We continue our positional reviews, with an area that often does not get enough focus. After years of shining glory, and national accolades, the special teams unit hit an all-time low in my time of watching the Scarlet Knights last season. Coach Ash said in a recent press conference that focusing on special teams was a priority, especially with coverage teams.
Special teams play can make or break a game, so with that, here is where we stand with the specialists mid-way through training camp, before discussing coverage personnel and kickoff/punt returner candidates.
(Note: Last week, Ash indicated that kicker/punter Gavin Haggerty is not on the training camp roster due to not being able to carry four kickers. He did add that he "will be a really good kicker for us in the future". NCAA roster rules allow him to rejoin the program once classes begin.)
#96 Ryan Anderson (6’1”, 203 LBS)
An exciting transfer from Olivet College in Michigan, Anderson is a grad transfer with one more year of eligibility left. He was a Division III All American. Anderson will be competing with current punter Michael Cintron for the starting spot. What stands out about Anderson is not only that he lead D-III with 46.2 yards per punt, with a career long of 69-yards, but he is a versatile athlete. He started every game at wide receiver, so it would be interesting to see what role he could have in potential trick plays. Last year, he had 18 punts go more than 50 yards, which would be a significant improvement on last year, when starting field position was such a challenge. Unless there have been stark improvements from Cintron since last season, I would pick Anderson as the starter. I don’t believe he came to Rutgers to warm the bench for his final season of eligibility.
#94 Michael Cintron (6’3, 222 LBS)
The tried and true punter from the 2016 season, Cintron had started just one game in 2015 before earning the starting spot last year. A redshirt junior, I do believe that Cintron has the ability to make strong punts, and pin opposing teams inside the 20-yard line. He just hasn’t proved to be able to do so consistently, and far too often didn’t give our defense a fighting chance of holding a team scoreless on a series. When we are consistently giving a team a ball on the 25, 40, even sometimes 50 yard line, we were lucky to hold them to even just a field goal. What’s interesting is that he is not far behind Anderson in his career long of 61 yards, but his average is about 20% lower. In contrast to Anderson’s 18 punts of 50+ yards, Cintron had only 7 punts go 50+ yards and had two punts blocked last season. While the blocked kicks are more due to poor coverage on the line, a 37.9 average is not good enough when the other B1G teams are so far ahead of us in size, speed, and ability. The starter has not yet been announced, although Anderson seems the likely pick, so the future remains to be seen.
#95 Justin Davidovicz (5’9”, 177 LBS)
The true freshman joins the Scarlet Knights with quite a few accolades, hailing from local high school, Bridgewater-Raritan. While the least experienced of all the placekickers, Davidovicz was a very exciting pickup for the Knights. He was rated the no. 1 kicker in NJ and the no. 18 kicker nationally in the class of 2017. Davidovicz was the primary kicker for the Panthers, leading his team to an 11-1 record, and an undefeated regular season. He had a 70% field goal completion percentage, and a long of 43 yards. Davidovicz was a great addition to the 2017 signing class, as he also received a mini-Maxwell award, and was named First-Team All-Metro for his 2016 performance. He is said to have a 60-yard field goal range off the ground, and a “great leg that generates lift and distance” according to STS. With kickoffs of 65 yard and 4.0+ lift the norm, its exciting to see what he will produce on the collegiate field. It has been thought that he is likely start this season handling kickoffs, at a minimum.
#97 Andrew Harte (6’0”, 190 LBS)
Harte is an intriguing character for me as he has veteran status, and comes from Minnesota, where he played there for new Rutgers offensive coordinator, Jerry Kill. However, despite quite an impressive high school career (2012 All- City, All-State, All-County, All-Area, and All-Christian Conference Selection), he did not see much game-time action during his time at Minnesota, and in fact did not contribute at all during the 2016 season. He did attempt a few onside kicks in 2014 and 2015, which is great given the attempts Rutgers made last season often did not go in our favor. It is important to note that Harte had some stiff competition at Minnesota, as Emmit Carpenter was one of the best kickers in the nation last season. It may be that he just needs a chance to return to his former glory. He holds the second highest PAT record in the country with 112 in a row and a kickoff average of 65 yards. I imagine he will be working hard to prove himself, as he has just one season of eligibility left. However, its Davidovicz, and veteran kicker David Bonagura who have been getting the most attention, so time will tell what his role will be at Rutgers this season. Regardless, Ash has done a great job of adding much needed depth at this position, and its great to have so many viable options.
#98 David Bonagura (6’0”, 230 LBS)
Last, but not least, is incumbent kicker, David Bonagura. Prior to his 2016 starting spot, Bonagura had not seen any collegiate game action. Due to a severe lack of depth at this position, Bonagura went on to start all 12 games, with somewhat mixed results. While his field goal completion percentage is actually slightly higher than Davidovicz’s (71% v. 70%), it is very important to note that he only made 1-of-4 attempts at 40+ yards, and at Saturday’s Fan Appreciation Day scrimmage, long range attempts still appear to be an issue. He missed most of spring camp due to a back injury, so let’s see if he continues to improve. Given the fierce B1G competition, its so important to have a kicker who can make long field goal attempts, as it helps us to get much-needed points on the board. While it is said Davidovicz is not yet consistent enough in this area, Bonagura will need to improve significantly in this area to keep his starting spot.
It's hard to really comment on either incumbent and senior Alan Lucy (#85), who struggled at times last season, or redshirt freshman Matthew Sportelli (#62), as not much has been said about either during training camp. Whoever wins the job needs to be consistent and the less known they are, the better job they will be doing.
Coverage Teams & Returners
Ash had positive things to say at Rutgers Media Day on Sunday about the coverage teams so far in camp.
“And then special teams, not talking about snappers, holders and kickers and punters. I'm talking about the guys covering kicks. I feel a lot better right now today with who is running down covering kicks and holding guys up than what we had last year.”
There will be a lot of new faces being counted on with special teams play this season. Ash has emphasized a specific focus on improving special teams, and has said that this will be an area where the new freshman can specifically contribute. LB Olakunle Fatukasi, whom Ash singled out recently as an expected special teams contributor. Players like Bo Melton, Tyshon Fogg, the Hayek brothers, and Shameen Jones have stood out in training camp and are expected to gain experience with the special teams unit as well. Speedster Jawuan Harris will likely be in the back returning kicks at some point, as well. Most notably, while I expect star-player Janarion Grant will likely contribute in as many ways as possibly under Kill’s offensive scheme, I expect him to be back in force as one of the most dangerous punt/kickoff receivers in the country. Who wouldn’t love to see this happen a few more times this season?
After a season recovering from a severe loss of depth and talent, Ash and co. have spent a lot of time and effort rebuilding the special teams unit. How they perform will be a major key to whether Rutgers can improve on the field this season.