Running back battles through senior year, special teams provides spark for Rutgers


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Photo by Edwin Gano |

Senior running back Paul James remains questionable with an injury to his lower body, but remains upbeat about his status. The Glassboro, New Jersey, native's production has taken a decline, mirroring the same numbers through eight games this year as he had through just four games last year.


As his teammates slugged their way through the Rutgers football team’s third blowout loss in three weeks, Paul James was helpless as he watched it all unfold from the sidelines.

The senior running back dressed for last Saturday’s game at then-No. 16 Michigan, but didn’t see the field as the Scarlet Knights eventually went on to drop the Big Ten road contest, 49-16, to the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium.

Head coach Kyle Flood said after the game that James, who was listed as questionable in the most recent injury report leading up to the game last Friday with a lower body injury, would have only entered the game on offense in an emergency situation.

But as the battle spiraled out of control, James remained a spectator.

Photo: Michelle Klejmont

As the offense continues to struggle, special teams has stepped up for Rutgers, namely with senior placekicker Kyle Federico. He converted all three of his field goal attempts last Saturday at Michigan.

“It hurts a lot. You can’t go out there, you can’t be part of it,” James said. “You just gotta see them out there fighting. They fight out there every play and it’s just hard to not be out there fighting with them.”

Sophomore Robert Martin, who tallied 81 yards on 10 attempts to lead the run game, mentioned how James remained in both his and sophomore Josh Hicks’s ears.

“PJ helped us out a lot,” Martin said. “He was telling us to read things out and look for the blitzes and stuff like that. So even though he didn’t play, it was like he played because he was out there watching us play to help us out.”

As much as the Glassboro, New Jersey, native’s leadership and knowledge has had an impact on the young bucks of the running backs stable, the 2015 season hasn’t been what James expected it to be.

Through nine games, Rutgers (3-6, 1-5) has taken a large step back from the early progress made in its inaugural Big Ten season when the Knights finished 8-5 overall with a 3-5 mark in conference play.

As a result of missed time in setbacks from injury and sharing the load in a crowded running backs rotation, James has 357 yards and a touchdown on 64 carries, churning out to an average of 44.6 yards per game.

Last year, he managed those numbers in just four games with 363 yards and five touchdowns on 63 attempts to average 90.75 yards per game.

“Everybody has goals. You’re not gonna reach your goals,” James said. “If you don’t reach your goals, you still gotta keep pushing. You can’t give up the fight. We’re still fighting, we’re trying to be 1-0 each week and that’s not something we’re gonna give up on.”

Listed as questionable on Monday’s injury report with a lower body injury, James’s status for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. conference game against Nebraska (4-6, 2-4) remains in the air.

But with some time off after sitting the weekend out, James is trending in the right direction.

“I’m feeling good,” he said. “A little dinged up here and there, but it’s just it’s all about trying to stay healthy. It’s about staying in the training room, getting my body back.”

***

Rutgers has seen better days on offense.

Those days feel like an eternity ago. The last scoring drive for a touchdown came with 13 seconds left against then-No. 1 Ohio State on Oct. 24 led by the backup quarterback in sophomore Hayden Rettig.

Chris Laviano hasn’t been able to sustain a touchdown-scoring drive for the Knights since almost a month ago on Oct. 17 at Indiana.

But when Rutgers has gotten into opposing territory and venture even further into the red zone, Kyle Federico has largely been able to help put points on the board.

“My job’s my job,” he said. “If I get one opportunity — if I get three opportunities like this past game — that’s all I’ve got control of and that’s what I’m expected to do.”

At Michigan, Federico led the Knights in scoring with 9 of 16 points. The senior placekicker was a perfect 3-of-3 on attempts for 32 yards, 29 yards and 27 yards as the offense sputtered in the red zone.

The conversions upped the Ponte Verde, Florida, native to 9-for-12 — or 75 percent — on the year after missing his lone attempt in the fourth quarter at Wisconsin one week earlier.

As simple as the three chip shots appear on paper, Federico doesn’t discriminate the value of each kick.

And as the Rutgers offense longs for points on the board no matter which way they come, neither does anyone else.

“I always think that, really, no matter the distance of the kick, a field goal is a field goal, a game-winner a game-winner,” Federico said. “You still gotta go out there and make your kicks and, really, it’s just about going out there and doing my thing no matter where I’m put out there in the position and just make my kicks.”

***

In a sea of darkness, one bright spot appeared for Rutgers on Monday.

For the second time this season, the Big Ten named Janarion Grant the Special Teams Player of the Week after his 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and 67-yard punt return to set up a field goal at Michigan.

The first came when the speedy junior wide receiver and kick returner brought back two kicks — a 100-yard kickoff and a 55-yard punt return — for touchdowns when he set the program record for all-purpose yards with 337 against Washington State.

The Trilby, Florida, native had been bottled up since that career performance on Sept. 12 as opposing kicking teams kept the ball away from Grant in the return game.

But with his 263 all-purpose yards and the longest kickoff return by a visiting player at Michigan Stadium since 1934, Grant’s latest showing provides promise for the Knights heading into a critical three-game stretch as the season winds down.

Head coach Kyle Flood commended Grant before giving the rest of the special teams unit credit for the junior’s breakthrough performance.

“As spectacular a returner as Janarion is and as much of a weapon as he is, it's not just him. There are a lot of great blocks on that kickoff return. There are some tremendous efforts on that punt return that got us in position to kick a field goal before the half,” he said. “So I think even though it is an individual award, we're going to celebrate it with more than just Janarion, that's for sure. And it's just one more way that he continues to show that he can be a difference maker.”

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.


Garrett Stepien

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