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Rutgers Football Special Teams Review & Keys Against Nebraska

We examine where this unit stands after the first three games

NCAA Football: Morgan State at Rutgers
A return to form
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been said about the fall from grace of this once lauded unit. Head Coach Chris Ash committed to focusing on special teams play during training camp and having as many players as contribute. Week 1 was a bust, with special teams putting forth the weakest performance of all three units versus Washington.

However, despite their initial poor showing, the last two week’s of special teams play has showed a marked improvement. I may have been too angry to say much about the Scarlet Knights disappointing performance against EMU, but I do remember being at the game and noting that the special teams play had improved from the week before.

Improvements in the EMU game

Blocked Kick: With 98 seconds left in the game, DT Sebastian Joseph responded to calls for a block field goal. With EMU set up on Rutgers 31-yd line, Joseph came right through the line and swatted the ball. Kemoko Turay and Kiy Hester put the pressure on Oraha once the ball was picked up to keep EMU from scoring (technically since the ball fell at the line of scrimmage, either team could have advanced to score). The pride I felt at that moment is hard to describe. This was the special teams play I was used to from the Schiano days, and it was great to see them playing aggressively. The fact that the offense managed to not take advantage of that momentum and failed to score was a prime example of their struggles this season.

Grant is back in action: While what looked like another inevitable punt return for Janarion Grant was halted due to the officials calling he signaled for a fair catch, it was exhilarating for the five-seconds I was able to think he was OUTTA THERE. This was the ultimate frustrating call in a game of frustrating call, as it killed the momentum, and may have been the game changer. Regardless, it’s been interesting to watch more than one opposing team pooch the punt, and EMU attempting an onside kick to start the game, to keep the ball away from the all-purpose powerhouse. While the lack of shifts made to account for these calls is baffling, that is an area of improvement in coaching, as opposed to talent. It will be interesting to see how Grant fares in B1G play, as it has seemed at times he was holding back, but I’m happy any time we get him in the game. (Note: Chris Ash told Ryan Dunleavy that Grant’s availability for Saturday’s game is still undetermined due to him being limited this week after limping off the field last weekend.)

The Kicking and Punting Units Showed Improvement: After punter Ryan Anderson received criticism from Ash about outkicking the coverage, and kicker Andrew Harte missed a 46-yard field goal by a long shot against Washington, there was much room for improvement. Anderson was accurate and consistent in his performance against EMU. Andrew Harte made both of his field goals, with a long of 39-yards. There is still room for improvement. Harte is no Ito, and 39-yards is not much of a long, but progress was made in this game for the special teams unit. You can always find a silver lining if you look hard enough.

Special Teams Player of the Week: Sebastian Joseph. The skill, tenacity, and pure fire shown on that blocked kick should be the litmus test by which all future special teams play is judged.

Final Grade: B-. As we know, I score based not only on performance, but also improvement from the previous game/season. There is still room for improvement in the kicking, and particularly return coverage game. However, I began to see a return of our former glory in the blocked kick, and (halted) Grant return.

Improvements in the Morgan State Game

I was skeptical going into this game, and while we did exactly what we were supposed to in this game, it wasn’t exactly a given after the EMU loss. With a whopping 71 players seeing game action, this was a great opportunity for even fourth-string players to improve. Here’s what happened specifically with special teams:

Another Blocked Kick: The second of the season, and the 49th since 2008, Rutgers holds the national record. This time it was a blocked punt by freshman WR Hunter Hayek in the 2nd quarter which redshirt freshman Mohamed Jabbie would recover and take to MSU’s 11-yard line to set up one of freshman QB Jonathan Lewis’ five (!) touchdowns. See the trend here? These freshman are looking to make a name for themselves, and showcasing some major talent in the process.

Andrew Harte’s FG Completion % Continues to Improve: Harte has now made 34 of his field goal attempts at HPSS, giving him an impressive 75% completion percentage. This number is obviously skewed, and he has yet to complete an attempt over 50, or even 40, yards. However, these are baby steps towards Harte building his confidence and being an accurate and reliable asset to the team.

Special Teams Player of the Week: Hunter Hayek, with a supporting role by Mohamed Jabbie. The tenacity of the blocked kick, combined with the composure to recover and advance the ball is especially impressive given their lack of collegiate experience. Very excited about these young Knights!

Final Grade: B-. While the unit looked great this week, I’ve tempered my excitement with the understanding that this is Morgan State, a team who has been shutout three times this season. The B1G schedule comes this weekend, and I will assess true performance dependent on their showing against the currently beleaguered Cornhuskers.

Special Teams Keys to a Cornhuskers Upset

1). Win the field position battle, and accurately execute KO’s and punts: Davidovicz and Anderson will need to put the Cornhuskers out of immediate scoring range, and effectively execute plays.

2). Improve FG range, and be reliable in short attempts: To be victorious, we will need every possible point, so Harte will need to continue to build confidence and improve his range. There was what appeared to be a botched snap against MSU last week in a PAT attempt, so errors will need to be squashed against B1G competition.

3). Release the Grant inferno: While pooched kicks have been the norm to avoid a Grant return, he has yet to have any big returns this season. Perhaps the coaching staff has been preserving him for B1G play, but now is the time to unleash the fury, assuming he is healthy enough to play on Saturday.

4). Correct return coverage errors: Missed tackles still abound, and I would love to see aggressive play in terms of tackles for loss and negative yardage. At the very least, let’s not let the returner drag us 5 yards before bringing him down. We need at all costs to avoid 61-yard punt returns due to tackling errors and lapsed coverage.

At the end of the day, the offense will likely be the unit to decide whether we put W or L on the schedule, but as any football fan knows, special teams can make a big difference. I for one, am cautiously optimistic headed into the game versus Nebraska.