New faces provide optimism for Rutgers football
Raise your hand if you had Gavin Haggerty as the star of the Rutgers Spring Game — okay, now put your hand down Ms. Haggerty.
The sophomore made the most of senior David Bonagura's lingering back injury and earned a spot on the Rutgers football team as a starter, and he certainly delivered. He saw his first action at the end of the first half, lining up for a 40-yard field goal. Haggerty nailed it through the uprights with about 10 yards to spare, giving the Scarlet Knight fans flashbacks of the Jeremy Ito days.
Haggerty, who sat out his freshman year recovering from an injury and did not see game action last season, has three years of eligibility remaining. And while not many people knew who he was going into Saturday, he made his mark.
"I'm definitely eager for fall practice," he said. "We gotta go through workouts throughout the summer and it's (all about) just getting better and stuff throughout the summer."
But he wasn't the only emerging talent at the scrimmage, as sophomore tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart and graduate wide receiver Damon "Duwop" Mitchell established themselves as potential key cogs in the offense.
Griffin-Stewart, who redshirted his first year and only saw limited special teams action last year, hauled in four catches for 36 yards and looked the part at tight end, using his 6'5" 250-pound frame to get separation and catch everything thrown his way.
At times, Mitchell looked like a go-to receiver the Rutgers offense was missing last year after Leonte Carroo went to the NFL. He finished with five catches for 73 yards and a 28-yard touchdown catch from junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno.
But with projected starting tight end Jerome Washington nursing an injury as well as wide receivers Janarion Grant (recovering from season-ending injury in 2016) and Ahmir Mitchell (undergoing ACL surgery a week ago) not participating, head coach Chris Ash still needs to see more consistency from those two position groups.
"Wide receiver and tight end are really the two spots that are the unknowns right now that we need to continue to develop," he said.
And whether or not Washington recovers and becomes an integral part of the offense, he is another player not on the field during last year's abysmal 2-10 season.
With the "thud tempo" Ash implemented in hopes of avoiding injuries, there was not much to take away from the running game. But when the team needed to move down the field and score points, it looked to Mitchell, Griffin-Stewart, sophomore wide receiver Dacoven Bailey and junior Rashad Blunt.
Blunt, who redshirted his first year and didn't see the field last year, had 3 catches for 30 yards while Bailey, a once-promising true freshman who netted just five touches for -3 yards last season, hauled in five catches for 51 yards, showing improved hands and route running from a year ago.
As Rescigno was finally able to move the offense in the fourth quarter, his touchdown pass to Damon Mitchell wound up tying the game at 13 — the amount of points the White team started with. But with time running out and the score knotted up, it gave the starters reps with fans in the seats and the game on the line.
The offense was able to work the ball to the 24-yard line, setting up Haggerty for a 41-yarder to potentially win the game with a minute left on the clock. Just as he did two times before on that dreary Saturday evening, he put it between the uprights.
"He made some huge kicks out there today at the end. Contemplating whether we were going to go for it at the end or let him kick, and I said, 'this is a perfect opportunity to see what he can do with people in the stands,' and he put it between the uprights," Ash said of that final kick. "Honestly last year, that was a problem. We would not have been able to do it. Might have been punting in that situation last year. But he nailed it, and (I'm) really happy for him and the spring that he's had."
While kicker was not necessarily a position Rutgers fans were expecting to see excel on Saturday, it maybe offered the most clarity of anything that went down on that field.
There's a lot of unknowns when playing at thud tempo against your own teammates, but 41 yards is 41 yards.
"There's always a little bit of pressure, but I think the bottom line just comes down to you gotta go out there and do your job," Haggerty said. "Every kick's the same. I'm just a smaller part of a bigger operation."