Kemoko Turay eyes repeat performance from last season for Rutgers
The image is forever ingrained in the minds of those who witnessed it.
Through a sea of outstretched arms and black jerseys with pink accessories last October, No. 58 for the Rutgers football team almost jumps out of the photo itself.
He is the most prominent figure in this iconic image — body fully extended, triceps bulging, along with seemingly every other muscle in his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame — focused on getting his fingertips to the football.
Just over 13 months ago, he was scaling the skies to block Matt Wile’s 56-yard field goal attempt with 3:01 left in the fourth quarter to seal the first ever Big Ten victory in school history for the Scarlet Knights. Saturday, he will try to regain the promise he fulfilled in a fantastic freshman season for the Knights.
Sophomore Kemoko Turay captivated the country last fall with the blocked kick in the 26-24 win over Michigan, catapulting him to a sensational rookie campaign.
"That's one of my best moments," Turay said. "Making that play, it was a phenomenal play late in the fourth quarter and it showed the fight we have on this team."
Turay's 7.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss earned him Freshman All-American honors, placing the Rutgers defensive end among the ranks of the premier pass rushers in the country.
But this season has looked entirely different for both the Knights and the Newark, New Jersey, native. Turay leads the team in sacks, but he has only tallied two.
"Kemoko is going to get there, there's no question about it,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “But would we like him to get there sooner than later? Sure. We absolutely would.”
As a team, Rutgers has given up an average of 49.7 points in the last three games beginning with the high of the historic 55-52 comeback win at Indiana and ending with the low of back-to-back blowouts at the hands of No. 1 Ohio State and Wisconsin.
"Even though it's not going the way we wanted it to this year, we still got that fight in us," Turay said, remaining confident that he and the defense can turn it around. "We just gotta fix the little errors."
In Week 10, the setting shifts from Madison, Wisconsin, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the Knights enter "The Big House" as 21-point underdogs to the No. 16 Wolverines.
Michigan boasts one of the Big Ten’s top defenses, a unit that ranks second in the nation in points allowed (11.4), total defense (241.9 yards per game) and rush defense (74.6 yards per game).
That puts added pressure on the Rutgers defensive unit to buckle down on its second consecutive trip away from the Banks, given the struggles offensively over the last two contests.
The Knights failed to move the ball with any regularity against the Buckeyes and Badgers, averaging a paltry 5.5 points per game on offense in the two-game skid, while both OSU and Wisconsin put up nearly 50.
All the more reason to generate a pass rush against a somewhat suspect offensive line for the Wolverines. Michigan has given up 13 sacks this season, two more than Rutgers has been able to rack up with players like Turay — sackless in four games — slowed by an upper body injury and senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton out for the year with a knee injury.
That has forced younger players to step up along the defensive line.
Enter redshirt-freshman Kevin Wilkins.
Wilkins displayed his athletic prowess well before he even took the field for the Knights in the season opener against Norfolk State on Sept. 5. Back in August, Flood wanted to lighten the load after two-a-days began to take their toll. So the head coach staged a dance contest and the 6-foot-3, 295-pound nose tackle out of St. Joseph’s High School in Montvale, New Jersey, flat out stole the show.
Wilkins’ version of the truffle-shuffle and the worm showcased the agility and athleticism that has allowed him to contribute in his first collegiate season, sitting tied for fourth on the team with 3.5 tackles for loss while playing in all eight games this fall. Reflecting on the drought in quarterback pressure, Wilkins urged that the team needs to get back to the basics.
“You can’t go wrong when you go back to your fundamentals,” Wilkins said regarding the reboot of the Rutgers pass rush. “I think everything is getting better and everything starting to get into place, where we want it to be.”
For Turay, Saturday cannot come soon enough. He is itching to contribute and prove to fans and critics that he is healthy and just as explosive as he was in his freshman season, desperate to dispel the notions of a sophomore slump.
"I feel like I want to make an impact,” Turay said. “Just looking at what I did last year and keep perfecting it. Don't give up. Just keep doing it because eventually it's gonna come."
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