Spring practice continued Monday for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team.
This series reviews the state of each positional group in spring practice that runs throughout March into April and concludes with the spring game on April 13.
We continue with arguably the team’s perceived strength the last two years: the defensive backs.
Position coach(es): Noah Joseph (co-defensive coordinator/ safeties), Jay Valai (cornerbacks)
Key players lost: Kiy Hester, Isaiah Wharton, Blessuan Austin, Saquan Hampton
Key players returning: Damon Hayes (Sr.), Avery Young (So.), Tre Avery (RJr.), Larry Stevens (RJr.), Malik Dixon (RSr.), Kessawn Abraham (So.), Tim Barrow (RSo.), Jarrett Paul (So.), Christian Izien (RFr.)
Newcomers: four true freshman to arrive in summer
What they did well in 2018: Avoid big plays in the pass game.
The Rutgers defense underperformed for the first half of 2018, though other than games against Buffalo and #3 Ohio State, the Scarlet Knights were never torched through the air. That’s not to say there weren’t other times the coverage got “beat” as the third and 19 TD against Maryland comes to mind. Michigan and Illinois also took advantage of scramble drill plays where eventually someone got open (take note Rutgers offense). Heck, opponents practice during the week, too.
The Scarlet Knights were 17th in the country in least passing yards allowed all season, (23rd per game). Rutgers rarely had opponents in true passing situations, they often preferred to run the ball even on third downs since they were having success on the ground anyway while also milking the clock. Other times, like the Wisconsin game, an opponent abandoned the pass game entirely to reduce the chances of a turnover. It will be difficult, especially losing four multi-year starters, to be an elite passing defense again.
Needs Improvement: Safety consistency.
Depth at cornerback is a major concern again, but simply finding two starting caliber safeties from a group of unproven players is a huge question mark. Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton started parts of four seasons and have exhausted their eligibility while Damon Hayes was moved back to cornerback. Rewatching the film with Hayes, he is MUCH better as a cornerback.
So who’s the two deep at safety that Andy Buh mentioned in his interview? As of the first two practices, Malik Dixon and Jarrett Paul are working at strong safety while Chris Izien and Tim Barrow are playing free safety. Naijee Jones is also in the mix after being re-instated. Dixon was expected to play major snaps as a sub-package strong side linebacker last year before his suspension and from what we have seen, is physically impressive. He could be a beast at safety or worst case move back to more of a hybrid role. Paul was on the two-deep at corner last summer before Avery Young just blew past everyone to earn the starting job after Austin went down. Jarrett played on special teams in all 12 games so he has game experience, but it’s a wait and see on defense.
At free, Barrow always seemed like more of a fit to me at safety or even wide receiver than corner. He tracks the ball well in the air and has a compact frame that is likely better to hit from the centerfield spot than use length on the perimeter. Izien has a similar build with a thick lower half that allowed him to accelerate so quickly at the high school level where he was also known (like Barrow) more as a wide receiver. Christian played four games on special teams as well, and definitely possesses the needed quickness.
There are plenty of other players on the roster who could end up playing heavy snaps at safety plus the four freshmen not even on campus yet. The Rutgers coaching staff has more experience coaching DBs, particularly safeties than any other position group so there is reason for optimism.
Changes expected in 2019
Note, the last two times RU had a mass exodus at defensive back (for two different reasons), the coverage was absolutely porous for much of that first season, 2013 and 2015. Add to the mix that Rutgers saw a lot of coaching turnover in the offseason as Cory Robinson was replaced by his predecessor Henry Baker, who then left himself again. Jay Valai joined the staff quite late, but played for Ash at Wisconsin and was most recently a quality control coach with the Kansas City Chiefs. Valai has his work cut out finding more role players to fit in at the cornerback spot.
After a year as a “safety”, Hayes was back at cornerback on the first day of spring practice opposite Avery Young. I put that in parentheses because late in the season, Rutgers often went with Hayes, Hampton, and Hester all on the field at the same time as they had in 2017. In those instances Hayes was deployed as a slot corner where he was best able to use his length to jam receivers at the line. He is an NFL prospect at corner and it makes sense with the lack of pass rush that RU needs to be able to isolate their corners more than Ash liked early in his tenure on the banks. Hayes and Young are pretty good players with the length to press man.
So if RU can be effective on the outside that leaves 9 on 9 action in the middle of the field. Tre Avery was expected to suit up at nickel corner, but battled injuries to the tune of only two games played. The other most likely candidate for the slot cornerback role in spring is Kessawn Abraham. Abraham was an early enrollee who was absolutely awesome as a punt return gunner, but saw limited action at defensive back. He has potential and could easily take the next step but temper expectations because if he was that good, Hayes might still be at safety. That middle of the field action is also where RU struggled to tackle early in the season before cleaning things up in the second half when it was too little, too late.
The defensive backs in the 2019 are not on campus yet, but expect at least one of them to play right away as Young, Hayes, and Bless Austin did as true freshmen.
Way too early predictions
Hayes and Young will be one of the better starting cornerback tandems in the Big Ten. Tre Avery (if healthy) will be the slot corner initially but I see Abraham making too many plays to not get more of a look. That should be enough to get by at cornerback health permitting, but one of the true freshman is going to arrive and play. Donovan Bunch may have the lowest ceiling of the four but his game film shows him as the most game ready for man to man coverage. When Bunch accelerates, he can make it look like he was shot out of a cannon.
At safety Malik Dixon and Jarrett Paul seem to be the leaders in terms of top potential so it makes sense to look at them first, but even someone like special teams warrior Larry Stevens or fellow walk-on Rani Abdulaziz could be used as a reliable last line of defense. Donald Williams has great balance, tackling power, and recovery speed so he should play his way into the mix, especially by midseason.
The coaching staff of the defensive backs was hard to rate with the same players getting reps for the last three years, so this is the year we can truly see if it was just personnel or actually good player development. The logic of playing the taller guys at corner makes sense with the need for playing press man to have any shot of stopping potent passing attacks, so I like that move. One thing that I often see from coaches in other sports who specialize at one position (i.e. basketball point guards or baseball catchers) is that they are not patient enough with young players to really let them develop. This holds young players back and some of that was probably on display with the Rutgers defensive backs and linebackers the last two years.
Long term I think this group will be fine and Rutgers in 2021 may be looking at another very deep backfield with excellent resumes. Until then they have pieces to make it work with proper coaching. Let’s hope we get to see them try to perform in a shootout because that would mean they are getting some help from those on the other side of the ball.
Previously covered groups