Rutgers refuses to allow distractions to disrupt family bond
It would be easy to pack it in.
In the week leading up to the Big Ten Conference opener, the Rutgers football team lost its head coach and best offensive weapon to suspension.
Kyle Flood — suspended three games — was absent from the sidelines, and senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo — suspended indefinitely — was not on the field last Saturday when the Scarlet Knights (1-2, 0-1) suffered a 28-3 defeat at Penn State.
The dismissal of six players connected to robbery and assault charges, prior to the season opener against Norfolk State, included three potential starters in the defensive backfield, leaving the position group thin.
In their absence, freshmen were thrust into playing pivotal roles in a secondary once-littered with leadership and depth.
But those permitted to participate in the Sept. 19 loss at Beaver Stadium refused to excuse their poor performance on the field as a result of distractions created by their failings off of it.
“I don’t think the result was an issue of negative attention on the program, or the situation of the head coach being suspended," said interim head coach Norries Wilson. "I think that Penn State did a good job of executing their plan better than we did.”
This wasn't the way the Knights' assistant head coach and running backs coach drew it up.
The first African-American head coach in Ivy League history — who was employed at Columbia University from 2006 to 2011 — would have preferred a different circumstance to make his Big Ten debut, but he's resigned to playing the hand he has been dealt.
“I am sure that no one would want to become a head coach this way," Wilson said in his postgame press conference. "Sometimes you don't get to choose the situation that you're in so you just have to accept the reality that you're in and you have to face it head on.”
Rutgers' senior captain and defensive tackle Darius Hamilton has had to face some adversity of his own. A lower body injury had the team’s active leader in career sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (24.5) sidelined for the first two games of the 2015 season.
The West Paterson, New Jersey, native was limited against the Nittany Lions in his first action this fall, estimating he was on the field for 15 plays.
“Things happen,” Hamilton said of the distractions. “We really don’t get caught up in all that. We gotta win with the guys we have. That’s something that we gotta get back to doing."
For the players still in the program, the doubters have done nothing but galvanize the group left in the locker room, strengthening the bond the detractors aim to break.
True freshman cornerback Blessuan Austin has only been with the team since the spring, but the early enrollee quickly became accustomed to the familial dynamic that has been a staple of Rutgers football.
“They are definitely my family, definitely brothers,” Austin said. “It’s something that — how should I put this — it’s not something that we just throw out there because it sounds good. ‘R Family’ is what we’ve really committed to and that’s something that I take very seriously. And I believe that our team is really a family.”
Like Austin, defensive tackle Julian Pinnix-Odrick takes pride in how close his brothers in arms have grown to become, especially given the negativity surrounding the football program for the last month.
The junior defensive lineman wanted to send a message to those who have called for his team to be dismantled, turning their own weapon against them by taking advantage of the opportunity to write an opinions column in Monday's issue of The Daily Targum.
"My football team is my family," Pinnix-Odrick wrote. "Not my family in the sense of some misplaced need for acceptance and belonging, but through trial by fire."
The Montclair, New Jersey, native spoke directly to the team's detractors in the piece, poetically highlighting the roller-coaster ride his team is trying to steer through.
"The support system is what turns us into family," he wrote. "The sport of football is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the love that is built between my brothers and me. What we do is more than just your Saturday entertainment."
For any family, there's no place like home.
And Rutgers will return to the Banks on Saturday to host a hapless Kansas team for homecoming at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Even the harshest critic would expect the Knights to handle the Jayhawks (0-2) with ease. The concern for Rutgers lies in the weeks ahead when the Knights get back into the conference schedule against No. 2 Michigan State on Oct. 10 and travel to upstart Indiana on Oct. 17.
With those challenges looming after the bye week of Oct. 3, Rutgers' defensive leader doesn't believe his team will shrink under the scrutiny, but admits the Knights' mettle is being tested.
"Anytime you have problems amongst a family, it does nothing but bring you closer together," Hamilton said. "That’s when you really find out the kinda people that you’re around and the kind of character that your team has. This is a young team, we just have to keep fighting to get better.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team follow @KevinPXavier and @TargumSports on Twitter.