Our last positional preview covers perhaps the best overall position group on the team with the defensive backs. There are seventeen players in the Rutgers secondary and there could be some crossover between positions, based on different looks and nickel and dime packages the defense will play. During training camp, we covered what cornerbacks coach Henry Baker had to say about the progress of his group, as well as what co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Bill Busch said about the safeties. I’ve broken down the preview first with the cornerbacks, followed by the safeties, and then the freshmen. All are in order by jersey number. Here we go.
#4 Tre Avery (5’10”, 170 lbs) Redshirt Freshman
Avery will sit out this season due to transfer rules, after he joined the program earlier this summer. Formerly named Kareem Felder before changing it to Tre Avery, he originally signed out of high school with Ohio State and was recruited by Rutgers head coach Chris Ash there. Avery never enrolled and ended up at Kent State for his freshman year, but did not play. He is a former 3-star recruit who had multiple power five offers, so he could end up having a big role in the future.
#10 Blessuan Austin (6’1”, 195 lbs) Junior
Quite simply, Austin is the best defensive player on the team and could really make a name for himself in the Big Ten this season. Last season, he was second in the conference with 15 pass breakups and was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection by the media. Austin also registered 41 tackles, an interception, a sack, and a fumble recovery. He took a big step forward as a sophomore in Ash’s press coverage scheme and Austin could be even better this season. Hopefully, he can turn more of those pass break-ups into interceptions, as the defense needs to force more takeaways in 2017. He has a chance to lead a secondary that is the program’s best since the loaded group of 2012, most of whom roam the field on Sundays now.
#11 Isaiah Wharton (6’1”, 205 lbs) Junior
He has started every game the past two seasons and finished with 46 tackles, five of which were for a loss, five pass break-ups and one interception last year. Wharton, like Austin, has gotten better every year and together, the duo has a chance to be one of the best in the Big Ten this season. He also performed fairly well in press coverage and if he can continue to improve as an open field tackler, Wharton will be even better in 2017.
#16 Jelani Garvin (5’8”, 175 lbs) Redshirt Freshman
Garvin played high school at Northern Highlands and redshirted last season after walking on to the program. He played some wide receiver during the spring game, which he also played in high school, but his primary position has always been as a defensive back. I really don’t know what his role has been in training camp, but if he contributes anywhere this season, it will likely be on special teams.
#18 Damon Hayes (6’1”, 198 lbs) Sophomore
Hayes was a true bright spot among the newcomers last season and was named an Honorable Mention to the Big Ten Network’s All-Freshman team. His big play ability was apparent when he jumped a receiver and returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota. He also registered 25 tackles, two for a loss, and had three pass break-ups. Although Hayes won’t start ahead of Austin and Wharton, he will see plenty of action in passing formations this season. I really love his potential and am excited to see him play with more experience under his belt this season.
#27 Kobe Marfo (5’10”, 190 lbs) Junior
We will get to see Marfo on the field for the first time this season, as the former JUCO player transferred in last spring and redshirted in 2016. He has long arms and could be a solid option behind the group of corners on the roster. Hopefully he can get his feet wet early on in the season, in hopes that he can be factor off the bench in Big Ten play.
#2 Kiy Hester (6’0”, 208 lbs) Redshirt Junior
The former Miami transfer has played in 18 games, starting 11, over the past two seasons. He has battled minor injuries in the past, but is now entrenched as the starter at strong safety, although he has experience at both positions in the back of the defense. Last season, Hester totaled 52 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, had three pass break-ups and registered one sack in the last game against Maryland. If Hester can stay healthy and be a consistent presence on the field in 2017, the Rutgers defense will be better off for it. Hester can also be a big hitting presence that this defense needs.
#9 Saquan Hampton (6’1”, 207 lbs) Redshirt Junior
Like Hester, Hampton also missed four games last season and his presence was sorely missed in the early part of the season. In seven starts at free safety, Hampton produced 46 tackles, three for a loss and grabbed one interception. He played really well down the stretch last season once he regained his health. If Hampton, like Hester, can stay on the field this season, the Rutgers secondary has a chance to be one of the best in the Big Ten.
#17 KJ Gray (6’1”, 205 lbs) Sophomore
The former St. Peter’s Prep star played ten games last season off the bench and had 15 tackles, two fumble recoveries and one interception. Gray could take a big step forward this season and will see plenty of action in passing formations. His versatility is a strength for the defense.
#29 Larry Stevens (5’8”, 190 lbs) Redshirt Freshman
This guy came out of nowhere last year and made an impact on special teams in coverage early on, before suffering a season ending injury before Big Ten play began. The former Don Bosco Prep player had a knack for being in the right place at the right time and is likely to make his biggest impact on special teams again this season.
#37 Zane Campbell (6’1”, 194 lbs) Redshirt Senior
The former Division III player made his Rutgers debut last season but didn’t make much of an impact. He is likely to be listed as a backup safety on the two deep for the Washington game. Busch did say Campbell was “playing very well” in camp, so it seems he will have an opportunity to make an impact this season. How much separation there is between him and the freshmen remains to be seen.
#46 Davante McDuffie (6’0”, 198 lbs) Redshirt Senior
McDuffie played high school ball for Bergen Catholic, but didn’t join Rutgers until last season, when he redshirted. I haven’t heard anything on McDuffie during camp, but he adds depth to the secondary.
#24 Naijee Jones (5’11”, 195 lbs)
Jones has been praised by co-defensive coordinator Bill Busch during training camp and looks to be a solid addition to the safeties group. It remains to be seen how much time certain freshmen will see this season, but Jones seems to have put himself to be in a position to be considered. He could also find time at special teams as well.
#31 Edwin Lopez (5’11”, 175 lbs)
Nicknamed the “Tank”, Lopez has impressed during his first training camp at Rutgers. Busch said he was “very happy” with his play this summer, but nothing has been said about his role this season. It does seem like he is likely to see the field in some capacity, which could include special teams as well. Lopez is one of the most exciting newcomers on the roster.
#32 Rani Abdulaziz (5’10”, 176 lbs)
Out of West Essex high school, Abdulaziz is a walk-on and it hasn’t been clear whether he has seen more time at cornerback or safety during camp. He could see time on special teams, but he is also a likely candidate to redshirt this season.
#33 Tim Barrow (5’11”, 185 lbs)
Barrow is another newcomer who has made a positive impression in his first training camp, with Busch saying he has done a “great job”. Having so many freshmen compete and hold their own so early in their careers is a really great sign for the recruiting haul the staff has brought in. Barrow could see time this season at safety and special teams as well.
#34 Parker Day (5’8”, 187 lbs)
Day is another walk-on and helped lead Toms River North to an 11-1 record as a running back last season. However, he is listed as a defensive back on the Rutgers roster. He hasn’t been mentioned during training camp, so I’m not sure of his role moving forward. Don’t be surprised to see the athlete show up on special teams at some point this season.
It’s no secret that the secondary should be the strength of the defense this season. Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin get well deserved attention at the corner spots and have a chance to be have tremendous years for Rutgers. However, if Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton can stay healthy and show growth at the safety positions, the secondary could approach elite status this season.
With returning sophomores Damon Hayes and K.J. Gray having the potential to build on the promise they flashed at times during last season, there is depth in the secondary as well. Older players like Zane Campbell and Kobe Marfo could make an impact as well. It remains to be seen if any of the true freshmen will see time in the back of the defense this season, but it’s encouraging that players like Edwin Lopez, Tim Barrow, and Naijee Jones have made a positive impression so far.
If the Rutgers defense can improve against the run this season and opposing quarterbacks are forced into more passing situations, the secondary is well equipped to handle it. After seeing players like Austin, Wharton, Hester, and Hampton thrown into the fire during the 2015 campaign and experience growing pains, it’s satisfying to know they all have worked hard to improve and have a chance to really shine this season. They will serve as good mentors for the younger group of defensive backs as well.
While there are still a lot of questions regarding how good the Rutgers defense will be this season, there is little doubt the secondary is the unquestioned strength of the unit. Another year in Ash’s press coverage system should only benefit their play on the field. They will be tested immediately in the season opener against #7 Washington this Friday, but it will be exciting to see them have a shot at redemption after giving up three long touchdown passes from Jake Browning in the first quarter in that game last season. How the secondary performs, both against the Huskies, as well as the Big Ten, will help determine how much progress Rutgers makes on the field in 2017. I’m optimistic that the play of the secondary will be an obvious sign this team is much improved this season.
Our Complete List Of Positional Previews: