Three true freshman defensive backs pressed into action as unit deals with loss of two key contributors
A cracked bone and baseball aspirations have made the Rutgers football team’s cornerback group resemble freshman orientation.
Senior Lew Toler, who transferred from Western Michigan with his last year of eligibility, broke his arm during the first quarter of the Scarlet Knights’ 24-10 loss Oct. 5 to Louisville. Redshirt freshman Ian Thomas left the program last Tuesday in pursuit of a baseball career.
The departures have left the unit with more questions than answers.
“You just kind of have to learn to adjust to the situation,” said junior safety Lorenzo Waters. “Situations like that, you can’t really control so you look to the next guy and work with what you got.”
What they have are three true freshmen and a junior who has not played in more than a month.
Rookies Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi are listed as the Knights’ two starters at cornerback for tomorrow’s noon tipoff against Houston. Another freshman, Delon Stephenson, who has only played safety this season, figures to be the first one on the field for nickel and dime packages.
That leaves junior Gareef Glashen, who missed Rutgers’ past two games because of an undisclosed personal issue, as the most seasoned cornerback.
He has only started once.
With everything that occurred the past two weeks, Glashen believes his younger teammates have handled the situation well.
“They’re doing a good job and learning from their mistakes and just growing from the good things that they do,” Glashen said.
While game experience is the ultimate improvement ground, Rutgers true freshmen have not received substantial time at cornerback in recent memory.
Even Rutgers’ defensive backs now in the NFL did not immediately have to start.
Logan Ryan, who the New England Patriots selected 83rd overall in this year’s NFL Draft, redshirted his first season with the Knights. He made his first-career Rutgers start against Florida International on Sept. 11, 2010, his second game of his redshirt freshman campaign.
Devin McCourty also redshirted his first season, while his brother, Jason, appeared only on special teams during his true freshman campaign. Jason McCourty is now with the Tennessee Titans while Devin McCourty plays safety in New England.
So unprecedented occurrences have led head coach Kyle Flood to rely on true freshman to contribute.
“It’s a great challenge for them, and it’s a great challenge for us as a football team.” Flood said.
Part of that challenge includes improving a defense which ranks 119th nationally out of 122 Division-I teams against the pass. Only California statistically defends the pass worse than Rutgers’ 306.8 yards allowed per game among the BCS programs.
Tomorrow’s Homecoming game against the Cougars does no favors with helping those stats improve.
Houston ranks third in the AAC and 18th nationally with 312 passing yards per contest. Its leading receiver, Deontay Greenberry, already has 50 receptions for 674 yards and five scores.
It is a challenge Glashen wants the secondary to respond to.
“You always want to play against the best,” Glashen said. “We’ve been playing spread teams and they’ve been putting up a good amount of points, so this game we want to come out and show that we can stop it.”
The Knights have faced three offenses which average more yards through the air than Houston, which resulted in 1,250 combined passing yards from Fresno State, Southern Methodist and Louisville. Those three teams also combined for 12 passing touchdowns.
Rutgers has to hope its inexperienced options somehow stop the trend.
“I’ve seen them in the game, I’ve seen them both line up against Louisville and play against some of the best receivers in the conference, so I’m confident in what they can do,” Waters said.