By the time co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Noah Joseph joined the Rutgers football coaching staff in mid-February, starting strong safety Kiy Hester had been gone from the program for almost two months already. With K.J. Gray slated to fill Hester’s starting role alongside senior and three-year starter at free safety, Saquan Hampton, Joseph was still inheriting a strong front line.
Even so, with Joseph now in charge, the veteran coach, who came from Indiana and had two safeties make All-Big Ten honorable mention last season in Chase Dutra and Jonathan Crawford, saw an opportunity to test out Damon Hayes at safety during the tail end of spring camp. “We made the move basically with a week left of spring practice, kind of just working towards the future to see if injuries happen, if this happens or that happens. He is a guy that has the size and the skill set to play safety,” said Joseph. “We didn’t teach him much, we just let him play.”
A move that was a contingency plan in the spring soon became a blessing in the summer, after Gray was dismissed from the program in July due to a violation of team rules, which has been reportedly linked to the current credit card fraud investigation that is still ongoing.
Hayes had worked all summer in learning how to play safety and was prepared to take over the starting spot that was now available for a second time since last season ended. Joseph applauded his work ethic and commented, “We say all the time, preparation creates confidence. He is a guy on July 15th, I’m on vacation and I get a text at 11:30 p.m. “hey coach I’m looking at this, now who am I reading, what do you want me to do here?” It’s been fun to watch him.”
However, the plot thickened, as Hester, who was taking summer classes at Rutgers in order to graduate before planning to transfer to Florida International for his last season, decided to come back to the program after meeting with head coach Chris Ash a week after Gray’s dismissal.
While welcoming Hester back into the fold was a welcomed addition and boosted the front line depth of the secondary, Joseph said that did not mean he was penciled back into his starting strong safety spot entering training camp. “Make no mistake, he missed a lot of time and he missed some growing pains with myself and the unit,” said Joseph. “To say that he was going to step right in, no big deal, I don’t think that has happened. He has had to earn his way back into the group.”
Missing all of the offseason work with the team since January was something Joseph took into account in regard to making Hester have to work his way back up the depth chart. “With what coach Parker asks of those guys to do (strength & conditioning) and the work that they put in, as well as to what I’ve asked of these guys in making some tweaks and changes, they went through some hardships.” Joseph added, “He didn’t have to go through those, so they have made him have to earn those stripes, so to speak.”
To Hester’s credit, Joseph said he has embraced the challenge and has worked hard during training camp to earn his way back. “He has done a great job and the good thing was he was here (enrolled at Rutgers) all spring and summer, so the guys were still around him.” Joseph said one key attribute has helped Hester approach the situation the right way. “The great thing about him, you can ask anyone on the football team, he is probably one of the smartest players, if not one of the smartest people in our program. That has helped.” Joseph continued, “He’s done a great job of doing what’s asked and is not trying to do too much. He is slowly, but surely getting back into the unit.”
As for Hayes, he continues to put the work in and make it that much harder for Hester to take back his starting strong safety spot. Joseph praised his progress, saying “With the work that he has put in this summer and this fall camp, from practice 1 to practice 8 (Saturday), he is night and day better. It’s been unbelievable.” Joseph continued, “I think he is playing with a lot more confidence because he is prepared. Anytime you can prepare like he does, it’s going to lead to confidence and making plays out there, so it’s been fun to watch.”
No matter who ultimately starts at strong safety for the season opener on September 1st against Texas State, both players will see plenty of action on the field this season. With a veteran core and strong senior class, the Rutgers defense has a major opportunity to make a big leap forward this season. They also need to establish depth and prioritize staying fresh and healthy for what is a difficult last four games of the season in November. With Hester and Hayes fighting to start at the back of the defense, alongside Hampton, safeties coach Noah Joseph has a hard decision to make. However, it’s a great problem for him to have, as he has such hard working, quality players to choose from.