Janarion Grant one of few positives in Rutgers' blowout loss to No. 14 Washington
SEATTLE, Wash. — Janarion Grant was always going to be a big part of what head coach Chris Ash and his staff were going to do on offense with the Rutgers football team.
Whether it be receiving short passes on bubble screens or taking handoffs on jet sweeps, the senior wide receiver is projected to be the focal point of the Scarlet Knights’ power spread offense in Ash’s first year in charge.
That being said, there were many raised eyebrows Saturday among the 58, 640 people in attendance at Husky Stadium, as well as the many watching back home in Piscataway, when Grant took a direct snap from fifth-year senior center Derrick Nelson and ran seven yards to gain a first down on the Knights first drive of the third quarter.
Grant took five direct snaps in a wildcat-esque formation against No. 14 Washington on Saturday, the last of which was a 10-yarder finishing in the endzone, the only touchdown of the game in Rutgers’ 48-13 loss to the Huskies in both team's season opener.
On a day where the Knights struggled to gather any momentum or rhythm with the ball in their possession through the air and on the ground, the expected culprit finally broke through.
“Janarion in the wildcat, we were looking for a way to get an extra number in the box versus that defense, and I think that’s something we could consistently carry with him,” said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. “Obviously, he’s a talented young man that can do some special things with the football. Finding ways to consistently give him the ball, whether that’s throwing, catching, whatever it might be. In that particular scenario, I thought it helped us out a lot on third down.”
Quarterback was the fifth position Grant would play on the day, having possibly touched every inch of the turf after playing running back, wide receiver and both punt and kick returner on his way to 160 all-purpose yards on the day.
“I thought Janarion Grant had an outstanding game,” Ash said. “I think Janarion battled the whole game, and, you know, he was all over the field. He was back on punt return, kick return, wide out, the quarterback, did a lot of things, thought he did a nice job.”
Grant entered the season as a preseason first team All-Big Ten selection by multiple media outlets partly due to his projected involvement on offense but particularly because of what he delivered on special teams last season. His 984 yards off kick returns pushed him to the top of the list in program history and resulted in three touchdowns, the second most in the nation in 2015.
The first of the three opened the second half of Rutgers' season opener against Norfolk State, something he wasn’t able to repeat this season. Grant was held to 76 yards on the three kick returns that he didn’t fair catch and went without attempting a punt return.
He was one of many Knights who struggled on special teams, a unit Rutgers has become notorious for excelling in and that owns the most iconic play in the program’s short history as a member of the Big Ten.
While Grant wasn’t able to get into a rhythm, John Ross did everything that Grant was projected to do for the Huskies. In addition to two receiving touchdowns in the first quarter, the junior returned a kick-off 92-yards for a touchdown immediately after Rutgers first got on the board, extending Washington’s lead while killing any momentum the visitors were gaining.
One quarter later, his teammate Dante Pettis did the same with a punt, returning it 68 yards to the house.
“Disappointed in the outcome and some of the mistakes that were made, especially on special teams,” Ash said. “We’ve invested a lot of time on it. We’ve gotta go back and just continue to coach those things up and make sure everyone’s on the same page with what they’re supposed to do.”
The punt was one of Michael Cintron’s eight that afternoon.
The junior from Piscataway was one of the few bright spots for the Knights, using the eight opportunities he had to answer the question marks around his first start to show he can be an asset to his team. He averaged 38.8 yards per punt, with a long of 51 yards.
The other unknown on special teams gave a similarly encouraging response. Fellow junior David Bonagura was the first out on the field during pregame warm-ups, where he didn’t miss any attempt from 30 yards. He continued the momentum into the game, where he hit both his attempts from 38 and 23, as well as a PAT.
“Coming out of this game, it looked like he gained confidence in himself,” Ash said of Bonagura. “You guys may think it’s simple, but going out there and taking extra point the way he did, he just looked confident. His approach was smooth, and he swung just nice and easy, and I really liked what I saw today.”
Unsurprisingly, Grant was the most sought out receiver by junior quarterback Chris Laviano against Washington.
The Trilby, Florida, native was targeted 11 times on the afternoon, making 9 catches for 56 total yards. Of those receptions, all but the last — a 29-yarder two plays before his touchdown run — resulted in gains of eight yards or less.
The same could be said for all other receivers not named Andre Patton, who caught two passes for 10 and 15 yards, and senior running back Justin Goodwin, who received passes for 25 and 14 yards in between rushing for 49 yards on 15 attempts.
Laviano went 24-for-40 on the afternoon for a completion percentage of 60, but very few of those passes were thrown further than the first down marker. Rutgers had three chunk plays — plays where a team gains at least 15 yards — through the air, accounting for 12.5 percent, or one-eighth, of his completions, according to statbroadcast.
In contrast, Huskies quarterback Jake Browning completed six less passes than Laviano but nearly tripled the amount of chunk plays, completing eight of them as he went 18-for-27, throwing for 287 yards, three touchdowns and one interception — made by senior safety Anthony Cioffi.
The lack of risks taken by the Glen Head, New York, native is nothing new for those who watched him play last season, but the reasons might go beyond a fear of throwing deep.
The most evident reason among them all being the lack of time his receivers had to get in deep positions and the lack of time he had in the pocket.
“We struggled to protect the quarterback,” Ash said. “We struggled upfront on the offensive line to get movement on their defensive line. They’re gonna be one of the best defensive lines we probably face this season based on what I’ve seen and we struggled to get movement, so we didn’t block in the run game as well as we wanted to, and we didn’t protect the quarterback as well as we wanted to.”
That’s not to say Laviano isn’t completely out of the woods.
When he was pressured early in his team’s second drive, the junior was lucky to get a throw out of bounds before taking a sack. A play later, he took too long to slide after gaining a first down with his feet and dropped the football when he was tackled.
On the next drive, Laviano fumbled once again but was bailed out by a holding penalty on the defense.
It was the first time he was taking hits since last November against Maryland because quarterbacks are non-contact in spring and fall camps.
“I had a lot of mental errors on offense. Obviously I didn’t take care of the ball very well, (I) need a lot better execution,” he said. “We work on ball security a lot and I just gotta do a better job of taking care of the ball.”
An interception in the third quarter piled on to the difficult day at the office for Laviano and his offense as he finished with no touchdowns, a fumble and an interception, but Ash didn’t think about pulling him from the game, even as the deficit ballooned to 45 points.
“Chris is still a relatively inexperienced quarterback too,” Ash said. “He’s won the job and you know, he didn’t do anything in that game for me to feel like, ‘Hey, we need to pull that kid.’ He was out there battling and trying to make plays.”
Had Laviano been pulled, the next player in line would’ve been a surprise to everyone outside the Rutgers coaching staff, as Ash hadn’t announced a back-up quarterback prior to the game.
The answer wasn’t graduate transfer Zach Allen, who was considered Laviano’s direct competitoin throughout training camp, nor was it junior Hayden Rettig, Laviano’s back-up last season, who lost ground in the battle throughout the offseason.
It was sophomore Giovanni Rescigno — the quarterback who remained at the bottom of the depth chart until being listed as a co-starter with Allen at the beginning of last week.
The competition for that spot was week-to-week, Mehringer said.
“I think these last few days of practice, (Gio) had played well,” Mehringer said. “Gio had played well in practice so I feel comfortable with that … We’ll see how the week goes with those guys and even Hayden (Rettig) and what’s gonna happen with that back-up position. We’re going to put the best eleven out on the field and, you know, whoever that quarterback might be, at the back-up position or the starting position, obviously we’ll be, hopefully, we could find some consistency there.”
With the way things shaped up in Seattle, Janarion Grant may be seeing a lot more time behind center.