Rutgers rookie cornerback aims to adjust each week
Redshirt-freshman Isaiah Wharton has been forced to grow up fast for the Rutgers football team.
After being listed as a backup cornerback on the spring depth chart, the dismissal of Darien Dailey pushed the rookie corner closer to a starting role.
Then, when training camp opened, Wharton was slotted as a co-starter along with junior Nadir Barnwell, before he, along with three other members of the secondary — Ruhann Peele, Dre Boggs and Delon Stephenson — was also dismissed from the team when the arrest of seven Scarlet Knights rocked the program.
But now, Wharton is the one the Knights look to when it comes to making plays in the secondary.
“That’s why every kid comes to (play) in college," Wharton said of his rapid ascent up the depth chart. "You wanna be the starter, you wanna make plays and everything. So whatever I can do to help the team.”
It's hard to believe that Wharton — who's only played in six games in his collegiate career, all starts at cornerback this season — is the most experienced cornerback on Rutgers roster. But the Kissimmee, Florida, native feels that with each opportunity comes a chance to get better.
"(The coaches) brought me here for a reason. Every time we’re in (the meeting room) they say, ‘You guys are Big Ten athletes. You’re here for a reason,'" Wharton said. “I definitely believe in myself and with each week comes more experience.”
That experience paid dividends against Indiana last Saturday.
After the Hoosiers burned the rookie corner on several drag routes, crossing the field, Wharton made the adjustments when it mattered most. Following the scoop-and-score touchdown from sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay, to put the Knights within 13 at 52-39, the defense needed a stop to keep the possibility of a comeback alive.
And that’s precisely what Wharton delivered, picking off Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld to keep the mojo going.
“They were running a lot of underneath routes and I let a couple get away in the first half and Coach Wilson, he kept riding me. I knew it was coming again so I just played my man and I sprinted to the ball,” Wharton said. “My D-Line got a great pass rush and I just did my job just to make the catch.”
It was the first career interception for Wharton, who is tied for third on the team in tackles (31) and second in passes defended (6) in his first season.
The redshirt-freshman defensive back has won the support of a pair of veterans on the defense for his efforts, both against Indiana and the first five games of 2015. Junior linebacker Steve Longa set a career-best with 16 tackles in the win over the Hoosiers and he saw Wharton’s interception as crucial to the comeback.
"We had that interception by Isaiah (Wharton) and the defense just rallied up behind it and we fed off of it,” Longa said. "And then we came back."
Wharton is a fan of the junior weak side linebacker, pointing to Longa as one of the players that has been instrumental in getting him acclimated to the playbook, scheme and speed of the college game.
“One thing is that I’m seeing a lot of different offenses, all for the first time,” the 6-foot-1 cornerback said. “I’m just trying to get used to it and Steve Longa has been helping me a lot.”
Strangely enough, with its season hanging in the balance after facing a 25-point deficit when the Hoosiers surged for 28 unanswered points in the third quarter, Wharton claims the Rutgers sideline remained as cool as the other side of the pillow.
“It was crazy because everyone on the sideline was so composed and we’ve been through so much adversity, it was like that was just the beginning,” he said. “We all felt like we could win. We made some stops and the offense did their job."
Junior free safety Anthony Cioffi has been the one constant in the defensive backfield for the Knights, starting all six games and his three interceptions are tied for second-best in the Big Ten. Cioffi is pleased with the progression of the secondary ravaged by arrests and injuries, coupled with its youth and inexperience.
"(The younger guys are) coming along good,” Cioffi said. “Each week is a better week, they're getting smarter and understanding the game a lot better. It's tough, but when there's an injury, another guy has to step up."
Wharton’s learning curve may speed up to hit 1.21 gigawatts this week, as the No.1 Ohio State offense has given opponents fits in 2015. JT Barrett will get the nod at quarterback and wide receivers Jalen Marshall, Michael Thomas and Braxton Miller have teamed up for 942 yards and 10 touchdowns combined through seven games.
But Wharton welcomes the challenge, while trying not to put too much pressure on himself.
"Everybody wants to be known as a playmaker but right now, I feel like, right now in my career, I wanna be known as someone who the team can depend on and know that I'm always doing my job," Wharton said.
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