Aiken earns Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors
Johnathan Aiken went into Thursday night’s season opener in Seattle as the backup strong safety, and now he’s a part of Rutgers football history.
The senior earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors yesterday, becoming the first player in the program to claim the distinction.
Aiken forced a fumble the Scarlet Knights recovered midway through the fourth quarter against Washington State, setting up Rutgers’ game-winning drive. Then he broke up a 4th-and-13 pass with 59 seconds left to seal the 41-38 win. He also recorded a team-high seven solo tackles.
Not a bad start to the season for a guy with three career starts.
“Honestly, it hasn’t hit me yet,” Aiken said of the award. “Like Christmas morning, you know it’s Christmas but it doesn’t really hit you until you open your gifts. It hasn’t really hit me yet. It’s just a great feeling right now.”
Aiken admitted it “definitely hurt” to not get the starting nod at free safety over sophomore Delon Stephenson. The two were locked in a tight competition throughout training camp.
Still, he saw plenty of playing time in various defensive packages as the Knights often deployed three or four safeties at once. And the award proved Aiken’s resolve to head coach Kyle Flood.
“I think it’s a tremendous testament to the selflessness of a football player,” Flood said. “I think that’s critical as you go through the season. Everybody in the building has to put the team first. ... John had a great opportunity to do that in Week 1 and took advantage of it — and when he had the opportunity, made plays on special teams, on defense.”
He’ll likely receive a healthy dose of more opportunities in Rutgers’ home opener Saturday against FCS school Howard, which managed only 68 passing yards Thursday against Akron.
As long as he sticks with a team-first mentality, Aiken knows his time will come.
“I stick with it, I fight,” Aiken said. “When my coaches put me on the field, I just want to prove to them that I can play and I can be good.”
Redshirt freshman linebacker Myles Nash returns to practice this week after serving a one-game suspension for violation of team policy.
Listed at Rutgers’ two-deep lineup as the backup strong side linebacker, he remains a key piece in the team’s depth at the position.
Flood insists the suspension will not have any bearing on Nash’s role against Howard.
“It’ll be as big a role as he earns this week in practice,” Flood said. “There’s no doghouse in this program. He’ll come back to practice this week as the backup SAM linebacker, and every opportunity he gets on Saturday he’ll earn on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.”
Yesterday marked the first day coaches were permitted contact with 2016 recruits.
Flood said he was in his Hale Center office until a little past 1:30 a.m. and then continued interacting with players on social media from home.
“It’s always a little surprising to me that they’re up and they’re waiting for [messages],” Flood said. “I got quite a few responses and now you’re responding to the responses because I didn’t want them to think it was just a computer-generated message going out. I ended up probably awake until about 2:30 in the morning, and then I just tapped out. I said, ‘I’m going to bed. You should, too.’”
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