Freshmen transition to secondary
Each defensive position for the Rutgers football team suffered some losses following last season, but none more than the cornerbacks.
After the graduation of Marcus Cooper and Brandon Jones coupled with Logan Ryan’s departure for the NFL, the cornerbacks became the only group on defense to not have at least one returning starter.
That left junior Gareef Glashen and sophomore Tejay Johnson — neither earned a start last season — atop the depth chart.
But the biggest impact might be from players that have yet to play a single defensive snap for the Scarlet Knights.
With the recent losses to the cornerback corps, players like redshirt freshman Ian Thomas and early enrollees Nadir Barnwell and Delon Stephenson may earn significant playing time.
“People are doing very well [in practice],” Johnson said. “The young guys are learning faster, Ian has been playing so exceptionally that he has been rotating with me and Gareef.”
All three are in their first season as Rutgers cornerbacks. Thomas transitioned from wide receiver at the urging of Ryan while Barnwell and Stephenson are completely new to the program.
And all of them are working in at different speeds.
While Thomas is already working in with the first team, Stephenson is just beginning to step up in the field.
“In the beginning it seemed like he was a little confused,” Johnson said of Stephenson. “Now he’s getting it, he’s playing faster. He looks like a football player now.”
Barnwell was the last of the three new players to start working on the field, but that was not because of a lack of talent.
A former four-star recruit, the Piscataway, N.J., native is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, so his contact work will not begin until the fall.
For now he is increasing his stock in any way he can, including footwork drills in practice.
But Barnwell really stands out in position meetings.
“Nadir is very intelligent,” Johnson said. “He sits next to me in the meeting room. He basically copies all the notes I write down. He’s a sponge. He’s doing everything he’s supposed to do right now.”
Not only are the cornerbacks new, but they are also facing a new group of receivers in practice, especially with junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman sidelined for the spring while he recovers from offseason surgery.
Junior wideout Miles Shuler said he has seen the improvement and the talent of the cornerbacks while matching up against them, but it has a different feel than the departed players.
“They had experience,” Shuler said of Cooper, Jones and Ryan. “These guys are on the come-up. It’s going to take them some time to get on that level, but I feel like we have a great group of defensive backs.”
The cornerbacks at Rutgers also have an added role in their job description they may not have had in high school.
Knights cornerbacks — especially on the edge, where Ryan used to call home — are asked to help in the run game more than at other schools.
But Johnson said the group is showing positive signs in that respect as well.
“People are making plays, they’re learning the defense,” he said. “That’s the main part, learning how to play fast.”
The team will not be able to tell for sure how much the group has developed until it takes the field in the fall, but it has big shoes to fill.
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