As we reported yesterday, starting cornerback, Blessuan Austin, who is arguably the best player on the Rutgers defense, is out for the rest of the season after tearing his ACL in Saturday’s loss to Nebraska. Head Coach Chris Ash discussed the news at his weekly presser on Monday:
“Blow for our team, but opportunity for Damon Hayes to step up and be the full-time starter. He played in place of Blessuan and did some good things. Got to continue to improve and develop, but really like Damon. Excited for him to go out and have this opportunity being a full-time starter.”
This is a big opportunity for Hayes, who showed promise as a true freshman last season, which was highlighted by an interception he returned for a 55 yard touchdown in a loss to Minnesota. This season, Hayes 12 tackles, 1 for a loss, and 3 pass break-ups and has had his moments, despite having some consistency issues. He did get beat for a long pass against Washington and was called for two pass interference penalties in the upset loss against Eastern Michigan. However, he has a lot of potential and now that he will play even more, the hope is he can continue to improve and stabilize the void that Austin’s absence creates.
The bigger issue now is that depth with the cornerbacks is a concern. Ash was asked about it and had this response:
“It's a concern. There's no doubt about it. It's been a concern. We felt like going into the year that if we could stay healthy, like we did last year, that we would be fine if we got an injury. We're on pretty thin ice and that's where we're at. I still believe Isaiah (Wharton) and Damon Hayes are outstanding corners and can play winning football, but we're on thin ice. We've got to look at who our backup guys are going to be. We had Zane Campbell at corner earlier in the year. We'll move him back. We'll look also at Edwin Lopez, a true freshman and Kobe Marfo has been taking some reps. So between those three guys, you know, we're going to have to find our depth out of those three guys at the corner position.”
In terms of production this season, Campbell registered 5 tackles in the Morgan State game, but hasn’t played much otherwise and was with the safeties during training camp. Marfo assisted on 1 tackle against Morgan State, but has played sparingly as well. True freshman Edwin Lopez, nicknamed “Tank”, hasn’t played at all this season and was set to redshirt before Austin’s injury. Co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Bill Busch said he was happy with his progress during training camp, but the staff have opted to bring him along slowly. They may not have that option now.
This is the problem with a program that is rebuilding. Any injuries suffered to key players are more crippling than to other programs, due to a lack of depth. Staying healthy was key for Rutgers to show progress on the field this season and while they have been relatively injury free through four games, the loss of Austin is huge.
In terms of whether Austin’s absence will change what Rutgers does in their sub-packages, Ash indicated they aren’t just automatically going to fill his spot with one of the three players just mentioned above.
“No. We're going to put the best 11 players that we can on the football field. You know, sub packages are great, but if they are not your best 11 players, there's no use doing it. So we're doing those things today. You know, talking about personnel. Typically what we do on Mondays, you know, coming out from the game, where are you at from an injury standpoint; how does it impact not only your first team but what you do in certain situations with sub packages, and you mix-and-match to get what you need to have your best available players out on the field. So you know, if we don't feel like we can get into a certain type of sub package on third-down situations, we're not going to do it, just to say we can do it. We've got to make sure that the players that go on the field are ones that give us a chance to be successful, and we're having those conversations, you know, on Mondays, all the time.”
Of course, the timing for Rutgers couldn’t be worse, as Ohio State comes to Piscataway this Saturday for a primetime matchup on BTN at 7:30 p.m. The Buckeyes had seven different receivers catch touchdown passes in their blowout win over UNLV, which was a program record. The secondary and particularly, the cornerbacks, better be ready or it could get ugly for the fourth consecutive year for Rutgers against Ohio State. The Scarlet Knights have surrendered the following point totals to the Buckeyes in their previous three meetings: 56, 49, and 58. After a decent performance against Nebraska, but one in which they wore down in the second half, just as they did against the passing attack of Washington, let’s hope the Rutgers defense can put forth their best effort against the potent offense of Ohio State this Saturday night. How Hayes and the rest of the secondary respond will be critical for sure.
Here is the entire press conference for Chris Ash from Monday: