Safeties prepare for role in second level of Rutgers’ defense
Delon Stephenson remembers facing South Brunswick’s version of the triple option offense back in high school, but that has not simplified things for the sophomore free safety this week.
Set to be an integral piece in the Rutgers football team’s defensive alignments Saturday against Navy, Stephenson says preparation for perhaps the best triple option offense in the nation has been tireless.
“You’ve just got to watch a lot of film, and just pay attention to your keys and your assignments and keep your eye on your man — things like that,” he said. “In practice, it’s not the same speed as in the game. [Navy’s] been running this offense for so long now, so it’s probably going to move like 20 times faster in the game with all the motions and everything going on.”
Along with sophomore Davon Jacobs and senior Johnathan Aiken, Stephenson is part of a rotation of free safeties that will reside primarily in the second level of the Scarlet Knights’ defense as linebackers this week.
Wrinkles to Rutgers’ base defense will include packages with only one high safety and two corners, Stephenson said. Other tweaks to Rutgers’ traditional 4-3 personnel remain to be seen.
It is all part of an effort to slow down Navy’s steady diet of rushing attempts, as the Midshipmen lead the nation with an average of 61 rushing attempts for 403 yards per game.
“Navy has a special offense, so we can’t really play the traditional style of defense we would normally play,” said senior strong safety Lorenzo Waters. “We kind of have to adjust for the amount of times they run the ball.”
With the runs coming from multiple angles, swift reads, communication and tackling inside the box will be imperative.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Stephenson is often touted as one of the Knights’ most versatile defensive backs. Meanwhile, the 6-foot, 195-pound Jacobs has experience playing outside linebacker last season.
Head coach Kyle Flood said Stephenson, Aiken and Jacobs are all embracing the added responsibilities, which is especially critical with senior middle linebacker Kevin Snyder questionable with a lower body injury.
“If you embrace the role, you’ll study the details. If you study the details, you have a chance to play with speed,” Flood said. “And if you have a chance to play with speed, you have a chance to make the plays.”
But even though Navy only has 19 passing attempts this season, the Knights are well aware that quarterback Keenan Reynolds has the ability to throw it when least expected.
“Any team that runs the ball that much, when they do throw the ball it’s normally a big play because you’re banking so heavily on the run,” Waters said. “It’s just important that you stay focused, you don’t get lulled to sleep.”
Flood said Wednesday’s practice featured more physicality and hitting than usual during a game week.
“I think it’s the only way you can really gauge how well you’re defending what [Navy does] on offense,” Flood said. “I’m pleased. I think there’s a lot of focus out there. It’s going to take us all the way until game time to be ready because you’re trying to simulate what a team does and they’re the best in the world at what they do.”
Other game preparation for Rutgers this week has included a series of cut-blocking drills to prepare for Navy’s stout offensive line.
“In most weeks, we wouldn’t be on the ground during the week. But this is a week where we have to,” Flood said. “You have to cut, you have to tackle — you have to do all those things just to get ready. And there’s some risk involved. But if you don’t do it, you won’t be ready.”
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