The punt is high and long, which is good news. The bad is the ball has found Janarion Grant. It nestles into his arms, at which time he becomes a very elusive target. His return begins at, say, the Rutgers 10-yard line, but Army has him lined up. The Black Knights’ special team is confident they can bring him down without any major damage inflicted. Easier said than done.
“You can try to keep [the ball] away from him,” said Army head coach Jeff Monken, whose team will host Rutgers Saturday at Michie Stadium. “You can try to kick it to other people. What happens is it becomes a cat-and-mouse game, where if you’re gonna ground kick it and one of them may have pick it up and they have the ball at the 40-yard line. Sometimes you have to kick it off to these guys and hope you can cover them, see if you’re good enough to keep them from scoring.”
Good luck. Grant is no secret, which makes his season even more impressive. His signature performance came against Washington State Sept. 19. He returned a kickoff for 100 yards and a touchdown and accumulated 195 yards on five kickoff returns; two punt returns for 56 yards and a touchdown; five receptions for 65 yards; and 21 yards rushing, a total of 337 yards of total offense, a school record. The opposition has him lined up. Then they don’t. The most realistic chance of keeping him in check is punts that land out of bounds and kickoffs that fly over the end zone.
“I hope we’ll have enough chances to find out on kickoffs,” Monken said. “That means things are going our way offensively. I’d rather not find out on 12 different punt returns if he can return it for a touchdown. You have to cover the kick and tackle the guys and do your job.”
Easier said than done. After 12 games, Grant leads the NCAA with 896 kick-off return yards and is second in average yards per return at 25.6. He’s seventh nationally with 14.6 yards per punt return. By the time a prospective tackler has him lined up, he’s either accelerated or just pulled a move that leaves a shadow.
Grant has helped Rutgers stay competitive, but the Scarlet Knights’ Big Ten schedule borders on sadistic. Included have been their last four games – all losses – 49-7 to No. 2 Ohio State; 48-10 to No. 21 Wisconsin; 49-16 to No. 16 Michigan; and 31-14 to Nebraska. The Scarlet Knights are 3-9, which isn’t good, but it certainly qualifies under the heading of everything is relative.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to play those four teams in a row. We might not have a team left,” Monken said. “Rutgers is a team that plays in that league and competes with those people and they’ve played very tough in that league. That’s an indication of the kind of players they have and the personnel they have and are certainly worrisome for us.”
No one more than Grant.
Rutgers’ losing record is just a blemish compared to what the team endured prior to the season. The Scarlet Knights dismissed six players after a string of arrests and other violations. Cornerback Dre Boggs and fullback Lloyd Terry were charged in home invasions; cornerback Nadir Barnwell, cornerback Ruhann Peele, safety Delon Stephenson and fullback Razohnn Gross were charged with assault. Rutgers indefinitely suspended All-Big Ten wide receiver Leonte Carroo after Carroo was charged with simple assault in a domestic-violence incident.
Further, head coach Kyle Flood was suspended for the first three games of the season and fined $50,000 for violating university policy about contacting faculty about a player’s academic status. Flood e-mailed a faculty member and later scheduled an in-person meeting to discuss the academic standing of Barnwell.
“I take full responsibility and accept the consequences of my actions,” Flood said at the time. “I care deeply about my student-athlete’s academic performance. As the head coach, when I recruit players, my responsibility to them and their families is to do all I can to make sure they leave Rutgers with a degree and are prepared for a successful life off the football field.”
Last year, the Rutgers football team achieved a Graduation Success Rate score of 83 in a report released by the NCAA for all Division I schools. It is the same GSR score as last year, and the figure is 11 points higher than the Football Bowl Subdivision average. Rutgers ranked third out of 14 Big Ten football programs in the GSR.