Junior safety serves as last line of defense for Rutgers
Anthony Cioffi is well aware of his role on the Rutgers football team.
Simply put, he's a safety. But it didn't start out that way.
The junior free safety played cornerback his first two years on the Banks, displaying a penchant for takeaways with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery over the course of his freshman and sophomore seasons.
But this spring, now-suspended head coach Kyle Flood slid Cioffi inside to safety, citing the Springfield, New Jersey, native's ballhawk instincts.
Ever since, the move has fit like a glove.
“It does feel like I’m at home," Cioffi said of the position change. "I feel like I have better range back there and everything’s been going good so far.”
Cioffi was originally listed as a backup to junior Delon Stephenson on the depth chart that Flood released to the media five days before the Scarlet Knights' season opener against Norfolk State.
But two days before kickoff, the Rutgers football program was rocked by the arrests of six players stemming from assault and robbery charges, including Stephenson and then-starting cornerback, sophomore Dre Boggs. Former junior defensive backs Ruhann Peele and Nadir Barnwell were also charged in the arrests.
So there Cioffi was — thrust into a new position and now a whole new role for the Knights less than 48 hours before he was to set to strap on the pads against the Spartans in Piscataway.
Fast-forward three games and the Jonathan Dayton High School (New Jersey) product stands tied for third in the Big Ten with two interceptions and holds the second-highest total in the conference with five passes defended. But the 6-foot, 200-pounder isn’t interested in personal achievements.
To Cioffi, that's just the way the position is played.
"It's not as much something that we take on,” Cioffi said. “It comes with being a safety. You're like the leader of the secondary.”
The secondary has been in need of leaders. After the arrests ravaged the depth of the defensive backfield, true freshman Blessuan Austin and redshirt-freshman Isaiah Wharton have been forced into the starting lineup.
Their growing pains have shown. The Knights have given up 818 passing yards in three games and veterans like starting strong safety junior Davon Jacobs and Cioffi have to step up to help their freshman corners.
“It helps me from a corner standpoint to know I got veteran safeties behind me that are giving me the correct calls,” Wharton said. “So I know what to do quicker and get in line faster and play faster."
Interim head coach Norries Wilson said Rutgers will rely on Jacobs and Cioffi for leadership, referencing the pair of safeties' game experience as a beacon for Austin and Wharton to follow.
"They can settle some nerves,” Wilson said. “ Cioffi, Jacobs have been in a lot of games. They’ve had a lot of challenges thrown at 'em and I think it’s important that they help lead those young guys in the backfield.”
The interim head coach called attention to the limelight that this pair of freshman corners have shining upon them on gameday. On offense, eyes are drawn to the quarterback. But on defense, cornerbacks are the focal point.
“You know it’s tough to be out there, especially when you’re a corner and everybody in the stadium is looking at you when the ball comes your way” Wilson said. “It’s not like you can hide like an offensive guy and people aren’t sure who may have missed that block."
For Cioffi, tutoring the young guns is just part of the job.
"As far as a leadership role, I feel like every safety has to be a leader when they're on the field,” Cioffi said. “But even more so now since the situation that we are in, that we have the young guys in Bless (Austin) and Isaiah (Wharton). But it comes with the territory being a safety.”
As Kansas rolls into town for homecoming, Rutgers readies for another up-tempo offense, after seeing Washington State rip off 82 plays two weeks ago.
Despite their record, the Jayhawks (0-2) pose a roadblock to the Knights' planned resurgence in Piscataway on Saturday. Kansas' offense runs a play every 16-18 seconds, calling into question Rutgers' conditioning.
"In practice, the different type of stuff we're doing is going to have us in shape,” Cioffi said. "It's like a gun-and-run style. The quarterback's an athletic quarterback, they have two great running backs and they have a good passing attack so we just have to be ready for everything.”
The Jayhawks are averaging 30.5 points per contest this fall and at some point, they will push the Knights' defense. The game could come down to one play.
Rutgers has been rendered ineffective at creating turnovers — Cioffi’s two interceptions are the only two takeaways this season — and with the defense struggling to stop the run, a play in the open field could mean a win, while one missed tackle could mean a loss.
Should a Kansas ball-carrier reach the second level, Cioffi says he will be waiting.
"It"s not that much of an exciting play, it's more a do-or-die," he said. "It's a touchdown or a tackle."
Come Saturday at noon, Rutgers will be resigned to trust Cioffi — not only a safety, but the last line of defense.
"It's a big responsibility. Because you're the cleanup man," Cioffi said. "And if something breaks out, you really need to take a great angle, you need to be precise in all your movements and angles and you have to get the ball carrier down. That's the thing you focus on. No matter how you get him down, you got to get him down."
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