Fall practice began Friday for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team. We continue a series of positional previews, working our way from the perceived weakest to strongest units that will be published every few days. Next up is the team’s specialists that need to replace a lot of production in 2018. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach: Vince Okruch (3rd season)
Key players lost: Janarion Grant (UDFA - Baltimore Ravens), Andrew Harte, Ryan Anderson
Key players returning: Mo Jabbie (RSo.), Justin Davidovicz (So.), Gavin Haggerty (RJr.), Billy Taylor (So.), Raheem Blackshear (So.)
Newcomers: Adam Korsak (So. - spring enrollee)
Question 1: Will 2018 look like 2017 or 2016 from a production standpoint?
Ryan Anderson averaged 44.4 yards per punt (+6.5 from the team average in 2016), earning First Team All-Big Ten. Andrew Harte was only 7-10 on field goals, but Rutgers felt comfortable when they were in field goal range to pull the trigger as he did hit a 50 yarder. Justin Davidovicz raised the kickoff average by almost 7 yards AND had 14 touchbacks (10 more than the team in 2016). Rutgers improved their kick return average and slightly dropped in punt return average, but 2016 was aided by two Janarion Grant touchdowns which tremendously impacted the otherwise abysmal numbers.
Across the board Rutgers went from one of the nation’s worst special teams units in virtually every area during Chris Ash’s first season to average or above in his second. For each position, Rutgers has a solid plan other than maybe punt returner. It will be hard to duplicate 2017, but don’t expect them to drop back down to the bottom of the national rankings.
Question 2: Will there be some game changing plays?
The biggest game changer last season was Anderson. Ryan had 27 punts of 50 plus yards and a long of 70. Even when forced to kick out of the shadow of his own goal posts, Anderson was often able to flip field position. Australian Adam Korsak has gotten positive reviews so far after early enrollment, but will still be a rookie.
Rutgers kickoff coverage unit was among the best in the nation. Davidovicz should be able to get a little more altitude on his kicks with more experience and strength, allowing a cover team comprised of several freshman last year to make more big plays. Pinning the opponent deep proved successful quite often in 2017. Mo Jabbie (popular in OTB comments) and Olakunle Fatukasi were fan favorites in coverage. Coverage units took a hit with several linebackers and safeties suspended indefinitely. Chris Ash mentioned in his press conference Friday he is concerned about “the depth on special teams”. His answer as to how the situation will be addressed is that they will probably “ask more of certain guys than we had planned on doing.” That probably means either members of the two deep like Tyshon Fogg or true freshmen who may have ended up redshirting will be called upon, or both. Though in Ash’s words, “It’s too early to tell.”
The other key plays came from ace kick blockers like Kemoko Turay and Sebastian Joseph. Blocking kicks has been a staple of the Rutgers program for a decade now, but the question remains who will take the torch to continue the tradition. For Rutgers to pull an upset, a blocked field goal or punt can go a long way.
In the return game, Raheem Blackshear was average, but no Janarion Grant. To prevent injuries to their most explosive offensive player, the staff may elect to use someone else like true freshman Christian Izien or ace cover man / wide receiver Mo Jabbie. This race is wide open. The threat of a long return is underrated because opponents will spend more time in preparation and at times surrender field position just to avoid big returns.
Question 3: What’s new?
What’s not? The most unsung player on the Rutgers roster in 2017 was true freshman long snapper Billy Taylor. Taylor came in an unseated a solid, three-year starting, scholarship player in Alan Lucy. If Taylor does the same as he did a year ago, that’s perfect. He is backed up by Matthew Sportelli and Ryan Cassidy who both seem capable.
Korsak is like many Australians who grew up playing rugby and Australian rules football; adept at kicking different trajectories as well as rolling out rugby style. Enrolling in the spring should help him big time. Davidovicz battles Gavin Haggerty in training camp for the placekicker spot.
Odd how two specialists share the same birthday ...
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
Korsak may not have the distance of Ryan Anderson, but his ability to roll out and kick different spiraling balls offers a different take on the punter spot. Davidovicz is reliable on kickoffs and hits some long field goals. Billy Taylor is Billy Taylor. Someone breaks a few ankles as a returner.
Without Grant, these is no threat in the return game. Taylor gets injured. Neither kicker is consistent on field goal attempts. Korsak gets roughed up. Coverage units require help from the two-deep and a few injuries spill into the defense.
Korsak is serviceable on his way to becoming one of the better punters in the Big Ten long term. Davidovicz hits a few long ones, but the team uses Gavin Haggerty on short clutch kicks. Taylor makes a mistake or two and the holder, probably Cole Murphy, bails him out. The return game is fringe overall so in a big spot Melton or Blackshear is back there. Kick coverage is still above average with some help from the two-deep.
Players listed on the current roster
#47 Billy Taylor (6’1”, 230 lbs.) Sophomore
The true freshman shocked many by unseating Lucy last year. He never faltered and kept the job for the entire season. Rutgers has a good tradition of long snappers and all they need from him is what he did last year all over again. He was named to the preseason watch list for best long snappers in college football.
#48 Ryan Cassidy (6’1”, 224 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman
The redshirt freshman was not on the two-deep last year but will battle Sportelli for the back-up job this fall. Rutgers has been lucky on the injury front, but with long snappers, injury risk is pretty high in game situations. Having him on the team the next few years will be a plus.
#62 Matthew Sportelli (6’1”, 262 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore
Sportelli joined the program from Wayne Hills even before the trio that came in last year. As a true freshman in 2016, people seemed totally fine with Matt as the heir apparent to Alan Lucy. After Billy Taylor showed up, Sportelli will probably remain the backup. He sure looks good getting off the bus though as a former heavyweight champion wrestler.
#94 Adam Korsak (6’1”, 193 lbs.) Sophomore
The Australian joins the Scarlet Knights as a sophomore because students in the English system do high school, college and university in different increments than us in the USA. Coach Okruch has had positive things thus far after he enrolled early due to his versatility. The rugby style kick if you have confidence in your punters ball handling allows more time for the cover team and good opportunity for game changing muffs.
#95 Justin Davidovicz (5’9”, 180 lbs.) Sophomore
The true freshman quickly replaced Jared Smolar on kickoffs. Justin’s big leg was a big reason Rutgers early in the season was top 10 in the country in pinning their opponents back on kickoffs. He stayed relatively consistent and hopes to add placekicking to his responsibilities in 2018.
#99 Gavin Haggerty (5’8”, 170 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
Haggerty was the man in 2017 spring camp, kicking a few field goals in the spring game. Due to a numbers crunch he was not in summer camp before returning to the team in the fall. Without time to make up ground due to the late start, Gavin didn’t see the field in 2017. The staff should feel confident in his accuracy on short field goals and he will likely be an important member of the two-deep at one of the Scarlet Knight’s shallowest spots. For Rutgers to pull an upset they in all likelihood will need to convert every time they are in range.
Walk-on specialists will continue to appear through fall.
Punters: #96 Zach Sterr (6’2”, 230 lbs.) Freshman, #92 Nick Johnson (5’10”, 189 lbs.) Freshman
Long term outlook: In a previous OTB preview, Cara used the phrase “oh how the mighty have fallen.” The turnaround for the Rutgers special teams units between 2016 and 2017 was simply awesome. With sophomores at all kicking spots including long snapper, Rutgers is well positioned through 2020.
The cover teams should be on the level they were last year. More players will need to continue to emerge in subsequent seasons as guys like Fatukasi and Jabbie get less time on specials as their other responsibilities increase. Don’t expect another Grant for a generation at least, but finding the next Willie Foster or Nate Jones is in the realm of return possibilities.
Previous positional reviews: