positions,” Muller said. “I’ve had a lot of experience at right guard, and for most of spring practice I took center snaps.

But Nelson is trying to make the coaching staff’s decision easier before the Sept. 5 opener against Norfolk State.

“I’m just competing out there to make sure that I’m the one starting at center,” Nelson said.

So far, Nelson said he feels confident in the calls and comfortable at center, where the junior who played for four games last season.

If he is the starter, Dorian Miller or Tariq Cole will line up next to him at left guard. And after two days in shoulder pads, Miller has made an impression on coach Kyle Flood.

“I don’t know about (any of the offensive linemen) separating themselves, but I’ll mention one guy today, I thought Dorian Miller had a really good day today,” Flood said. “He showed up to me a little bit.”

Whoever is declared starters at any position, Flood has said he’d like to be able to play six or seven linemen.

Regardless, Muller and Lumpkin all the stalwarts. And Lumpkin - one of the favorites to be named a team captain - knows his job goes beyond blocking the quarterbacks blindside.

“I just have to be more of a leader out there for the younger guys,” Lumpkin said. “I’ve played in several different conferences and I played against a lot of good people, so my experience and knowledge that I have, I just have to share it to the guys who are filling in those three spots.”

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