In Washington’s resounding 48-13 victory over Rutgers last Sep. 3 at Husky Stadium, the Dawgs used huge special teams plays to stun the Scarlet Knights. Kick and punt return men could be a factor in the rematch this Friday evening in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Lightning-in-a-bottle John Ross III, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, blew past Rutgers coverage men for a 92-yard kickoff return to the house. Dante Pettis scored on a nifty punt return to help seal the visitor’s fate. The senior from San Clemente, California, already holds Washington’s career punt returns for TD record with five and is one shy of the all time Pac-12 record held by California’s mercurial Desean Jackson.
“I don’t know, punt return is just something that kind of comes natural,” said Pettis. “I think you either have it or you don’t. If you have it, once the game comes it shouldn’t feel forced, unnatural, or anything like that.”
While Washington pays a great deal of attention to the kicking game, few teams get to work on the minute details in practice. I asked UW head coach Chris Petersen whether it’s an area his teams can exploit against opponents early in the season.
“I don’t know about exploitin’, but I know it shows up,” said Petersen before the Huskies left Seattle for New Jersey. “You don’t do a lot of live stuff during fall camp and probably the least amount of live stuff you do is in special teams. That’s one area that really comes to light quickly, some good, some not so good.”
Rutgers has an equally dangerous return man in fifth-year senior Janarion Grant. He has eight career touchdown returns (five kickoff, three punt), tied for first in NCAA history. The Dawgs contained Grant last year in Seattle, but Petersen is keenly aware of how quickly the 5-10, 178-pounder can change momentum in a game.
“It’s as big a test as we’ll have all year. He’s as good a returner as I’ve seen. He’s got that unique knack to find creases, he’s very patient, and he doesn’t go down easy. Those three things keep showing up on those really good return guys,” pointed out Petersen.
With senior Tristan Vizcaino’s big leg, Washington should be able to deny Grant great chances at kickoff run backs. The Huskies will have a new punter this season, junior college transfer Joel Whitford from Neerim South, Australia. He can boot both conventional and rugby style.
Washington at Rutgers kicks off at 5 p.m. PST Friday, September 1st. Coverage starts at Noon on KOMO newsradio am 1000/ fm 97.7
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