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Rutgers Football Position Review: Defensive Backs

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Team returns 5 DBs with starting experience, little depth.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Nebraska
Austin and Gray played great before being sidelined with injuries.
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Spring practice begins Tuesday March 6 for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team.

This series will review the state of each positional group in spring practice that runs throughout March into April and concludes with the spring game on April 14.

We continue with arguably the team’s perceived strength in 2017: the defensive backs.

Position coach(es): Noah Joseph (co-defensive coordinator/ safeties), Cory Robinson (cornerbacks)

Key players lost: Kiy Hester, Zane Campbell

Key players returning: Damon Hayes (Jr.), Isaiah Wharton (RSr.), Blessuan Austin (RJr., off injury), K.J. Gray (Jr.), Saquan Hampton (RSr.), Jawuan Harris (RJr., potentially), Larry Stevens (RSo.)

Newcomers: Tre Avery (RSo., transfer), Malik Dixon (RJr., transfer), Kessawn Abraham (Fr. early enrollee), three true freshman to arrive in summer

What they did well in 2017: Make big plays.

K.J. Gray, Jawuan Harris, and Kiy Hester (two pick sixes) all tallied multiple interceptions on the year despite none of them playing even close to every snap or even every game at safety. Isaiah Wharton was no ballhawk, but made a game saving pass deflection on the final play against Maryland. Damon Hayes seems to be in the vicinity of more than his share of plays good and bad. Austin when healthy may be the best player on the team.

This statistical success is hard to replicate year over year but if Austin can return close to the player he was before injury, the Scarlet Knights should feel confident in their starters heading into the 2018 campaign. What made 2017 so special was the contributions from unexpected players like Harris (who may not return if he elects to play professional baseball). Hampton is a key here since seemingly every defensive coach at Rutgers recently has raved about his potential, but injuries have prevented him from being a star at either safety spot as of yet.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers
Wharton and Hayes have been ironmen, but who will back them up? Hampton looks for health.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Needs Improvement: Depth at cornerback.

Going into the season, the team felt pretty good with three starting caliber cornerbacks on the roster. By the end, the team was rotating a wide receiver (Dacoven Bailey), a walk-on safety (Campbell), and health permitting, a 3rd safety (Gray, Hester, or Hampton) as their nickel corner. Bailey, Campbell, and Hester are all gone while Gray and Hampton are expected to be the starting safeties. The way teams spread the ball nowadays, Rutgers will need to find at least two more cornerbacks to play meaningful snaps in 2018.

Previously mentioned in the linebackers article, Dixon joined the program and will play something of a hybrid corner, safety, and linebacker. This group has two new position coaches, but luckily a lot of players back to hopefully ease the transition. The three redshirt freshmen (Tim Barrow, Naijee Jones, Tank Lopez) will get a look from two different sets of eyes to see if they can contribute. If they can’t, early enrollee Kessawn Abraham or one of the three other class of 2018 corners (Jarrett Paul, Deion Jennings, and Avery Young) could play the season opener as the fourth corner. Otherwise the team needs well-travelled Tre Avery (once an Ohio State target of Chris Ash) or Kobe Marfo to make a breakthrough. With the number of guys who could fill this role, someone has to step up, right?

Changes expected in 2018

It’s true that Rutgers has two new coaches in the defensive backfield in 2018, but Chris Ash is a former defensive back and Jay Niemann was his position coach at Drake. So really it’s more like 50% turnover in the staff at the position and it’s unlikely Ash or Niemann will let the coaching instability cause all the progress made in the regime’s first two years to be lost. Noah Joseph will be tasked with getting the best out of Hampton and ensuring that the team will not be vulnerable if Saquan is paired with K.J. Gray and opponents send a lot of speed in their direction. Late in the season, teams attacked the middle of the field with slot receivers and sometimes quicker tight ends to take advantage. He will need to find replacements in the two deep for Hester and likely Harris. Joseph has the added advantage of coming from a fellow B1G East program (Indiana) so he is familiar with most of RU’s opponents in 2018.

Robinson is a young coach who has quickly risen through the ranks at multiple stops, having had success at Temple and Toledo the last two years. With so many true freshmen getting playing time in 2017, it was odd that the position the team needed most (cornerback) did not see any true freshmen get even low leverage reps. Since corner is a position true freshmen often can contribute early on (look no further than Austin and Hayes), expect one of the newcomers to play right away.

Way too early predictions

Hampton will finally put it all together in his last campaign on the banks. He’ll need to as K.J. Gray has showed enough to deserve a starting assignment with so many other guys wanting reps at safety for only two spots. It would be nice to add a little speed to the mix.

At corner, the key is Austin. If he can come back healthy, the team should be able to experiment for that 4th cornerback beginning with Dixon. Otherwise the best candidate is Tre Avery who looks like a Big Ten cornerback, but is completely unproven. The freshmen will likely prove their worth on special teams first, much like the linebackers did in 2017.

Heading into spring, the major question is health. The top of the depth chart has talent and experience, but is just one or two injuries away from an even more unproven group of backups than 2017. The coaching staff in theory should be better equipped to coach up this position group than any other on the team, and despite the turnover has proven itself to be the most reliable unit over the Ash regime’s first two seasons. With so many upperclassmen, it will be key to develop younger players for small roles in 2018, but big ones in 2019.

Previously covered groups

Linebackers

Will someone currently on the roster be the next Duron Harmon?