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Rutgers Football 2019: Defensive Backfield Preview

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Team thinks they have two lockdown corners ... and many question marks.

Northwestern v Rutgers
Avery Young could probably play linebacker, safety, or corner.
Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

We have almost completed the series of positional previews, today we finish up the defense. For last year’s preview, click here.

Position coach(es): Noah Joseph (co-defensive coordinator/ safeties, 2nd season), Jay Valai (cornerbacks, 1st season)

Key players lost: Kiy Hester (graduation), Isaiah Wharton (graduation), Blessuan Austin (left early for NFL draft), Saquan Hampton (graduation, NFL draft)

Key players returning: Damon Hayes (Sr.), Avery Young (So.), Tre Avery (RJr.), Lawrence Stevens (RJr.), Malik Dixon (RSr.), Kessawn Abraham (So.), Tim Barrow (RSo.), Jarrett Paul (So.), Christian Izien (RFr.), Rani Abdulaziz (RSo.), Naijee Jones (RSo.), Kobe Marfo (RSr.),

Newcomers: Darius Gooden (Fr.), TJ Robinson (Fr.), Donald Williams (Fr.)

Question 1: Can they develop some cornerback depth?

It’s groundhog day. The biggest question with this program outside of quarterback for the last six years is whether they can find some trustworthy corners to fill out the two-deep. In 2013 there were a rash of quittings. In 2015, dismissals. In 2018, more off the field problems. All of these events significantly depleted defensive back depth, but the program has rebounded to 14 scholarship DBs on the roster today. Personally, I think the staff has been too hesitant to trust players at the position. They are going to get burned sometimes the way the game is played now, but waiting until someone HAS to play due to injuries in front of him is a risky proposition.

The Scarlet Knights have managed to maintain above average cornerback play since they joined the Big Ten, but it has come from heroic efforts on the part of the starters, two of which have moved to the NFL, Bless Austin and Isaiah Wharton. Wharton started all 48 games in his college career and Austin was selected on Day 3 of the NFL Draft, so they will be missed. Once again, the starters should be strong as Damon Hayes moved back to corner permanently after a failed experiment at safety. Avery Young who has become the face of the program was baptized by fire but the team’s most consistent player the rest of the way as a true freshman. Both have all-conference and NFL potential.

However, there is no one behind them with experience. Tre Avery has been the slot corner for over a year, but was hurt all of last season after transferring in. Kessawn Abraham has played the most snaps on special teams and is an excellent gunner on the punt team, so the tools are there to carry over to defense. Kobe Marfo has underachieved, but has been around a while and may be needed at the slot. Those three are the most likely candidates for slot duty and backup on the perimeter. Beyond them, it’s unclear who plays corner full-time rather than safety.

Question 2: Why should I feel confident in unproven safeties?

The only real reason is that the staff is loaded with coaches who played and coached defensive backs for many years. A lot of years. So they should be able to find two competent starters out of a large group of former three-star prospects at one of the easier positions on the field to fill. Throw in the fact that the starting corners can be isolated a good portion of the time, and there is some margin for error early on.

The roles of free and strong safety have very much blurred these days and in a quarters defense, need to be interchangeable. Right now there are four players battling for these spots from what we understand: Malik Dixon, Christian Izien, Tim Barrow, and Jarrett Paul. Each player brings a different skillset to the table. Dixon is a big guy who is really a hybrid linebacker. If Malik proves has the speed, he could be a beast at strong safety, but teams will test him in the pass game big time. Izien is an electric playmaker with limited height, but closes ground fast and had the lead for the free safety spot much of the off-season. Tim Barrow plays the ball well in the air and is physical, so he has bounced back and forth in both spots as the starter this off-season. Paul has the length the team likes at corner, but is making a late push for a starting safety spot this year. The competition for these roles is fiercer than any other spot on the field.

There are other players who could break through in short order as well. Naijee Jones has been reinstated and was on the two-deep two springs ago. Rani Abdulaziz is a walk-on but seems steady as an undersized strong safety, while Larry Stevens is in the same boat. We’ve seen many true freshmen in Rutgers history get run at safety, so that is also a possibility.

Question 3: What’s new?

Jay Valai is the man standing after a game of musical chairs for the cornerback coach job. I’ve been as impressed as you can be of a defensive back coach with limited exposure to him. When we get to see the cornerbacks showcased in practice OR even in the background of a video highlighting someone else, the CBs are always moving, working on their quickness and agility. My gut feel is that Valai is a great complement to safeties coach Noah Joseph, but we’ll see on Saturdays pretty soon.

Don’t count out the true freshmen from forcing themselves in the lineup. Last year with Austin injured and Tre Avery banged up, the staff was forced to chose between true freshmen Jarrett Paul and Avery Young. They went with the latter and it turned out quite well. To my point earlier, virtually everyone who saw significant time as a Rutgers defensive back in recent years played as a freshman in some capacity. (I know someone will even mention converted offensive players like Justin Goodwin and Jawuan Harris).

This crop of true freshmen all come with pretty good recruiting rankings and height. Donald Williams is the shortest at 6’1” and the 4th best prospect in the class per 247. Williams plays with speed, power, and attitude so don't be surprised if he flashes on special teams to earn reps on defense as the year progresses. T.J. Robinson is very tall for a safety and will help most in run support, he could become the next Zaire Kitchen. Darius Gooden plays above the ground and didn’t wow with quickness in high school, but didn’t look exposed either.

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

Best case

Dixon is a heat seeking missile with more size than Kiy Hester. Hayes and Young are lockdown so teams target the slot and the seam in the pass game. This allows defensive coordinators Andy Buh and Noah Joseph to scheme accordingly while grooming some of the young guys in more limited roles. Donald Williams forces himself into the lineup and Hayes can shift inside as the nickel.

Worst case

Hampton is irreplaceable in this pass happy era by anyone on the current roster. Hayes or Young is hurt and the lack of proven corner depth rears its head. Teams don’t even need to pass when they can run up the middle.

Most likely

Like Wharton and Austin before them, Hayes and Young are good players but give up a long one occasionally. Through a few trials and tribulations, the staff settles on a safety rotation. There’s a mix of different nickel packages, some featuring Tre Avery, others a third safety, possibly even one of the freshmen.

Players listed on the current roster

#2 Avery Young (6’0”, 194 lbs.), Sophomore

Young was a revelation after filling the huge shoes of an injured Blessuan Austin. He consistently got better and better, always demonstrating a willingness to tackle. Plain and simple he may be the best player on the team.

#4 Tre Avery (5’10”, 188 lbs) Redshirt Junior

Avery was forced to sit and watch as the team had a revolving door at nickel corner in 2017. Then he was mostly injured in 2018, so after all the positive things the coaches have said, no fan has seen it. If everything breaks right, he will be healthy and as good as advertised.

#5 Kessawn Abraham (5’10”, 188 lbs) Sophomore

Abraham enrolled early to get a leg up on the other true freshmen. It helped a lot on special teams as he was extremely effective as a punt gunner. He routinely downed long punts, forced fair catches, or made the tackle if the returner dared to try. The natural progression would be some reps at cornerback.

#12 Christian Izien (5’10”, 195 lbs.), Redshirt Freshman

Izien led the free safety race much of the off-season. He is a great playmaker with the ball and might have the best quickness of any safety in pursuit. Rutgers hasn’t had a safety like him in a while unless you count Jawuan Harris for a few games in 2017.

#15 Malik Dixon (6’3”, 213 lbs.) Redshirt Senior

Dixon is back after being re-instated in the offseason. He’s somewhere between a linebacker and a safety, so the staff will try him at safety first. If that doesn’t work out, there’s still some role for him on defense since the team doesn’t have many athletes of his caliber.

#17 Zamir Mickens (5’11”, 175 lbs.), Redshirt Freshman

Unfortunately, word is that Zamir needs to retire due to a health issue and is being placed on medical scholarship.

#21 Tim Barrow (5’11”, 190 lbs) Redshirt Sophomore

Barrow could play receiver or safety, maybe even corner. He’s been getting time with the starters at free and strong safety. He tracks the ball well and likes the contact of the game so he could excel at either spot. The bigger factor is probably how well his fellow starter performs regardless of who or which spot.

#22 Damon Hayes (6’1”, 201 lbs) Senior

Hayes burst on the scene as a true freshman in 2016 and followed it up with an even better 2017. He looked a lot better at corner than safety in 2018, mostly playing in the slot later in the season. He uses his length well to jam at the line, but occasionally gets burned when he gambles to make a big play. Hayes should get an NFL tryout at minimum next year.

#24 Naijee Jones (5’11”, 198 lbs) Redshirt Sophomore

Jones had a shot as a nickel back last year before being suspended. He’s now re-instated and will likely make waves on special teams out of the gate. At safety or corner, the staff believes they have options with higher upside, but Naijee is a high floor player who may be called upon.

#25 Jarrett Paul (6’0”, 213 lbs.), Sophomore

Jarrett surprised many by cracking the two-deep at corner in training camp last year. He was passed by Avery Young early in the year, but still played a ton on special teams, eliminating any chance of a redshirt. Paul could play safety or corner, but is making a late push for the starting free safety spot. He's the type of player the middle of the pack Big Ten teams have in droves.

#27 Kobe Marfo (5’10”, 190 lbs.), Redshirt Senior

Kobe is one of the few players I can remember at Rutgers who has gotten so many chances without ever really making an impact. This is his last chance as a redshirt senior.

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

Stevens is a special teams warrior who played as a true freshman and earned a scholarship. He’s undersized and therefore only an emergency option on defense at this point. Stories like his are great for in-state recruiting.

#32 Rani Abdulaziz (5’10”, 188 lbs) Redshirt Sophomore

Abdulaziz is a walk-on but played a lot with the second team in the spring game the last two years, so I felt he needed to be included. Had Hester not returned last year, he may have been the first safety off the bench.

Incoming Freshmen

#23 Donald Williams (6’1”, 180 lbs)

Williams has a lean body and looks like a Big Ten cornerback. He has a little of the swagger the team sorely lacked or was drained from them during losing streaks in recent years. In a best case scenario for the defense, he turns out to be a star early on.

#36 Darius Gooden (6’2”, 195 lbs)

Gooden is the type of guy who would be drafted early in a game of backyard football. The Newark product is big, fast, strong, and competitive. At the FCS level, he’d probably just start Day 1 at cornerback and be well on his way. It will be interesting to see how he stacks up against Big Ten competition, where he may have to be a safety or possibly long-term, a hybrid linebacker.

#37 T.J. Robinson (6’3”, 185 lbs)

Robinson has great agility for a taller player and parlays it into nice burst in small spaces. He can deliver significant punishment in less than two strides after changing direction which is critical to breaking up passes and making tackles near the line of scrimmage.

Additional Walk-ons

#35 Anthony Marshall (5’10”, 199 lbs) RFr.

Long term outlook: Average. As in average for Big Ten standards. There are a lot of big, strong, fast guys with varying skillsets and only Damon Hayes, Kobe Marfo, and Malik Dixon are seniors. Hayes is the only one who has accomplished anything yet of the three. Much like the offensive line, the question is whether any of these guys can be elite. Avery Young seems like he will be in short order and more than any other position group, there are several players in this one that could be awesome.

The 2020 recruiting class has three players committed already who all are listed over six feet, so the only question is speed again. Defensive back is one of the harder positions to fill and Rutgers has done it despite several mass exodus situations in recent years. The ace in the hole is that Avery Young is on the cusp of stardom. If one of these other players can be a ballhawk, huge hitter, or otherwise X-factor for a few years at any other spot, this is looking way better than average.

Previous positional reviews:

Special Teams

Running Backs

Tight Ends / Fullbacks

Linebackers

Defensive Line

Offensive Line