Aiken gets chance to start in final season
When Johnathan Aiken talks about football to his friends and family back home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he cannot resist getting amped up.
“This is the biggest year. This is my year,” the senior free safety said Saturday post-practice. “I feel like this is my year to shine. I’m going to the Big Ten, I’m excited.”
Other members of the Rutgers football team can relate, but few have patiently waited quite like Aiken. After playing sparingly as an injury fill-in and special teams member for the past three seasons, he will finally get his chance to make a serious impact in his last year of eligibility.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound defensive back is listed as the co-starter at free safety with sophomore Delon Stephenson in the Scarlet Knights’ spring depth chart following the graduation of Jeremy Deering. The two figure to compete for the job.
Despite having only three career starts, Aiken has as much experience as anyone in Rutgers’ growing secondary besides fifth-year senior Lorenzo Waters, entering his third season as the starting strong safety.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for him,” Waters said. “He’s been here only one semester less than me, he’s been here for a long time. I’ve seen him motivate the guys and he’s definitely a leader on this team. ... He’s really fast, can cover a lot of ground, he’s a hard hitter. He’s very dynamic, so he can really do everything.”
Under new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, who looks to amend a program-worst 4,056 passing yards allowed last season, players note an emphasis on versatility and detail.
Aiken filled in twice for an injured Waters at strong safety last season, also making a start at free safety in the Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl. He says there is much overlap between the two positions.
“[Rossi] wants both of us to be interchangeable — actually all the safeties, so when we go to meetings, me and Delon don’t just study free [safety],” Aiken said. “Me and Delon study free and strong. ‘Zo studies strong and free.’”
Through three spring practices, Waters noticed a change in demeanor in the secondary under Rossi’s tutelage.
“I see a different level of intensity, energy out there,” Waters said. “There’s a greater attention to detail, because a lot of things we kind of let go by the wayside last year. Now, we don’t let those same things slide. If it takes it a lot longer to get the play right, we’re going to do what it takes to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing.”
Senior left guard Kaleb Johnson, who has started a team-leading 37 straight games along the offensive line, said his decision to forgo the NFL Draft until next year was never in doubt.
“To be honest, I really wasn’t thinking about coming out at all,” Johnson said. “That was just something that I let [the media] do.”
Johnson, who said he received a fourth-to-seventh round grade from NFL scouts who reviewed his game tape, wanted to improve under new offensive line coach Mitch Brown, who brings 34 years of experience.
The Jacksonville, Fla., native’s decision means the return of all five starters on the unit for the first time in recent memory. The line looks to build on blocking for 3.7 yards per rush and allowing 35 sacks last season — 102nd nationally.
“That’s definitely going to make a great difference, having all of us back together,” Johnson said. “We’ve been doing things together more than we have in the past. We went down to Panama City as an offensive line this year. Just having that bond together, it’s going to take us to the next level.”
After five quarterbacks split reps through the first three spring practices, head coach Kyle Flood plans to limit the distribution of snaps going forward to advance the competition.
“I really want to go back and look at the throws [on film], make sure that the routes are being run where we want them to because I really critique it,” Flood said. “But I think when we come out on Tuesday, the reps are going to be distributed a little bit differently than they have been the first three practices, and those are decisions that between now and then we’re going to have to get together as a staff and make.”
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