The new-look Rutgers offensive line debuts Thursday night against Norfolk State. And it has an unlikely anchor.
Fifth-year senior Howard Barbieri will start at center and will also walk to midfield before the game as one of three team captains. Neither are roles he envisioned himself playing when he arrived on campus.
"I just wanted to show people I could play here," he said.
Barbieri had a lone scholarship offer to Wagner. But he believed in his ability, so he chose to walk on at Rutgers.
That looked like a wise choice as soon as his redshirt freshman year, when he was running second string on the offensive line before he was moved to tight end. Since then, Barbieri has done a little bit of everything.
In 2008, he played at left guard, right guard and right tackle. He started at both guard spots last year and practiced at center, then was moved to that position permanently before this spring, when he finally received a scholarship for his efforts.
A center has to be aware of what everyone is doing on a given play, and Barbieri's background makes that easier.
"I know what the right guard is going to do on a play because I've been there before," he said. "It helps me a lot. I look at myself as a leader of not just the offensive line, but the whole offense."
Assistant coach Kyle Flood told the Home News Tribune that Barbieri's leadership "is going to help us as we go through this process as we try to get everything on track. To have a guy like that who can anchor the middle for you, it makes the transition a little smoother."
The Scarlet Knights could use some stability on their offensive front, which will start together for the first time Thursday night. Three starters are gone from last year, and the most experienced lineman, Art Forst, has moved from guard to right tackle. Desmond Stapleton takes over for Anthony Davis at left tackle, while Desmond Wynn steps into a more prominent role. Caleb Ruch, who was injured most of last year, is at right guard.
Fans will be watching closely, even against Norfolk State, to see signs of improvement after last year's line disappointed. Barbieri said they should like what they see.
"This is the most physical line we've had since I've been here," he said. "That's the way we're practicing, and it's been emphasized to us all offseason. We're going to be tough and physical."
And they have an unlikely anchor.