Secondary comes together for Rutgers as depth is tested
Not too long ago, Anthony Cioffi was a 180-pound cornerback thrown into the fire as a true freshman on a historically bad secondary for the Rutgers football team.
In the 2013 season, Cioffi and a handful of others in his freshman class were burned by NFL prospects and spread offenses in the Scarlet Knights' lone year in the AAC.
They faced the likes of current NFL starting quarterbacks Derek Carr (formerly Fresno State, currently Oakland Raiders), Teddy Bridgewater (formerly Louisville, currently Minnesota Vikings) and Blake Bortles (formerly Central Florida, currently Jacksonville Jaguars).
The three first-rounders headlined a year in which Rutgers couldn't catch a break against the pass, surrendering 312 yards per game through the air.
Fast-forwarding two years later, Cioffi finds himself in a similar situation now as a junior leader. Bulked up to 200 pounds and starting at free safety, Cioffi is the veteran of a struggling secondary.
"It's not something that we wanna go out and do," he said. "It's just that we have to continue to correct things and go over everything that's going on."
In their second season as a part of the Big Ten, the Knights (3-6, 1-5) are yielding eerily similar numbers at 303.1 pass yards per game.
Largely due to the lack of depth that has been tested from the arrests of three former potential starting defensive backs to the subsequent injuries that have forced more freshmen into game action than usual, Rutgers went from expecting this to be the year of an experienced and seasoned secondary to right back where it was in 2013.
While the injuries and depth have been challenged all across the roster, head coach Kyle Flood said he couldn't remember a time where the next-man-up mentality has been tested this much.
"I haven't tried to put that in perspective," he said. "I don't think we've had a health situation maybe the way we've had this year."
Strong safety Davon Jacobs has been out for the past few weeks now with an upper body injury. When Nebraska (4-6, 2-4) comes to High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday, the latest injury report released by Flood on Monday indicates that Jacobs will miss another game as he is listed as out.
That has bumped up redshirt freshman Kiy Hester into the mix as starter in place of his former teammate at DePaul Catholic (New Jersey). In his first full year at Rutgers since transferring over from Miami, Hester has an interception and five pass breakups.
He's just one of the youngsters seeing time. True freshman Blessuan Austin and redshirt freshman Isaiah Wharton have both been starting at cornerback since the season opener, with Austin missing one game on Oct. 24 against then-No. 1 Ohio State with an upper body injury.
As other freshmen are thrown into the fire, with Jarius Adams, Ronnie James and Najee Clayton seeing their time on the field increased on defense and special teams, Rutgers has had no other option.
Given the extreme circumstances and a lack of seniority, assumptions might lead one to believe that the newcomers to the secondary lack the cohesiveness necessary to put up a fight against opposing offenses on a weekly basis.
But sophomore safety Andre Hunt said that hasn't been the case.
With Cioffi serving as a three-year starter between his move from cornerback to free safety, his lead-by-example approach provides some sense of direction for the younger Knights around him.
The Springfield, New Jersey, native went from an undersized freshman getting steamrolled by Storm Johnson landing atop SportsCenter's Top 10 plays the next day to putting the likes of Heisman Trophy candidate Ezekiel Elliott and 6-foot-2, 216-pound Michigan wide receiver Amara Darboh on their backs in technically sound, touchdown-saving, open-field tackles.
But when it comes down to the overall preparation that the defensive backs need to go through leading up to their weekly war on Saturdays, it doesn't matter to them who is with them and who isn't.
"It's kind of all of us just stepping up together," Hunt said. "We don't really have that one guy that we look up to. It's just all of us as one unit. I think it works better with us just working together, really, because we've coordinated when we come in (to watch film), communicating stuff, so I think we'll be fine."
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