By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Sept. 3, 2014) – If it’s a trend for the future, Janarion Grant is all for it.
Despite his success – often dazzling at times – as a kick returner last year, the Rutgers sophomore found that his reputation apparently didn’t precede him in last week’s season opener against Washington State.
The Cougars, confident in their coverage team, kicked off to the dangerous Grant six times. That’s almost one-third as many times as teams were willing to test the game-breaking speedster last year, when he averaged 24.6 yards for 21 returns, including a 100-yarder in the opener at Fresno State.
“I was surprised, but I liked it. I hope teams keep doing it,” Grant said following practice today. “I took it as a challenge.”
Grant said he was anticipating a lot of different scenarios as part of his first career start at slot receiver, but being kept busy on kickoffs wasn’t one of them, especially after teams tried to avoid him the second half of last year.
Washington State didn’t pay for its gamble, since Grant averaged just 21.8 yards on those six returns, but the Pac-12 school flirted with disaster on a few occasions, according to Grant.
“A couple of times I was just one guy away (from breaking one). I was that close,” he said. “Maybe just one hand away once. And they kept kicking it to me. That was the thing. I like that. I like getting the feel of it like that when they keep kicking to me.”
Grant’s entire freshman season was made by his return ability in 2013, with the 5-11, 175-pounder earning second-team All-AAC honors because of it. He also returned 17 punts for a 9.2-yard average, highlighted by a game-changing 58-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas.
That overshadowed a disappointing year as a receiver, with just three catches for 21 yards, too many drops and a season-long struggle to master the offense.
He vowed more balance in his game this year and was able to deliver it – despite one key drop – by catching a career-high four catches for 48 yards against Washington State.
“I was comfortable right from the start at slot receiver, even with the drops,” he said, adding that “I’m getting pretty close, step by step, to being the receiver I want to be. I’m getting there. That’s what practice is for. I’m still working at it.”
Grant’s reliability in the slot is even more critical for the Scarlet Knights (1-0) with the absence of Ruhann Peele to an injury (and with Andre Patton also sidelined and Carlton Agudosi and Andrew Turzilli slowed in the opener by injuries).
“I know I have an opportunity,” Grant said. “I have to make the most of it. It’s all on me now. I know what I have to do.”
Grant separates his role as a returner from that as a receiver – though he insists he is able to work to devote equal attention to both in practice – but he was a bit taken aback that Rutgers’ first opponent did the same.
“It just shows you have to go out and earn respect again,” he said. “You can’t live off last year. You’ve got to keep building on what you’ve accomplished.”
But in case opponents are wondering, he’s all for them ignoring what he did a year ago.
“The only thing I have to say is keep kicking it to me,” he said.