September 22, 2019 | 77° F

Rutgers seeks improvement on special teams in home opener

Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez and Dimitri |

Rutgers' special teams coverage unit struggled mightily against No. 14 Washington in 2016, giving up both a punt and a kick-off return in a 48-13 loss.

The most memorable plays during the Rutgers football team’s first two seasons in the Big Ten came on special teams, a unit its excelled in for the better part of a decade.

Junior defensive end Kemoko Turay had 7.5 sacks in his first season on the Banks but his name wasn’t well known among the Scarlet Knights’ fanbase until his iconic block of a Michigan field goal attempt gave the program its first Big Ten win.

The block added to the record tally the program has accumulated since 2009 — 44 as of this season, the most by any team in the NCAA in the span.

Senior wide receiver Janarion Grant has been slated as a focal point of the power spread offense first-year head coach Chris Ash and his staff are implementing, but he is recognized for his explosive returns on kick-off and punt returns, of which he had a combined four touchdowns and 1,151 yards in 52 attempts last season.

But the usual charm of the third time around didn't accompany the Knights in the opener of their third season as a member of the conference against Washington as the unit got a taste of its own medicine in Seattle.

The Huskies returned both a kick-off and a punt for a touchdown — the first time since 2001 they’ve done both in the same game — in their 48-13 blowout of their visitors last Saturday.

"Those things just don't happen very often," Ash said in the weekly Big Ten coaches teleconference Tuesday. "And when you've got two of them in one game, it's very disappointing. It's gut-wrenching. And the fact that we have spent an insane amount of time on special teams. I'm involved in coaching special teams. And you thought that we would go out and perform better than that, and we didn't. And I wasn't any happier after watching the tape.”

Dante Pettis’ punt return touchdown was the fourth of his career, tying him with Beno Bryant for the most in Washington program history. Special teams coordinator Vince Okruch acknowledged his team wasn’t the first “exposed” by Pettis and John Ross, who returned a 92-yard kick-off to the house, but that doesn’t excuse a lack of “football awareness.”

The Knights missed multiple assignments during both returns, getting on wrong sides of the blockers while misreading the schemes the Huskies used, according to Okruch.

They weren’t helped by the placement of true freshman kicker Jared Smolar’s kick-offs, which ended up in Ross’ hands between the hashes rather than the intended corners of the field.

“We would have liked to have a better kick in both situations, but irregardless of that, it’s the other 10 guys’ job to find the football, locate it and eliminate the vertical return,” Okruch said. “It just didn’t go where he intended to hit it … we’ll continue to work with him on getting the ball where it belongs … it’s just such a huge point in the game and there’s 10 guys going down the field, you gotta protect the field and when you don’t, that’s what happens.”

With a week to make adjustments before its home opener against Howard this Saturday at noon on the Big Ten Network, Rutgers will spend a healthy amount of time working on correcting the mistakes.

“While we do that drill work (on positioning awareness), obviously we haven’t done enough of it,” Okruch said. “So we’ll increase more work so there’s more football zone awareness. Where the ball is, where we’re at, where do we need to get to eliminate the big play and quite frankly we had guys in position to make the play, but we didn’t make it, but we can’t have just one guy there, that’s not how special teams work. There’s got to be multiple guys there to make the play.”

When the roles reversed on special teams, the success stayed with the Huskies. Rutgers struggled in the return game, with Grant being held to fair catching every punt and taking a knee on all but three kick-offs.

When Grant did return the kick-offs, he averaged 25-yards on three returns, his longest going for 32.

He didn’t return any for six, but as the rust wore off and the Knights adjusted to the speed of the game, he grew closer and closer. With an $100,000 prize up for grabs for 100 lucky fans who attend the home opener if he returns the opening kick-off, Grant will have his eye set for the endzone.

“I’m looking forward to it a lot just like every other kickoff,” he said. “First kickoff I’m looking to just take it back to the house. Just being able to make my players and fans happy.”

Junior kicker David Bonagura was among the least experienced member of special teams but the walk-on had the best day of all. Making his debut after playing back-up to Kyle Federico in his first two seasons, the Ramapo High School product hit both of his field goal attempts, barely sneaking a 38-yarder over the crossbar before nailing a 23-yard field goal and the extra point after Grant’s touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Though it wasn’t his first game experience, sophomore punter Michael Cintron joined Bonagura in making his first start and has plenty of opportunities to answer any questions surrounding him.

The Piscataway native had eight attempts on the day, three of which were pinned behind Washington’s 20-yard line as he averaged 38.8 yards per punt with a long of 53.

Okruch said Cintron had a “nice day” and that he hit the ball well, putting him towards the back of his list of worries heading into Howard this Saturday.

The worries will be ironed out throughout the week of preparation as Okruch works to mold the players at his disposal.

“We might give a guy who was a two some reps and vice-versa but they are who they are and they’re ours and we love them like nobody could believe but we just have got to become better fundamental football players,” he said.

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

Brian Fonseca

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