How Rutgers football ended up relying on walk-on kicker – Asbury Park Press
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Today marks the first official day of practice for the upcoming 2016 season under new head coach Chris Ash. VIDEO BY: BRIAN JOHNSTON
PISCATAWAY – In a program where every sprint, every weight-gaining exercise and every depth chart spot is a constant competition, David Bonagura conjures up his challenger in his imagination.
As the result of a strange set of circumstances, Bonagura is the only placekicker on the Rutgers football roster, and thus he has an otherwise inconceivable level of opportunity to impress first-year coach Chris Ash during spring camp.
“Someone is going to come in,” Bonagura said. “I’m not going to be the only guy all year. That’s not likely. That’s not going to happen in any program. But I almost have to pretend like that guy – whoever he is – is already here. I have to compete against him even though he’s not here.”
The departure of four-year starter Kyle Federico was compounded by Aidan Murray’s decision not to return as a redshirt senior and Kevin Daly’s transfer to Sacred Heart. Nick Borgese and Nick DeLouisa – both of whom had game experience – left after the 2014 season.
Suddenly, Bonagura was the last one standing. Even incoming recruit Alex Barbir – one of nine de-commitments – flipped his verbal to Penn State within days of his Rutgers official visit.
“I knew coming into this that I was going to be the only guy,” Bonagura said, “but I couldn’t lose that competition attitude. Then you get content with what you are doing and you don’t improve at all.”
The fourth-year walk-on from Ramapo High School had the best day of his career Saturday during an intra-squad scrimmage. Quarterbacks Chris Laviano, who has the inside track to be the starter, and Hayden Rettig both led touchdown drives with the first-team offense but took too many sacks.
It added up to Bonagura going 6-for-6 on field goals – atoning for one miss on a second chance created by a penalty – and being perfect on extra-points, by his own count.
“We’re putting David Bonagura in some real tough situations,” special teams coordinator Vince Okruch said. “At the end we have the team surround him, scream and yell, and try to make it as pressure-packed as we could. Prior to today it was shaky at times, but today he hit them all.”
Bonagura’s journey to Rutgers began as a fan in the stands watching Ramapo graduate Ross Krautman kick a late game-winning field goal to lift Syracuse to a win in Piscataway in 2010.
“I was looking around like, ‘This is cool. I really like this,’” Bonagura said. “I started kicking freshman year of high school and I never thought about kicking in college. I came here and I was like, ‘This is my backyard. Franklin Lakes is 45 minutes away. This is big-time football. I would love to do this. Why not?’”
Bonagura garnered varying levels of interest from the likes of Central Connecticut State, Bryant and Stony Brook, but everything changed when he drilled the winning 48-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining in the 2012 NJSIAA North 1 Group 3 final.
A few weeks later, Bonagura connected on a career-long 50 yarder in the Football University International All-Star Game in San Antonio’s Alamodome.
Around that time, then-Rutgers special teams coordinator Joe Rossi asked for a copy of Bonagura’s film and a meeting in the Hale Center ensued.
“I said, ‘Coach, I want to be the guy,’” Bonagura said. “He said, ‘It’s funny. I said the same thing to Coach (Kyle) Flood when I wanted the job.’ Super Bowl Sunday, right before the game, I got a call from Coach Rossi saying that they wanted me. It was a no-brainer.”
While higher-profile position battles need sorting out, the importance of a kicker isn’t lost at Rutgers.
The only Big Ten win last season – against Indiana – ended on a walk-off field goal and two of the biggest wins in school history – 2006 against Louisville and 2014 against Michigan – were decided by late field-goal attempts.
“That’s how it always is,” Bonagura said. “There is a chance something could get messed up and you could miss it and you could lose by one point. In high school, an extra-point got blocked and we lost by one point. It was a crappy feeling knowing that that one point I could’ve changed.”
Rutgers intends to add preferred walk-on Jared Smolar in the summer and the graduate transfer and late recruit options remain available. Bonagura, who described himself as “pretty confident,” will be more tested by then.
“Coach Ash gets everybody around me every single time,” Bonagura said, “so it’s like competition with my own mental state. They are talking trash saying, ‘You are going to miss. You are not going to make it.’ Even the last kick, Coach Ash said if I miss it we’re running two gassers and if I don’t then we don’t. And they were still talking.”
Staff Writer Ryan Dunleavy: email@example.com