Rutgers wide out expects breakout junior year
PISCATAWAY — From the moment Janarion Grant first touched the football in his Rutgers football debut, everyone watching had a reason to believe he could be special.
As a true freshman on the primetime national television stage of his team’s season opener at Fresno State, Grant showcased his blazing speed on his very first play — a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Eventually, it ended up becoming a breakout rookie year for Grant.
The under-recruited Trilby, Florida, native burst onto the scene as a gamechanger on special teams throughout the rest of the year, highlighted by a pair of punt returns — a 58-yard touchdown and a 47-yard return to set up the game-winning touchdown — in a 28-24 comeback win over Arkansas.
In his sophomore season, he proved it was no fluke. After being named the most improved offensive player of the spring with the Mark Mills Second Effort Award, Grant went on to solidify himself as one of the top returners in the country with 910 kick return yards and an average of 9.2 yards on punt returns.
He has yet to show the same on the offensive side of the ball in a deep wide receivers corps, but Grant feels he’s on the verge of breaking out in 2015.
“I feel like that, yeah,” Grant said. “Because, I mean, I’ve been working so hard, you know. My first two years I wasn’t really comfortable. But now, I feel like I adjusted a lot more and I just have to continue to do that.”
As a freshman, he was utilized strictly on special teams. His role increased last year with 25 receptions for 312 yards, but he didn’t find the end zone once.
But Grant, now a junior, feels like his third time’s a charm.
“Just staying positive. Being positive, being humble … studying the playbook each night and just making myself better,” Grant said. “With the playbook, the offense, everything — catching the ball, you know, just being prepared.”
Throughout the first week of training camp, Grant has shown flashes of promise that gives reason to believe he can separate himself from the one-dimensional label of the speedy returner.
In the first scrimmage of camp Monday, the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder did just that.
Stationed in a tight space near goal line and the sideline, Grant boxed out his defender in man coverage for positioning before muscling in a touchdown reception as he dragged his feet in the front corner.
Improving his physicality is something that Grant worked for tirelessly in the offseason, catching ball after ball as the jugs machines rapidly fired away.
“I feel a lot more comfortable. Over the summer, I’ve been on the jugs, working with the quarterbacks, trying to get better, you know, making my hands stronger,” he said. “And as you can see, it’s improving a lot and I’m continuing to do that.”
Kyle Flood has been vocal about his views on Grant as a playmaker from the day that he signed his letter of intent. The fourth-year head coach said there’s no limit to his usage, referring to the spurts in big games where Grant took carries in jet sweep packages all over the field.
“I think we can line him up anywhere on the field, for sure,” Flood said. “He’s certainly a guy who needs to touch the football. We saw that in a couple of games last year where he had multiple touches and was really able to affect the game — the Michigan game, the Maryland game are two that jump out to me right away.”
At Maryland, a breakout receiving game for Grant down the stretch of the season with a team-high eight receptions for 105 yards, he ripped off a season long run of 24 yards on a jet sweep.
As Flood alluded, there’s no reason to believe that Grant can’t see that workload expanded. With former Rutgers wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Jeremy Deering lining up in the backfield out of the Wildcat formation in recent years, nothing is necessarily out of question.
It’s not to say that he will be the next quarterback featured out of the “Wild Knight” package, but the explosiveness by Grant and the 52 yards he racked up on just five carries shows how much of a weapon he could potentially be.
Senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo especially agrees.
“Janarion’s a guy that we need to get the ball in his hands 10 times a game. He’s very shifty,” Carroo said. “I call him ‘First Down’ because every time he catches the ball it’s a first down. And you know, obviously he can do what does on special teams. But if he can help us this year on offense, that’ll be tremendous.”
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