Playmakers look to breakout for Rutgers at No. 16 Michigan
Janarion Grant isn’t used to this.
After taking the attention of the college football world by storm with his three electrifying touchdown returns in the first two games of the season, the dynamic junior wide receiver and kick returner has largely gone missing in the Rutgers football team’s last six contests.
Despite his 42-yard kick return last Saturday in the Scarlet Knights’ 48-10 loss at Wisconsin, sending him atop the program’s record books with 2,065 kick return yards and a 24.9 average per return, Grant knows he’s been bottled up now for some time.
“They’ve been keeping (kicks) away from me,” he said. “Sometimes they haven’t been … but we’re still working on it, still trying to open up the game plan on what I need to do.”
Against the Badgers, Grant eclipsed the century mark on kick return yardage (102) for the third time this season. It was the first time since he racked up 195 kick return yards with a 100-yard touchdown return on top of a punt return for a score on his way to a school-record 339 all-purpose yards Sept. 12 versus Washington State.
But special teams isn’t the only unit where Grant’s production has been lacking since the beginning of the fall.
Looking to shed the image of just a kick return specialist, the Trilby, Florida, native flashed signs of promise in training camp and delivered with his production early on in September.
But in his last two times out, Grant has only three catches for just 11 yards. Despite ranking third on the team in receiving with 21 receptions for 181 yards, Grant admits he feels as if he can provide more if the ball is in his hands.
“It’s a little frustrating. The ball’s not really coming my way, so it’s really frustrating,” he said. “But I just gotta continue to work hard and work on the things I gotta work on to get better and hopefully open some eyes to see that I need to get the ball to make things happen.”
After commending Grant for his latest achievement as the all-time leader in the Knights' kick return yardage, Flood said the speedy receiver’s touches are a product of the play-calling in first-year offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels’s pro-style schemes and sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano’s subsequent decisions.
“In terms of getting (Grant) more touches, those have to come within the system. You know, you just can't force it out there,” Flood said. “You've heard me say that about receivers in the past. You can't just force it to a particular receiver on a particular play or you're going to put yourself in danger of throwing interceptions. You can't do that.”
As for the next swarming unit the Knights’ offense expects to face, Michigan (6-2, 3-1) boasts the No. 9 pass defense (166.1 yards per game), No. 2 total defense (241.9 yards per game) and No. 2 scoring defense (11.4 points per game).
Regardless of the rankings and accolades the No. 16 Wolverines possess, Grant believes he can help Rutgers put those numbers to the test if he has the rock.
“I think so — well, I know I can,” Grant said. “I’m just waiting on a chance to get the ball — that’s all I can do.”
Another Rutgers playmaker was quiet without the ball in his hands recently.
As a product of the rotation at the running back unit, Josh Hicks had been a non-factor for the Knights on offense. After serving as the leading rusher for most of the season and against Kansas on Sept. 26, the sophomore struggled to make an impact with 22 touches for 68 yards (3.09 yards per carry).
“I can’t really say nothing about that,” Hicks said. “I just wasn’t producing.”
But when his number was called against Wisconsin, Hicks stepped up and had the hot hand.
On the offense’s second drive of the game, he ripped off the bulk of his 15 carries for 72 yards, ending the day as the Knights’ leading rusher.
Hicks walked through the memory of that drive where he caught fire, describing what it’s like when he has the hot hand.
“Just move the ball forward, run tough and just put my team in the best position,” Hicks said. “Like it’s a rush — being out there, being in a rhythm — like you do things like you’d never do, like you’d never expect … just have like a clear mind and run.”
With the No. 2 rush defense waiting in Michigan at the Big House this weekend, the Knights expect to need senior Paul James, junior Justin Goodwin and sophomore Robert Martin ready for combat.
And after they get their carries, Hicks is ready to add to that attack with a punch of his own when it's his turn to carry the load.
“I know my teammates have my back,” Hicks said. “It didn’t affect my production. We have Robert (Martin) and PJ (Paul James) and Justin Goodwin. Those are my brothers, and we’re there for each other.”
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