Rutgers head football coach Chris Ash took the podium at the team meeting room in the Hale Center Monday morning wearing a black polo with the block red R stitched on his chest.
It marked the first time Ash donned the color black in front of the media since the start of the regular season, a fitting detail on a day he confirmed the nightmare news of the weekend — the injuries sustained by seniors Janarion Grant and Quanzell Lambert against Iowa Saturday are season-ending.
“Just thoughts (and) prayers go out to those two players. Great human beings, great teammates have worked extremely hard to be the best that they could be,” Ash said in his opening statement Monday. “(They) were off to great starts to the season and obviously are going to be sorely missed not only in the field but in the locker room and just around every single day. They come to work with a great attitude and a smile on their face and (were) always a pleasure to be around.”
Lambert led the Rutgers’ defense in quarterback hurries with four and ranked ninth on the team in total tackles with 15. Because he redshirted his freshman season, the Timber Creek High School product’s collegiate career has officially come to a close.
Grant is likely to suffer the same fate — the four games he played surpassed the 30-percent threshold a player can reach if they plan to be granted a medical redshirt — but the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) still plan to “submit the necessary documents to try to petition for it,” Ash said.
The focal point of the no-huddle, power spread offense that Ash and offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer implemented over their first offseason on the Banks, Grant accounted for seven touchdowns in the Knights' first three games — three on the ground, a pair on kick-off and punt returns and one with his arm out of the wildcat — and 655 all-purpose yards.
The 36 points he directly contributed was just less than one-third of the Knights’ point total through four games.
In addition to the numbers he provided, the intangible amount of leadership Grant provided on the field will also be a big loss for Rutgers.
“Obviously, it hurts not only from just a schematic standpoint that your most dynamic playmaker is out for the season, but as I said a few times, that kid was an emotional leader for our offense,” Mehringer said. “He was a phenomenal kid and a phenomenal competitor. I can’t say enough great things about Janarion Grant.”
Just like Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann before him, Mehringer was wearing black when he took the podium Monday, but the environment around the team isn’t similar to that of a funeral by any stretch.
With a third of the regular season behind them, the Knights have their toughest task of the season up next as they travel to Columbus to face No. 2 Ohio State Saturday at the Horseshoe.
Without two top playmakers on either side of the ball, Mehringer said the situation is similar to that of a game — just as its on to the next one after a loss, Rutgers is looking at the next man up to step forward and take on their roles.
And with the legacies left behind of those who fell down, the situation should be surmountable.
“The great thing about Quanzell is he’s always positive, so the atmosphere around the room is very positive,” said junior defensive end Myles Nash. “The guys on the team are very confident about the things we could do and the improvement we’re making and going forward. We lost two big players and the coaches say it all the time — when someone goes down, it’s next man up. You can’t sit there and sulk about it.”
Nash is listed behind senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick on the depth chart released Monday but remains one of the options the coaching staff is looking at in filling the hole left by Lambert, a decision Ash said has yet to be made.
Sitting in Lambert’s place on the chart is walk-on junior defensive end Darnell Davis, whose role has taken its most significant jump as he’s gradually earned more snaps with every game this season.
The Union, New Jersey, native’s best performance this season was in the Knights’ final non-conference game against New Mexico, where he forced a key fumble and made five tackles in a 37-28 win over the Lobos.
Playing a significant role along the defensive line after spending most of his career with Rutgers on special teams, Davis said he feels comfortable playing in the defense and is excited for the chance to try to fill Lambert’s shoes.
“I trust my teammates, I trust I gotta do my job well, I gotta prepare for the game,” Davis said. “I learned most of my things from Quanzell. He’s like a big brother to me and all our team. I’m pretty excited, ya know, I have to take that opportunity and I gotta run with it.”
While Lambert’s direct replacement remains up in the air, Grant’s role is expected to be filled by redshirt freshman wide receiver Jawuan Harris.
Like Davis, the Pembroke Pines, Florida, native has seen his responsibilites within the team grow by the week and also had his biggest play for the Knights come against New Mexico.
But while that 75-yard touchdown reception turned the tide for Rutgers, Harris likely won’t be seen running those deep go-routes if he is to play in Grant’s role, as Ash said the Knights won’t change their offensive philosophy in response to the injury.
Harris won’t be expected to replicate the production Grant had in the first three weeks alone, though. With a multitude of other weapons at his disposal, Mehringer will have a long week of preparation ahead as he plans Rutgers’ visit to see the Buckeyes.
“When we had our offensive meeting yesterday, we talked about (how) production doesn’t just disappear,” Mehringer said. “Jawuan Harris, Carlton Agudosi, Andre Patton, Vance Matthews, they have to step into that role and as a game planner, as an offensive staff, we have to do a good job of putting those guys in different positions now to be able to fill the void that Janarion is leaving there in our offense ... it’s difficult without your best player, but we won’t make excuses. We’ll find ways to put those other guys in positions to be successful.”