Rutgers’ Football is well into practices and it is beginning to feel like a normal year. The Scarlet Knights were able to get through Spring ball and into late summer practices for the first time since 2019. This is a good sign for a team looking to continue to improve upon a 2020 season that saw them finish with three victories in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights will open the season against Temple on Sept. 2.
This preview series will take you through each position group and examine strengths and weaknesses of the team heading into the season.
This is the first piece of the series and we begin with the Special Teams.
Position coach(es): Adam Scheier
Key players lost: Justin Davidovicz (graduation)
Key players returning: Aron Cruickshank, Adam Korsak, Billy Taylor, Bo Melton, Avery Young, Tre Avery, Aaron Young, Valentino Ambrosio
Newcomers: Joshua Youngblood (transfer - Kansas State)
What they did well in 2020: Explosive plays.
This was a huge need heading into the 2020 season and Cruickshank made an immediate impact. The Scarlet Knights ranked 16th in the nation, and first in the Big Ten, averaging 25.7 yards per kick return. Cruickshank totaled 671 kick-return yards in his first season with the Scarlet Knights. That has a chance to continue with the addition of Youngblood.
Coming from Kansas State, Youngblood was named the Big 12 special teams player of the year — and he did so as a true freshman. Youngblood is going to be involved in the kick-return game but also compete for a spot returning punts. Either way, Rutgers has two elite kick returners that will make them difficult to defend.
Needs Improvement: Consistency
This is not to say that special teams has been inconsistent. This is more saying that the unit needs to remain consistent for Rutgers to be successful. Special teams has gone from a problem to one of the strongest aspects of the team.
The model of consistency has been Adam Korsak. He has been one of the best punters in the nation during his time with the Scarlet Knights and was recently named to the Ray Guy Award watch list. This marks the fourth-consecutive year that he was named to this watch list. Valentino Ambrosio will return as the kicker this season. In 2020, he finished 9-for-11 and 14-15 on extra points.
With a solid kicking game and elite returners, the Scarlet Knights have the special teams’ unit in a good position moving forward.
What to Expect in 2021
The Scarlet Knights could have their sights set on a record in 2021. With two of the top kick returners in the nation, Rutgers has a chance to break the single-season record for kick returns for touchdowns. The Rutgers single-season record for kick-return touchdowns in a season is held by Janarion Grant when he totaled three in 2015. Ashlan Davis has the NCAA record when he returned five for scores in 2004 for Tulsa.
This is not to say that the Scarlet Knights will reach this mark but Cruickshank took two kicks back to the house in 2020. He was named the Big Ten’s Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year last season and will be in the mix once again. Youngblood might be too. It all depends on how the Scarlet Knights use their returners. It may seem like one would take away from the other but quite the opposite. Scheier can put them together and find creative ways to get chuck plays in the return game. Bo Melton could be used as well.
As for the kicking game, Korsak and Ambrosio are both returners that should bring consistency. This is as important as any other factor in the game. If the Scarlet Knights can flip the field on punts and get point on field goals, this will go a long way in close games. Let’s remember, the Scarlet Knights had three losses last season by one score.
Cruickshank on the Hornung Award watch list. Korsak on the Ray Guy Award watch list. Billy Taylor on the Patrick Mannelly Award watch list. There is a reason to be optimistic about special teams for Rutgers. If someone were to say this circa 2019, they would get a sideways look. Heading into 2021, this should be one of the deepest and best units for the Scarlet Knights this season.