Inexperienced specialists excel in new starting roles for Rutgers

<p>Junior kicker David Bonagura is 6 of 7 on field goal attempts this season, with a long of 41 yards. Since taking over on kickoffs two games ago, Bonagura has recorded an average of 66 yards per kick, including one touchback.</p>

Junior kicker David Bonagura is 6 of 7 on field goal attempts this season, with a long of 41 yards. Since taking over on kickoffs two games ago, Bonagura has recorded an average of 66 yards per kick, including one touchback.

David Bonagura went nearly four years without kicking a football in a real game situation.

His last live kick was as a high school senior in December, 2012, knocking in a 48-yard, game-winning field goal at Kean University to secure a state championship for Ramapo High. 

In the Rutgers football team's season opener against then-No. 14 Washington, the redshirt junior was thrust back into game action for the first time in more than three years in front of 70,000-plus, rowdy fans at Husky Stadium.

But neither the atmosphere, nor the long layoff between kicking in game situations, seemed to faze Bonagura.

On his first attempt of his collegiate career, the Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, native sneaked a 38-yard field goal just over the upright to put the Scarlet Knights on the board late in the first half.

"Kicking is a production-oriented business," Bonagura said of his first career kick, which appeared to be short before sneaking in. "Three points is three points, but when it came off my foot I knew it was gonna go in. It would be nice if it was a pretty ball, everyone wants a pretty ball. High and far looks like it has 20 more yards on it or something. But hey we got three points out of it so that's all that really matters."

Field-goal kicking is indeed a production-oriented business, where stats can tell you everything you need to know about a kicker. Through five games, the stats read that David Bonagura is the sixth-most efficient kicker in the Big Ten.

Bonagura has connected on six of his seven field goal attempts, while going a perfect 13-for-13 on extra point tries. His lone miss came from a 41-yard try against Howard, but he redeemed himself from the same distance with his longest make of the season the following week against New Mexico. 

To this point in the season, Bonagura said he feels comfortable from 45 yards and in.

"I'm really pleased with the progress of Bonagura throughout the first three games in the season," said head football coach Chris Ash. "To be honest in training camp, I didn't know if he could make anything. He just stuck to it. He continues to grind. His confidence continues to grow. The confidence in the football team and the coaching staff of his ability to go out and make kicks when he needs to is growing. Really proud of that kid for what he's done and what he's been able to do each Saturday out there." 

While Bonagura hasn't attempted a field goal in the Knights' past two games, he's been able to keep himself busy on kickoffs. True freshman Jared Smolar, the only other kicker on the roster, began the season as Rutgers' placekicker but averaged 55.7 yards and failed to record a touchback across 21 kicks.

In Bonagura's first kickoff of his career against Iowa, he recorded a touchback. He hasn't recorded a touchback since but has averaged a sound 66 yards across five attempts.

"In high school, I was brought up to varsity to kick off," Bonagura said. "Coming here, I wasn't really thrown in the mix. Being a kicker you kind of practice all three things anyway. It's not like I just focused on field goals and stopped kicking off because I have to know how to do all three, at lest I would like to know how to do all three. So I try to do as best as I can."

As Bonagura's activity in the overall kicking game has decreased the past two game as the Knights have mustered just seven combined points, punter Michael Cintron has seen a spike in game action.

Cintron, who is also the holder on field goals, has had his number called 16 times since the commencement of Big Ten competition. On the season, the Saint Joseph's (Metuchen) product leads the conference in total punts with a sizable 51 attempts. 

The sophomore has two punts of over 50 yards and has landed 11 inside the 20. His net average currently sits at just 38.3, which ranks No. 102 of 109 among FBS punters, but that number is a little skewed thanks to a 68-yard punt return touchdown from the Huskies in the opener.

"Our net punting as a team, minus the one long return against Washington, is very good," said special teams coordinator Vince Okruch. "He hit one (against Iowa), he tried to get too much precision and it hit on the 1-yard line. We don't want it on the one. We tell him, 'hey the eight (yard line is) great. We'll down it inside the five and live with it.' You take away those two kicks and he's fine. But you can't take them away ... Just continue to move forward and request that you get a little more hang time so our coverage unit has a chance and on we go."

Similarly to Bonagura, Cintron had little experience heading into this season. As a redshirt freshman in 2015, Cintron got just three punts under his belt. 

He was in competition for the job with senior Tim Gleeson during training camp, but a nagging back issue caused Gleeson to be an inconsistent participant, giving way to Cintron to win the position battle.

Cintron still has some things to work on, such as his pooch punting, hang time and consistency, but, just as he is with Bonagura, Chris Ash is pleased with both how far Cintron has come since the spring and what his future at Rutgers projects to be.

"Michael's got a chance to be an outstanding punter as he continues his career here at Rutgers," Ash said. "The improvement that kid has made since last spring has been remarkable ... At the beginning of spring practice I didn't know if he'd ever have the chance to be what we consider a legitimate Big Ten punter and he is. As long as he continues to go in that direction and work on his consistency, I think he can be an outstanding punter."

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

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