Rookie safety shines in first start after long road to Rutgers
He was the sixth-ranked safety in New Jersey coming out of high school, according to rivals.com. The recruiting website regarded the four-star to be the No. 21 prospect at the position in the country.
But this highly-touted prospect from Plainfield hit a bump in the road after accepting a scholarship to play for Miami in 2014 — one that would stage his return home to the Garden State.
In part due to homesickness, but mostly due to concern over his mother's health, "Cobra" Kiy Hester transferred to Rutgers last winter and began his career on the Banks as an early enrollee in the spring.
The 6-foot, 215-pounder showcased his ability immediately, proving a penchant for sneaking up on ball-carriers before striking with stifling force.
At the Scarlet Knights' first spring practice, Hester drew gasps from onlookers when he tagged freshman tight end George Behr coming out of the backfield on a flat route, jarring the ball loose from Behr's body.
Later, during the second spring scrimmage at High Point Solutions Stadium on April 18, Hester folded junior wide receiver John Tsimis in half on a deep seam route up the middle of the field.
It appeared to be a seamless transition for the hard-hitting former Hurricane. But Hester knew better.
“It’s just a long road,” he said. “Having to sit out your freshman year and you went from four years starting varsity to having to sit back and just watch and just learn.”
The Miami transfer's observation time paid dividends. In the Knights’ (2-2, 0-1) homecoming win over Kansas Sept. 26, the first-time starter showed out.
“Coach (Joe) Rossi said, ‘Be prepared, anybody can start, we’re going to dictate it by practice film,’” Hester said. “So I was just out there playing hard like I usually do in practice.”
Playing in place of injured strong safety — and former teammate at DePaul Catholic High School (New Jersey) — junior Davon Jacobs, Hester handled the starting role as if it were his own, making nine total tackles with six solos and a tackle for loss.
“My junior year, he was a freshman,” Jacobs said of their days at DePaul. “He lives like five minutes away from me, so he’s like my little brother.”
Hester also earned two pass breakups in his debut, but that stat can be deceiving.
The rookie let two interceptions slip through his fingers at High Point Solutions Stadium, one coming on the opening series of the game and the second on the first play of a Jayhawks (0-3) drive in the third quarter.
Ten plays later, Kansas running back Ke’aun Kinner ran it into the end zone from one yard out to cut the Knights' lead to 27-14.
“Kiy was down on himself — you know he wasn’t perfect,” said Rutgers interim head coach Norries Wilson. “He missed a couple tackles and he missed a couple opportunities to pick the ball off, but it was his first time out there and after he had dropped one interception and they went onto score, I just pulled him aside and asked him if he was still having fun.”
Wilson commended Hester’s attitude and said the safety’s smiling face is a welcomed sight. And regardless of the opportunities the young defensive back missed in his first start, Wilson said he was happy that Hester stepped up when his big brother went down.
“He’s always got a smile on his face, which is fantastic,” WIlson said. “He’s not a mopey, droopy player. He smiles, he’s upbeat and I hadn’t heard him complain about not having an opportunity. When he got his opportunity, I think he went out and took advantage of it.”
Hester paid homage to his one-year hiatus after high school, saying the time off was time he spent studying in order to sharpen his skill set for when he hustled back onto the field, this time for Rutgers fans.
“I feel that year definitely helped me mature,” the 215-pound safety said. “Now I feel like I can just step right in and just play fast without thinking about the defense because I actually know it.”
Wilson, who will turn head coaching duties back over to Kyle Flood when his suspension concludes after the Michigan State game on Oct. 10, believes that the player who hesitates is lost.
And the first African American head coach in the history of the Ivy League saw no hesitation from his freshman defensive back against Kansas.
"You can't be apprehensive. Anything you do apprehensively, you're going to screw it up,” Wilson said. “Just take an assignment and just go. And that's what (Hester) did and he had fun. I was impressed with the way he played his first time out. Should he be called on again to go back out there and play, it won’t be new to him.”
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