Injuries set back Rutgers' special teams depth chart
When the Rutgers football team hits the field at High Point Solutions Stadium this fall in what will be the first season with head coach Chris Ash and his staff at the helm, there will be big questions in the minds of the fans in the stands.
Who’s going to be the starting quarterback?
How will the team adjust to playing in a spread offense after playing in the pro-style for so long?
What can be expected from the linebackers, who will be replacing all three starters from last season?
But one of the most important questions won’t be brought up until the Scarlet Knights are put into a situation they are surely looking to avoid.
“Here’s what I tell those guys — nobody thinks about a punter or kicker until you fail to convert a first down or you fail in the red zone,” said special teams coordinator Vince Okruch. “Now you need three points or now you need a great punt, so a lot of times, it is overlooked.”
With starting kicker Kyle Federico and punter Joey Roth graduating, the Knights are working to find their replacements this spring.
Tim Gleeson, the Australian punter who played in nine games in 2014, has yet to recover from a back injury that kept him out of action for all of last season. As a result, the competition for both spots is nonexistent.
“(Junior placekicker) David (Bonagura) is the only one kicking. Because Timmy Gleeson had back surgery, Michael Cintron is the only one punting, so (the kicking competition is) a competition of one,” Okruch said. “Until Timmy gets healthy, there won’t be a competition.”
Bonagura, who has never kicked in a game for Rutgers, has been showing steady improvement in the first eight practices of the spring, Okruch said.
The Ramapo High School product hit all his attempts in Saturday’s scrimmage, the second of the spring, getting bailed out by a penalty call when he shanked an attempt, Okruch said.
Although things are currently working in his favor, Bonagura isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“I always like a little competition,” he said. “Even though there’s not a lot of competition for me, I still have the mentality because you can’t lose it. If you lose it, you’re going to be content with what you have and then you’re not going to get any better and you always want to get better. There’s always room for improvement.”
Sophomore Michael Cintron is receiving all the snaps at the punter position as a result of Gleeson’s injury, but he’s well aware his spot as the starter is nowhere near locked up.
The Piscataway native is using the high volume of punts to prepare for when the battle heats up in training camp.
“I take it as an opportunity to compete. There’s nothing set in stone right now. When Tim comes back, we’ll be right at competing,” he said. “I feel as though the punting I’m doing now, it’s really preparing me and giving me confidence and when the summer comes around, me and Tim will be back at it, neck-to-neck and may the best guy win.”
As the Knights figure out who will be kicking and punting this fall, there won’t be as much thought put into who will be receiving the punts and kickoffs from the opponents.
Senior wide receiver Janarion Grant is set to return as the punt and kick returner for Rutgers after his performance in the position in 2015. The Trilby, Florida, native had 934 kick return yards to go with three touchdowns.
Grant possesses the skills necessary to succeed in the position — something Okruch saw when he came to Piscataway with former team Ohio State last season.
"(The returners) have to be trustworthy about catching the ball. And, really, they have to be brave," Okruch said. "When that punt is in the air, there's 11 guys within 40 yards and they're running full speed. You gotta have a guy that has a lot of courage. And we ask them to get vertical, to go straight forward as fast as they can, and that requires a guy that not only has confidence to catch the ball but the toughness and skill set to get north and south right away. That's where J (Grant) is so good. J goes fast, but he goes from one step to full speed immediately.''