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Rutgers Football 2018: Defensive Backfield Preview

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Plenty of experience, is there enough depth?

Indiana v Rutgers
Hester’s return is huge if he can stay healthy.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

We are almost finished with the series of positional previews, today is the arguably the team’s strongest unit. With so many coaches having coached defensive backs it may come as a minor upset that they get the silver despite combining two different parts of the #10strong. For last year’s preview, click here.

Position coach(es): Noah Joseph (co-defensive coordinator/ safeties, 1st season), Cory Robinson (cornerbacks, 1st season)

Key players lost: Zane Campbell, K.J. Gray, Jawuan Harris

Key players returning: Damon Hayes (Jr.), Isaiah Wharton (RSr.), Blessuan Austin (Sr., off injury), Saquan Hampton (RSr.), Larry Stevens (RSo.) Kiy Hester (RSr.)

Newcomers: Tre Avery (RSo., transfer), Tim Barrow (RFr.), Kessawn Abraham (Fr. early enrollee), three other true freshman

Question 1: Can they develop some cornerback depth?

With so many freshmen in 2017, it seemed like the Scarlet Knights would have been able to weather the storm when Bless Austin went down. Not necessarily be able to replace an elite Big Ten cornerback, but at least be average. Damon Hayes played great opposite Isaiah Wharton, but the slot was a revolving door. Corner is normally a position that true freshmen can play a little nickel or at least dime, but it didn’t happen. Instead walk-on Zane Campbell and wide receiver Dacoven Bailey (playing both ways) had to fill the spot. Campbell had to play safety when Kiy Hester, Saquan Hampton, and K.J. Gray all battled injuries. The team moved the 2016 leading wide receiver Jawuan Harris to safety where he started immediately and the younger players never got a meaningful snap.

Even before Gray was dismissed from the team, Damon Hayes was practicing at safety in spring partially to get reps for the young corners, partially because safety depth is also uncertain. Luckily the team recently received good news that Kiy Hester would return for his 5th year, rather than enrolling at Florida International as a graduate transfer. So the team now has the “HHHeaded” monster at safety and if something were to happen to Austin, Wharton, or slot corner Tre Avery (now eligible after transferring), Hayes could shift back to cornerback.

Unfortunately with the dismissal of Gray and indefinite suspensions of Malik Dixon, Kobe Marfo, Eddie Lopez, and Naijee Jones, a group that had a ton of bodies is thin yet again for new coaches Noah Joseph (former DB coach at Indiana) and Cory Robinson (previously at Maryland, most recently at Temple). With 2017 as a mulligan, can 2018 be different? What if there are injuries to four players again and the suspended don’t return? The Redshirt freshmen better be ready because the true freshmen are coming in with some hype and Coach Ash has shown no hesitation playing newcomers even at more high profile positions. At safety, the staff seemed pretty comfortable in spring with walk-on Rani Abdulaziz at one safety position, so that could free up Hayes to play corner if needed.

Question 2: Can they keep up the big plays?

After ESPN had an article describing the two sides of whether turnovers can be coached or not, it would seem Rutgers should expect to get a few less bounces in 2018. Jawuan Harris getting pass thrown right to him against Illinois or Kiy Hester returning a lame duck for a pick six against Maryland can’t be expected. However it can’t hurt that so many experienced players who have proven themselves capable of picking off passes, occasionally in spectacular fashion (think Wharton against Indiana in 2015) are back. Despite the solid reputation, opposing QBs have still gone right at Hayes and Wharton at times with varying degrees of success which should allow for opportunities to present themselves.

Rutgers should get some interceptions even if they don’t stay near the top of the Big Ten. Fumble recoveries are a little about luck but what about big hits? Rutgers broke up their fair share of passes in 2017 so that trend should be expected to continue, especially with so much savvy in the group. When healthy Hester can be both a ballhawk and a missile coming up to stop the run, so his return is key in both areas. All returning contributors are willing tacklers.

Question 3: What’s new?

Noah Joseph jumped ship from Indiana and was a big part of the incredible turnaround at Indiana over the last two years. His experience within the Big Ten East can’t be understated and he had a lot to say to OTB’s Aaron Breitman at Media Day. Corey Robinson has visited bowl games with Toledo and Temple each of the last two years.

Four more freshmen join the ranks of the defensive backs, though roles and positions could shift right before the first game and perhaps even through the first half of the season. With the new redshirt rule, the coaching staff may be willing to play some true freshmen and see what they can do without fear that potential redshirts could be lost. Hayes was thought to be best suited for safety when he arrived, but was pressed into service at corner as a true freshman as Austin was the year prior. The move may seem trivial, but there’s a chance he’s awesome.

Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?

Best case

Austin returns as good as new, Wharton gets a little bit better yet again. All three safeties stay healthy and Hester is a playmaking machine in three safety looks where he roams all over the field thanks to Hayes’s speed deep. Avery is an absolute pest to opposing slot receivers who want nothing to do with quick slants.

Worst case

Hester and Hampton have more injury woes. Austin is not the same player. Jawuan Harris is asked by fans to rejoin the team after the baseball season ends because no one steps up from the freshman and sophomore classes. OR Rutgers defensive line can’t stop the run and the team is forced to play man cover zero all the time. OR Rutgers has no offense and none of these depth concerns matter.

Most likely

Austin is a solid starter, but experiences a little rust and it takes some time for him to play like the presumed All-Big Ten candidate before the injury. Wharton does more of what he has done his entire career. Tre Avery contributes a mix of good and bad in the slot. Between Hayes, Hester, and Hampton at least two are always healthy enough to play on any given Saturday. Somebody emerges as a dime cornerback.

Players listed on the current roster

#1 Blessuan Austin (6’1”, 195 lbs) Senior

Austin is classified as a senior, though he could make a case for a medical redshirt in 2017. Indications are that he looks pretty good, but we will need to see it in a game. He should still have a future on Sundays.

#4 Tre Avery (5’10”, 181 lbs) Redshirt Sophomore

Avery was forced to sit and watch as the team had a revolving door at nickel corner in 2017. Every since the beginning of spring, the staff has positive things to say about his quickness and toughness.

#9 Saquan Hampton (6’1”, 209 lbs) Redshirt Senior

Every coach who ever saw him has always thought Hampton was a star in the making. Perhaps due to injuries he hasn’t gotten there yet. With Hester and Hayes also at safety, hopefully this pushes him to save the best for last.

#10 Kessawn Abraham (5’10”, 183 lbs) Freshman

Abraham enrolled early to get a leg up on the other true freshmen. Unfortunately he did not play due to injury in the spring game. The opportunity is there for him to get on the field.

#11 Isaiah Wharton (6’1”, 203 lbs) Redshirt Senior

Wharton has started every game the past three seasons after being pressed into service as a redshirt freshman. He has been very reliable, though as is the case for every corner in the spread era occasionally gives up some completions. All they need from him is more of the same.

#16 Jelani Ray Garvin (5’8”, 175 lbs.) Junior

Garvin came to Rutgers from Northern Highlands HS in Allendale, NJ as a walk-on. He got plenty of action in practice and may be needed in 2018 in the two-deep.

#21 Tim Barrow (5’11”, 188 lbs) Redshirt Freshman

Barrow is one of the few scholarship redshirt freshmen in camp. A player who showed good ball skills in high school, it was a little surprising he didn’t play in 2017.

#22 Damon Hayes (6’1”, 202 lbs) Junior

Hayes burst on the scene as a true freshman in 2016 and followed it up with an even better 2017. Now the swing corner/safety who may start at strong safety, his ability to make plays is super important to a team that needs takeaways.

#23 Kiy Hester (6’0”, 208 lbs) Redshirt Senior

The former Miami transfer returned to the fold and is a huge addition. He may be the biggest playmaker in the entire secondary which is saying a lot. Kiy is the player on the Rutgers defense that instills the most fear in imposing receivers.

#29 Lawrence Stevens (5’8”, 183 lbs) Redshirt Sophomore

Stevens is a special teams warrior who played as a true freshman before being injured on kick coverage. The team prefers not having to use him at safety, but a solid depth contributing DB always can end up playing a meaningful role eventually on defense.

#32 Rani Abdulaziz (5’10”, 185 lbs) Redshirt Freshman

Abdulaziz is a walk-on but played a lot with the second team in the spring game. Had Hester not returned, he may have been the first safety off the bench.

Incoming Freshmen

#12 Christian Izien (5’10”, 193 lbs.), #17 Zamir Mickens (5’11”, 175 lbs.), #20 Avery Young (6’0”, 193 lbs.), #25 Jarrett Paul (6’0”, 206 lbs.),

Izien is a Janarion Grant-type that was forced to defense due to the lack of depth and has made a few nice plays so far. Mickens is small and was ticketed for a grayshirt, but on the banks again due to depth. Young has good length from a place that breeds tough athletes, Coatesville, Pa. Paul has risen to the two-deep just weeks after arriving on campus.

Additional Walk-ons

#33 Parker Day (5’8”, 187 lbs) RFr., #35 Anthony Marshall (5’10”, 195 lbs) Fr.

Don’t be surprised to see the Day show up on special teams at some point this season. Under the radar Marshall is from nearby Middlesex.

Long term outlook: Cornerback and Safety should be set for 2018, but after that it’s a huge unknown. Having so many seniors is a double-edged sword; it’s great now, but a huge risk in the future. Hopefully fans have forgotten the 2013 pass coverage after losing four members of the 2012 secondary, but those painful memories could resurface in 2019 unless Joseph and Robinson can develop younger members of the roster. With a defensive back-centric coaching staff and a constant parade of DB recruits, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Previous positional reviews:

Defensive Line

Wide Receiver

Special Teams

Quarterback

Offensive Line

Running Backs

Tight Ends / Fullbacks