Fall practice begins this week for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team. This post commences a series of positional previews that will be published every few days. First up is the team’s specialists that needed to replace a lot of production in 2018. They did so and more. For last year’s preview, click here.
Position coach: Vince Okruch (4th season)
Key players lost: Deonte Roberts.
Key players returning: Mo Jabbie (RJr.), Justin Davidovicz (Jr.), Billy Taylor (Jr.), Avery Young (So.), Adam Korsak (RJr.), Cole Murphy (RSr.), Kessawn Abraham (So.)
Newcomers: Aaron Young (Fr.)
Question 1: Can they do more?
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 in his second and above average in his third. Will the Scarlet Knights be able to at minimum stay above average or possibly cross into elite territory?
Last year’s headline for this article noted, “Team needs to replace kicker, punter, and return men.” The kicking game did that and more. Ryan Anderson averaged 44.4 yards per punt earning First Team All-Big Ten in 2017, but Adam Korsak (42.7 avg, long of 79!) was not much of a drop off in 2018 despite it being his first year of American Football. Justin Davidovicz added placekicking duties (9-11 FG, long of 52) quite successfully in addition to kickoffs (59.2 avg, 14 touchbacks), replacing the graduated Andrew Harte. Korsak figures to get even better and Davidovicz can only do more if he gets more field goal opportunities. Kickoff and punt coverage units should remain strong as the primary special teams tacklers all return: Larry Stevens, Mo Jabbie, Olakunle Fatukasi, and Kessawn Abraham.
The Janarion Grant hangover continued in the return game so the big key will be ...
Question 2: What’s new?
Not much other than the hyped Aaron Young (brother of Avery) and Kay’Ron Adams who are expected to help in the return game. With Isaih Pacheco and Raheem Blackshear expected to get the bulk of the carries on offense, the coaching staff will likely do what they can to carve out roles for the two-highest rated incoming freshmen. Neither Pacheco nor Blackshear cracked a 20 yard kick return average, so it’s probably wise to not risk injury when their production could be equalled on kickoffs.
Aaron, Kay’Ron, or maybe even one of the freshman defensive backs could step up on punt returns. Avery managed a 6.8 average which isn’t great, but he flashed some ability to break tackles that did two things; 1. It seemed to provide an energy boost and 2. may be a sign that he could take a bigger step as a sophomore. With Avery being such a key to the defense at a position with unproven depth (cornerback), the right move would probably be experiment with younger players unless they have problems securing the ball. As most college football fans know all too well, you can easily lose games with muffed punts.
Without an explosive offense, a few big returns would be huge to the Scarlet Knights, but in addition to that ...
Question 3: Can big plays on special teams help win a game or two?
I only noted one major personnel loss for this group, Deonte Roberts. Deonte single-handedly kept Rutgers in the game against Kansas early on as Rutgers blocked two kicks. Other than a short blip in 2016, Rutgers has remained among the nation’s best for the last decade in this area. Whatever causes this phenomenon, it needs to remain strong!
Rutgers takes blocked field goal to house https://t.co/Feq1pYmW2A— RecencyBiasPolice (@BigDippinBlog) July 31, 2019
In addition to blocking kicks, can Olakunle Fatukasi or Kessawn Abraham maybe force a few fumbles on kickoffs/punts? The tackling and coverage were strong and this is being a little greedy, but another play here or there would be awesome. This is an area where unheralded/underrecruited players with a lot of toughness bring life to a program. Does this roster have the next Anthony Cioffi?
Lastly, can we get a successful fake punt or field goal? Korsak’s rollout style that allows for coverage to get downfield is perfect for the rugby-style fake. Rutgers had a few opportunities where opponents handed them a first down if Adam would have just carried the ball, but likely his inexperience prevented the staff from wanting to risk it. At the same time, Cole Murphy is a very experienced holder who is the second coming of JT Tartacoff with his versatility both running and throwing. If Rutgers can muster more than 12 field goal attempts for the entire season, we might see a trick or two.
Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?
Taylor remains the most reliable long-snapper in the nation. Korsak and Davidovicz take the next step. Someone becomes an electrifying return man, likely Aaron Young. Rutgers wins the special teams battle every week ... even against Michigan.
Any of the Big Three get injured with catastrophic. Both kickers regress slightly and Scarlet Knight returns become adventures in the windy Big Ten gauntlet.
Carbon copy of 2018, and that’s just fine. Taylor, Korsak, and Davidovicz remain consistent. Taylor makes one mistake and Cole Murphy bails him out. The return game is slightly improved, but not much of a factor as that facet of college football continues to fade. Rutgers continues to be the nation’s leader in blocked kicks since 2009.
Specialists listed on the current roster
#46 Brandon Shank (6’0”, 210 lbs.) Junior
Shank was Academic All-Big Ten but didn’t see any game action.
#47 Billy Taylor (6’1”, 230 lbs.) Junior
Taylor burst on the scene as a true freshman by unseating scholarship long-snapper and three-year starter Alan Lucy. He never faltered and kept the job for the entire season. Now a junior, he was named to the preseason watch list for best long snappers in college football for the second year in a row.
#62 Matthew Sportelli (6’1”, 262 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
As a true freshman in 2016 he was the heir apparent to Alan Lucy until Billy Taylor showed up. A big, strong young man, Matt would start on a lot of college football teams maybe even in the Power Five.
#94 Adam Korsak (6’1”, 193 lbs.) Redshirt Junior
His eligibility is listed as a redshirt junior, although he should either be a junior or a redshirt sophomore, since students do an extra year in the English system. Nevertheless, Korsak should remain one of the best punters in the conference having been named Honorable Mention last year, his first season of organized American football.
#95 Justin Davidovicz (5’9”, 180 lbs.) Junior
Justin didn’t get enough field goal opportunities to truly shine. Despite the lack of attempts, he added a 52 yarder which tied for the longest in the conference. The biggest indicator of his importance was when he tweaked something against Illinois, who promptly made few big kick returns. The Scarlet Knights missed a field goal for huge momentum as well.
Walk-on specialists will continue to appear through fall.
Punters: #93 David Broncati (6’6”, 250 lbs.) Freshman
Long term outlook: 2020, excellent. 2021?????
Unless there are changes in eligibility, Rutgers will lose Taylor, Korsak, and Davidovicz after the 2020 season. Those losses will be offset by growth from other walk-ons and a boost in the return game.