Once starting safeties Saquon Hampton and Kiy Hester went down to injury against Ohio State, Urban Meyer noticed it right away. The coaching legend immediately attacked the Rutgers defense deep. Rashad Blunt (wide receiver) and walk-on Zane Campbell (cornerback) both had never played meaningful snaps in a game at any position, nevermind safety, but were pressed into duty against the national powerhouse. So it was obvious Rutgers football needed to make a change to the depth chart at safety after the bye week.
The short-term solution surprised many, including this blogger, when Chris Ash announced in his weekly press conference the position switch of 2016’s leading receiver Jawuan Harris to safety. With respect to Harris, Ash said “he has the talent and ability to help us as a position of need.” When pressed for why Blunt and Harris were moved from a more disappointing receiver group, Ash indicated there’s more depth at WR than DB and succinctly closed with, “We have to play who we got.” This was re-iterated several times throughout the conference.
In his own interview defensive coordinator Jay Niemann added about Harris, “he’s a really athletic guy.” “He sure moves around well back there.” Follow up questions pressed the scheme and experience required of the position to which Niemann indicated that if Harris is pressed into a situation where he has to play, “it might not be a full game plan.” The DC did note that “by the end of the week we’ll have a much better idea of what he can and can’t handle.”
By making this move, it appears that Harris and don’t forget Rashad Blunt, will be in the mix for reps along with Redshirt Freshman Larry Stevens and Campbell. At the moment, K.J. Gray will move into Hampton’s starting spot, as Saquon is expected to be out for an extended period of time, possibly the rest of the year. Hester is expected to play and should return to his starting spot. So best case scenario, this should free up Campbell to focus more in his responsibilities as the nickel cornerback, a role he inherited when star corner Blessuan Austin was lost for the year against Nebraska. If Gray or Hester goes down, in base packages Campbell may play safety, but in sub, likely Stevens, Harris, or Blunt gets reps. There’s also the possibility of Campbell staying at safety and the team using someone like Kobe Marfo at nickel corner. Or maybe Ross Douglas moves, freeing up a linebacker spot. This sounds like a lot of options, but if any of them were super confident, there wouldn’t need to be a discussion. And what if TWO players go down like they did against OSU?
I mentioned Harris was “shunning the age of specialization” after his three home run game last spring but this is really taking that to another level. Yes he is very athletic, but this is telling that a guy who hasn’t played at all in the secondary since maybe high school is being shifted there. And don’t tell me if he had been a full spring participant, he may have moved to DB then because Rutgers receiving corps was using walk-ons in the two-deep at wideout in spring practice. After the enrollment of several true freshmen, plus the return of Janarion Grant, coming into the season, Harris was expected to be a key member of what seemed like a potentially very large receiving corps. Jawuan was suspended for the Washington game which didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Fast forward five weeks: unfortunately for him and the passing attack as a whole, they are the team’s biggest weakness.
Ryan Dunleavy of nj.com asked a very valid question as to whether Ash would go the route of this week’s opponent Illinois, who starts 10 true freshmen. Ash indicated he would continue to play the best players, regardless of what eligibility they have. If it’s a freshman, it’s a freshman. I agree with Ash on this because at the moment, Rutgers needs to win a game whatever it takes.
The appeal of using a true freshman like Tim Barrow, Eddie “Tank” Lopez, or Naijee Jones at corner or safety is worth mentioning. Lopez seemed the most ready of the trio but was banged up and likely destined for a redshirt like the others. But of any position, cornerback is one that true freshmen should be able to contribute and it is disappointing that none of the 2017 class is ready because if there was ever a reason to “burn” a redshirt, THIS IS IT! If someone could help at slot corner even that would help with overall secondary depth. Rutgers may have Juwuan Briscoe in 2018 (though he still has not rejoined the team) and they will have former Ohio State signee Tre Avery eligible next season, but they need true freshmen in the 2018 class that can play right away. Right now the group appears strong, hopefully it stays that way and maybe one or two guys can enroll early. What has irked the fan base potentially more than anything this year is how true freshmen Rutgers decommits are having success at other Big Ten schools, and cornerback in theory is the second easiest spot to transition to college football, after (gulp!) wide receiver.
More telling is that this shows the lack of depth left behind by Kyle Flood. The lack of upperclassmen in the secondary even under a current staff who’s done best in their previous stops in developing corners and safeties is appalling. Several of those players who eventually moved on had to be kicked off the team, and two years later some of them would still be eligible. Harris is being pressed into a role that with proper oversight, he shouldn’t have had to.
On the diamond, Harris finished the season on the diamond leading the club in steals and homers. He is likely ticketed for the MLB draft eventually due to his speed and power combination alone. Dreams of him being the next Deion Sanders have been all but extinguished after his lack of production on the gridiron this fall. Perhaps a switch to defense may surprise us all. Hopefully he can make the best of this opportunity because as my dad always says, “If you’re not going to be good, be big. And if you are not going to be big, be fast.” Let’s hope the speed can allow Harris to get “good” at his new spot, and quickly.