The Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team’s spring activities have been cancelled just like all other NCAA spring athletic events. With the hope that fall football happens, even if it is delayed or there’s a limited summer training camp, we will proceed with our traditional spring position reviews. With the current worldwide global health crisis, we are living day to day, but hopefully both Rutgers Football and the world at large have brighter days ahead.
This series reviews the state of each positional group based on the best information we have today. In the absence of spring practice, naturally less intelligence is available than it has been in previous campaigns. Also, with the new transfer portal, eligibility questions are best guess and we won’t assume anyone who has already entered the transfer portal will return. The team’s official website does not currently have a 2020 roster posted.
We begin with the Special teams.
Position coach(es): Adam Scheier
Key players lost: Cole Murphy (graduation), Mo Jabbie (transfer portal)
Key players returning: Justin Davidovicz (Sr.), Adam Korsak (RSr.), Billy Taylor (Sr.), Avery Young (Jr.), Tre Avery (RSr.), Aaron Young (So.)
Newcomers: Aron Cruickshank (transfer - Wisconsin)
What they did well in 2019: Kick the ball.
The punters and kickers had another strong campaign last fall to the point that Adam Korsak became a folk hero. He was among the best punters in the country (specifically a stacked Big Ten) and warranted consideration for First Team All-American having won three national Ray Guy punter of the week awards. I suppose the one knock on Korsak is that he gets so much practice and is therefore a compiler, especially on punts dropped inside the 20 yard line? But within the Big Ten, Rutgers was second in punting average and first in net punting, also tied for the lead with just two touchbacks. The coaches named him second team all Big Ten, but the media had him third.
Justin Davidovicz was 11 for 15 on field goals, including a long of 50 which is good at the college level in Big Ten weather conditions. He was 10 of 12 inside 40 yards and hit all 18 of his extra points, so the reliability is surely there. Rutgers did take a step back in kickoff coverage (just 12th in the conference) despite being 6th in kickoff distance. Kickoffs though are becoming less a part of the game anyway.
Billy Taylor has been perfect (knock on wood) with his snaps throughout his career.
Needs Improvement: Big plays.
A year ago I highlighted the return game, but this is really team-wide. Starting with the return game, Tre Avery flashed more big play potential than Avery Young or his brother Aaron, though Aaron still boasted a higher kick return average than Tre. This has to get confusing with personnel groupings, made even more complicated by Aaron having to switch jerseys on punt returns to not share the #4 with Tim Barrow. The confusion didn’t do enough to trip up the opposition though and RU needs a stronger performance to help spring an upset in 2020.
In the kicking game, Adam Korsak can’t do much more to flip field position, but he seems adept at rolling out often with unlimited time and yet we have still never seen a fake. If Rutgers does make the call, there’s a good chance it goes for major yardage and could swing momentum. Davidovicz was not as solid statistically as he was in 2018, but will be needed to make clutch, potentially long field goals if this team wants to sniff an upset or two. He may also be counted on for a surprise onside kick which the previously over conservative coaching staff never really tried either.
Otherwise, how about some more blocked kicks or forced turnovers? Hopefully the Schiano magic in that regard is back.
Changes expected in 2020
As will the case for all these position reviews, let’s begin with the new coaching staff. Adam Scheier was specifically brought in by Head Coach Greg Schiano to lead the special teams, without other positional responsibilities. This is the first in the history of the program (or at least a very long time) that there is a dedicated special teams coach. The Bronx native Scheier has focused on special teams primarily for the last 19 seasons, even earning a Broyles Award nomination for the nation’s top assistant during the 2018 campaign at Texas Tech. That came one year after he overlapped with Schiano at Ohio State.
The biggest hope is that these units under Scheier will come to play special teams with the fire, energy, and passion that Greg Schiano was able to instill in his special teams the first time on the banks. The plan should be for this tandem to play to win and not just avoid blowouts. If that requires starters staying on the field, more blocked kick attempts, fake field goals and punts, Rutgers will need to pull out all the stops to stay competitive early in the second Schiano era.
Mo Jabbie will be missed as an emotional leader of several units during his career including kickoff coverage. Outside of that and a potential boost to the return game, there may not be a need for many changes to cover teams or blocking units as virtually all special teams contributors including aces Larry Stevens and Kessawn Abaraham return. Rutgers has plenty of scholarship players at the linebacker and offensive line positions to fill the ranks with competent, experienced personnel.
The X-factor in the return game will be Aron Cruickshank if he is granted eligibility, which seems likely as he is returning closer to his New York home. At Wisconsin, Cruickshank never cracked the rotation at wide receiver, but he had several touchdowns in big moments on kick returns, especially in the Rose Bowl. Surely he has the highest upside, and it also makes more sense to use him rather than your starting cornerbacks, though injuries on special teams are far from the team’s biggest concern.
We don’t know who will replace fan favorite Cole Murphy as the team’s holder.
Way too early predictions
Korsak is named First Team All-Big Ten, second team All-American. Davidovicz is third team all conference. Cruickshank is eligible and shocks some major program with a long touchdown, though Rutgers ultimately loses the game and he does not repeat as 2nd team all Big Ten return man.
Medium. Questionable, though bridge options already appear on the roster. Rutgers’s three stars are all seniors, but who are behind them? Starting at punter, Rutgers has Zach Feagles (son of the former NFL All-Pro) who was a part-time starter when he began his career at Miami (FL), so he should serve as a nice bridge in 2021. At placekicker, Guy Fava was highly rated out of Don Bosco Prep and got his feet wet in the season’s final four games, thus preserving his redshirt, so he maintains four years of eligibility. At long snapper Matt Sportelli will be in his final year while Brandon Shank may have one year left if he redshirts, though officially true freshman Donato Crisanti was listed as the backup in 2019.
Expect the next post in this series in a few days, we are locked in just like everybody else. Please be safe and enjoy this time with your family.