Rutgers relies on junior safety for leadership in tattered secondary
A ball hawk is defined as one who is skillful in taking the ball away from opponents, according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary.
After collecting the eighth forced-turnover (five interceptions, three forced fumbles) of his collegiate career last Saturday against Indiana, it would be difficult to find a more appropriate label for Anthony Cioffi's on-field persona.
The starting free safety for the Rutgers football team raised his season's total to three interceptions in the Scarlet Knights' wild, 55-52 come-from-behind win over the Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, vaulting him into a tie for second (18th in the nation) in the vaunted Big Ten Conference.
Head coach Kyle Flood boasted that it was Cioffi’s ball hawk mentality that prompted a position change for the Springfield, New Jersey, native last spring, from boundary cornerback inside to free safety.
“One of the reasons we moved (Cioffi) to the safety position was to give him the opportunity to make more plays on the ball,” Flood said at his weekly press conference Monday. “He’s got excellent range. He’s also a guy who seems to be around the ball, whether it’s on special teams or on defense. He’s done a good job at that and he’s been productive this year.”
With the Knights (3-3, 1-2) trailing, 52-46 and 9:26 remaining on the game clock, Cioffi picked off a pass from Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfield on a deep throw down the middle of the field to give Rutgers back the rock and an opportunity to take the lead.
Cioffi is quick to credit his coaching staff and his reads for presenting the opportunity to make the pick, but he does concede that there is an instinctual aspect to intercepting an opposing quarterback.
“It’s big,” he said of making interceptions. “It’s a huge momentum swing for us and it’s something that we need at a crucial point. Once you get a turnover, it really ignites everybody and it gets that fire burning.”
Five plays later, that fire was lit when senior running back Paul James rumbled 40 yards for the game-tying touchdown. Senior placekicker Kyle Federico followed with the game-winning field goal as time expired and the biggest comeback in the history of the program (equal to the 41-38 win over Maryland in 2014, also a 25-point deficit) was complete.
It’s not just his ability to get his hands on the football that makes Cioffi such an impact player on Saturdays. His six passes defended also rank in the top-10 in the conference, but his 26 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks demonstrate that the Jonathan Dayton High School (New Jersey) product is a complete player.
At the outset of the 2015 season, Cioffi was slated to backup Delon Stephenson at the free safety position. Seven arrests and subsequent dismissals from the team forced the 6-foot, 205-pound safety into not only a starting job, but a leadership role for Rutgers, in a secondary littered with injuries and lacking in experience.
“He’s also done a good job mentoring those younger guys,” Flood said of Cioffi. “(He is) really doing it in the times where you don’t see it. He’s doing it in practice, where he might be whispering in a guy’s ear or doing it in the meeting room, when they’re watching film and setting a great example by the way he goes about his business.”
Redshirt-freshman Isaiah Wharton has started all six games at cornerback for the Knights and he credits Cioffi for helping him to speed the learning curve in a conference chock-full of impressive wide receivers. The wisdom imparted by the wily veteran has helped the rookie in reading opposing offenses, to the tune of two interceptions in his own right.
“(Cioffi) has meant a lot to my progression,” Wharton said. “He’s played as a true freshman so he knows how it feels to really get thrown in the fire. He’s played boundary corner, like myself … he’s an older guy now and he knows that us younger guys look up to him. So he’s been making sure we’re ready every week.”
The tests keep getting tougher every week for Rutgers at this stage in the season. After battling then-No. 4 Michigan State to the brink in a 31-24 loss Oct. 3 and then the comeback in Bloomington, the Knights now deal with an undefeated defending National Champion and No. 1 Ohio State team that crashes the Banks riding high after a 38-10 win over Penn State.
For Cioffi, the challenge is welcomed. The junior safety aims to stick to his routine in the week leading up to the first-ever nationally televised game for Rutgers, under the lights at High Point Solutions Stadium on ABC.
Cioffi advocates visualization as a tool that helps him sharpen his craft both in practice and on gameday.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time and I feel as though if you go out there and you visualize yourself doing it, you’ll go and do it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Wharton continues to heap praise on the quarterback of the Knights secondary, saying the veteran defensive back’s reputation precedes him on the field.
“Cioffi, ever since he’s come into Rutgers, he’s been a ball hawk,” Wharton said.
This Saturday at 8 p.m., when the Buckeyes (7-0,3-0) roll into town, Cioffi will be at the ready. And he says the atmosphere just may bring a little extra juice to the jostling of two Big Ten foes.
“The impact of this game is crazy,” Cioffi said. “Eight o’clock kickoff, primetime, ABC, for the first time in school history. It’s gonna be a big game, and we’re all excited.”
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