Grant leads wide receivers’ special teams success
Of all people, senior linebacker Jamal Merrell may have given freshman Janarion Grant his most important piece of advice for returning kickoffs and punts.
“I got on the sidelines [Aug. 29 against Fresno State] and asked Jamal Merrell before I went on,” Grant said. “He just told me to go for it. I said, ‘OK, I got you.’ So I went back there and I was just hoping they would kick to me. I was just ready to get the ball and take it for a touchdown and show them what I can do.”
Grant returned his first collegiate kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown against the Bulldogs partly because of Merrell. He might have been MVP in the Rutgers football team’s 28-24 victory Saturday against Arkansas while Merrell was in street clothes because of a kidney issue.
The Pasco (Fla.) High School product returned a punt for 58 yards to put the Scarlet Knights’ deficit at only 24-14 with 2:14 left in the third.
Grant had space on his right, and his teammates blocked off his left. He ran toward the open space on the right, beat defenders and blazed toward the middle again to score.
“That’s the thing about special teams,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “It spans six to eight seconds and it covers a wide range of field zones. And there were some tremendous efforts that I think we’re going to see on film — and not just Janarion, although his was tremendous, as well.”
Senior wideout Quron Pratt won the last AAC Special Teams Player of the Week award for a 99-yard kickoff return Sept. 14 against Eastern Michigan.
Grant might win the next.
He solidified his candidacy with a 47-yard punt return with 7:01 left in the fourth. It put Rutgers in Arkansas territory.
“It’s very addicting, because you just get high on yourself and you hope to just score every time you touch the ball,” Grant said of trying to score each time.
The play featured a key block from redshirt sophomore wideout Ruhann Peele, who leveled the man in front of Grant.
Grant’s protection must adjust quickly, since Rutgers almost always enforces punt block attempts. That means everyone must run back as soon as the punter boots it so Grant’s protection is not compromised.
Rutgers’ wideouts especially proved their versatility in special teams against Arkansas.
Pratt kept a Javontee Herndon return to only two yards after tackling him by the leg when Herndon had open space otherwise.
“I’m not doing the tackling drills with the defense in practice, but you just work hard and good things will happen,” Pratt said. “I played defense in high school, so I know how to tackle. It’s basic football. It’s just beating my man off the ball and going to the returner and just trying to make that play.”
Pratt and Grant now stand next to each other on kickoff returns. On Grant’s touchdown against the Bulldogs, senior Jeremy Deering stood alongside him.
Fresno State kicked to Grant, and Deering’s block allowed Grant to speedily score.
These have all been lessons for Grant on how key Rutgers players take pride in special teams, and even some freshmen solely or mostly play it before playing their natural positions.
Sophomore wide receiver Leonte Carroo clinched Rutgers’ victory with two touchdowns. A year ago, he played special teams as a flyer and a blocker.
Grant won back Rutgers’ chances against Arkansas, but Carroo’s catches might be a glimpse into his career path.
“[Carroo] spent last year on special teams and now everybody sees what he’s doing at receiver, as well, as he continues to help us on special teams,” Flood said. “I think Janarion is going to be the same way. We are fortunate that he’s a selfless player in the fact that he’s willing to do that for us.”
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