Yesterday, we got an opportunity to hear from Coach Henry Baker, Rutgers new cornerbacks coach. Coach Baker is new to Rutgers, but is a Jersey guy, born in Paterson, and a player and later a coach there at Eastside High. However, his hire in January was a return for this son of the Garden State, most recently having been the cornerbacks coach at the University of Delaware under former RU assistant coach Dave Brock.
The position has definitely had it’s ups and downs. Back when Greg Schiano was head coach, Rutgers was affectionately known as DBU (Defensive Back University) due to the success of several former Scarlet Knights in the NFL. Their names included Rutgers icons such as Devin McCourty (Patriots), Jason McCourty (Titans), Logan Ryan (Patriots, just signed with the Titans), and Marcus Cooper (Chiefs, Cardinals, just signed with Chicago).
However, the past few years have not been kind to that position. Thanks to a few negative issues, the cornerbacks have been outmatched due to lack of experience. In 2015, three cornerbacks were arrested in a situation that ended the Rutgers career of five players, and led to the suspension and ultimately the end of the Rutgers career of head coach Kyle Flood. As a result, players with little experience were thrown into the deep end of the pool, and Rutgers defensive secondary became easy pickings for their Big Ten brethren.
However, that tide may be turning. At the beginning of the 2016 season, it looked like 2015 all over again for our cornerbacks. In the first game against a Washington Huskies team that ended their season in the College Football Playoff, the cornerbacks were burned time and again in a game that was out of reach halfway through the first quarter.
However, as the season progressed, so did the players in that position. By the end of the season, Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton were ranked 18th in FBS, and had reduced their average yardage given up by almost 100 yards per game from over 276 yards to 186 yards.
Coach Baker started by letting everyone know he was not pleased by their performance on Saturday, although he understood it was an unusual situation, as Saturday was Student Appreciation Day at practice.
“Saturday I feel we kinda let the energy dip a little bit, I know there was a lot going on, with the Student Appreciation Day. That’s what we talked about in terms of coming out here today [Tuesday], being able to play at our standard. I think the guys let their energy levels dip a little bit, but today they responded like I knew they should have responded.”
Coach Baker feels right now he has three strong players who can start in not only Austin and Wharton as mentioned above, but also sophomore Damon Hayes, who played in almost every game last season as well. He feels they are pushing each other, that each of them are making sure they all are playing at a high level. As a result, expectations are high this season with the DB crew.
“I think we are in a fortunate spot to really be able to have three guys to go out there and compete. They [Austin, Hayes, and Wharton] are getting better every single day, and again, this spring, its about the culture we are trying to build, the mindset we are trying to build, and I think the guys are...responding to it well.”
In the mix is also Ross Douglas, the 5th year senior who played free safety last season. However, his athleticism enables him to have a varied role on this team.
“Ross right now has some flexibility for us. That’s the good thing about having players like him, he can do a multitude of things. Right now, he’s being a football player. That’s how we look at him and we plug him in where we see fit, and he’s done well”
The competitive nature of the position is not accidental, according to Coach Baker. It is purely intentional.
“Well, we need to be [competitive]. We try to breed that kind of mentality every single day. I mean, there’s arm wrestling in the room, shooting baskets, any kind of situation we can get these guys to be competitive it helps with the style of football we want to play...and we have three guys, no we have five guys who all want to start, who all want to play. It takes a competitive guy.”
If you’d like to see the entire interview, it is in the tweet below: