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May 31, 2009

Rutgers look ahead: The Specialists

Rutgers special teams has been an area of some concern for the last two seasons. Blocking punts has not been a problem but returning them has been another story altogether. And while both kickoff teams have not been bad, neither ranked better than 30th in the nation last season. Here's a look at the Rutgers special teams situation as we head into the summer session.

The return game
The punt return game was better in '08 than it was in '07, but that isn't saying much. Fumbles plagued more than one punt returner two years ago, while last year seemed to be the season of the fair catch. But with Dennis Campbell no longer a part of the team, there will be a new Scarlet Knight returning punts in 2009. The list of early candidates include Mason Robinson, Mohamed Sanu, and Brandon Jones, while Tim Brown could even get a chance after having a rough time returning punts in 2007.

The kickoff return game ended on a positive note last season with Jason McCourty getting better and better each week. Still, Rutgers finished 50th in the nation in kickoff return yardage. And with McCourty and fellow return man Tiquan Underwood having graduated, there will be two new openings. Robinson, Sanu, Jones and Brown are also likely to get a chance to win the spot along with possibly Jourdan Brooks and Marcus Cooper. However, the most intriguing possibility may come if the staff chooses to allow Devin McCourty to have the chance to follow in the footsteps of his twin brother and return kickoffs.

The wedge breakers
Last season, the fearsome threesome of Ryan D'Imperio, Kevin Malast and Antonio Lowery served as the wedge breakers on the kickoff team. Malast will have to be replaced, and with both D'Imperio and Lowery expected to be starters, there is no guarantee that they will be back on special teams. However, Lowery emphasized this spring that he wanted to maintain that role and it is difficult to keep D'Imperio off the field in any situation. But even if they both return to that role, the staff will have to find another linebacker to replace Malast. That list of linebackers could go on and on as the staff has many options to choose from.

The kicking game
San San Te missed most of the spring after undergoing a back procedure which he hopes will improve his performance this season. He made good on 12 of 17 field goals last season and registered a 50 yarder for his long. However, Te was 0-3 from 40-49 yards out. Perhaps the off-season back procedure will improve his distance and also help him get more air under the ball on his kickoffs.

Teddy Dellaganna was hot and cold last season, but was still a significant upgrade. Dellaganna finished 38th in the nation in average yards per punt one year after Jeremy Ito finished next to last. Dellaganna also took over the holding duties after Andrew DePaola became the team's long snapper. Dellaganna was extremely instrumental in last season's win over Connecticut as he continually pinned the Huskies deep in their own territory during the third quarter of that game. With a year of experience to his claim, Dellaganna could play a greater role in the outcome of games this season.

From holder to snapper
Andrew DePaola literally moves all over the field. He went from the team's holder - where he threw one of the more memorable special teams touchdown passes in school history - to the team's long snapper. DePaola also did this while seeing some time as a backup wide receiver. This year, that figures to be the same as DePaola will pull double duties as a long snapper and wide receiver.


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