The last two years of Betim Bujari’s life have been nothing short of whirlwind.
Since the spring of 2010, Bujari was plucked out of his regular class schedule at Secaucus High School and enrolled in early classes at Rutgers University, simply so he could attend and participate in spring football workouts that year.
The former standout Patriot two-way lineman eventually earned his high school diploma from Secaucus, but he was already a member of the Scarlet Knights by that time.
“It was a bit of a crazy ride,” said Bujari at the team’s media day last weekend. “I came in halfway through my senior year of high school. It was just a little unreal. I earned 12 credits while I was still technically in high school. I was here right through spring football. I can’t explain it. I came in and was tossed right onto the field. I knew I’d make mistakes.”
Bujari started his high school career at Secaucus as an offensive tackle, but was moved to guard as a senior because everyone believed that it was a better move for his future.
However, there was someone who thought Bujari would be better off as a center. It was the assistant coach who was recruiting him at the time.
“Ask Charlie Voorhees [the Secaucus head coach and athletic director] and he’ll tell you that I told him he was a center,” said Kyle Flood, who has gone from being a respected assistant to the head coach of the Scarlet Knights this season, replacing Greg Schiano, who is now the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I always thought Betim was a center and when I met with him, I thought he would become an ideal center,” Flood said. “Betim is a selfless guy and was willing to do anything we asked.”
So after last season and after Schiano flew off to Florida, Flood got the job as head coach. One of the first items on his list was to turn Bujari from a guard, where he was a reserve last year, into a center, where he had a chance to start.
“Honestly, I saw myself as a center,” Bujari said. “I liked the responsibility that came with being a center. I just had to learn the plays and in a matter of time, I fit in. It’s better to be versatile and being able to play different positions. I didn’t mind. I liked the option of being a center and I’m comfortable with it. I’m ready to do my job.”
Now a junior with sophomore eligibility, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Bujari has been projected on the Scarlet Knights’ depth chart as the starting center.
In two years, Bujari has gone from a high school senior at a small Hudson County school to starting NCAA Division I center.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Bujari said. “It’s an honor and privilege to get this chance. They can throw me anywhere and I’d be ready to play. It’s worked out well for me. I feel like it’s my niche. If Coach Flood saw me as a center and wanted me as a center, then I’m a center. I never doubted myself. I always thought I could play Division I football.”
Ever since Flood became the head coach, he has preached one philosophy to his players – that they are part of a family. When you enter the Hale Center, the headquarters of Rutgers football, or stroll into Rutgers Stadium, you see that message hanging everywhere on banners.
“Family.” The players wear it on wristbands as well as a reminder.
Flood believes that Bujari has bought into that idea perhaps more than any other.
“He wears the ‘Family’ band with pride, because he lives it,” Flood said. “I told him that this was the best thing for him and the team and he bought into it right away. He lives for family. He’s going to be one of the leaders of our offensive line and he’s going to be an excellent leader for the next three years.”
Bujari is just one of three Hudson County products that have a good chance to be in the starting lineup when the Scarlet Knights open the 2012 season Sept. 1 at Tulane.
Former Hoboken standout Isaac Holmes is currently listed as the starter at nose guard. Former St. Peter’s Prep All-State and all-everything running back Savon Huggins has a good shot to be the starting tailback.
Huggins’ high school teammate and buddy Keith Lumpkin is in the mix on the offensive line as a tackle, but may need a little more seasoning. However, three local products among the starters at Rutgers is quite an accomplishment, a feat that hasn’t happened before.
“Ike is my man,” said Flood, who worked extensively to recruit Holmes when he was in Hoboken. “He has a chance to be a focal point on our defensive line. He’s shown us the ability to do that.”
“That’s a great feeling that he [Flood] has that much faith in me,” said the 6-foot-3, 275 pound Holmes, who is a senior with junior eligibility. “When he was recruiting me, he was like a brother to me. When he got the head job, I texted him right away and told him how happy I was for him. He knows me 100 percent. We have a strong bond and an extra connection. I’m happy about that.”
Holmes said that he’s ready for the challenge.
“I have had it in my heart that I was going to be the starting nose guard and now that it’s going to happen, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Holmes said. “I can’t take anything for granted. I still have to work hard. There are young guys coming in right behind me. I have to work twice as hard. I’m looking forward to the chance to play this year. I think we all have so much to prove. I’m going to enjoy it for what it is.”
Huggins arrived in Piscataway last season as the messiah of the Scarlet Knights’ recruiting class. The New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year and the Hudson Reporter Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player in both 2009 and 2010, Huggins was supposed to step in last year and become Rutgers’ next version of Ray Rice.
But that didn’t materialize. Huggins struggled as a freshman, collecting just 146 yards on 56 carries, a 2.6 yard-per-carry average.
Now, Huggins is ready for a breakout campaign.
“I’ve matured mentally, physically and emotionally,” Huggins said. “I know what to expect now. I just have to go play my game.”
Huggins was asked if he let the hype affect his performance.
“I did let it get to me a little,” Huggins said. “It was a little tough. I have to admit it. I was a freshman. Things like that happen. Now, I can just be myself. I know what I can do. I’m a better player now. I’m focused on getting better every day. I’m going to compete and get better and have faith in my talent.”
“Huggins has had an excellent training camp,” Flood said. “I’m pleased where he’s at.”
The last of the Hudson County contingent is Lumpkin, who is trying to find his niche along the offensive line.
“Lumpkin has made excellent strides,” Flood said. “We’re moving him to left tackle and he’s done a nice job. He just needs to get stronger.”
The 6-foot-8, 310-pound Lumpkin, a two-sport (basketball and football) standout at St. Peter’s, is a red-shirt freshman.
“I know I wasn’t physically ready last year,” Lumpkin said. “I wasn’t ready for the speed of the game. I’m more physical now, but I still have more room to grow. It’s going to take some time to get used to it. I don’t care where I’m playing. I’m just going to give it my all and keep working hard.”
But the attention will be on the guy snapping the ball.
“It is wild how this all happened,” Bujari said. “I have a lot of pride in being from Secaucus. I love Secaucus and I am glad to represent the school and the town. I don’t want to let those people down. I also have a lot of pride in Hudson County. We have a lot going for us this year here. It’s all definitely been worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.