Cornerbacks continue growth during spring
The Rutgers football team finished the 2015 season ranking in the bottom three of all major defensive categories in the Big Ten, a huge reason for the 4-8 record it had come December.
The Scarlet Knights finished dead last in pass defense efficiency, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 64 percent of pass attempts. Maryland, the second-to-last team in the category, lagged seven percentage points behind at 57 percent.
Rutgers’ youth at cornerback, where a number of injuries forced Isaiah Wharton to start 12 games as a redshirt freshman and Blessaun Austin to start 11 games as a true freshman in the position, was a big reason.
But just as they’re told to do following a bad play in a game, the Knights are told to shake it off and move on to the next one as they continued to prepare for the 2016 season with their ninth practice of the spring Tuesday.
“I tell my guys to have a bad memory,” said assistant defensive backs coach Aaron Henry. “So if they’re listening to me, they forgot about everything from last year, because I’m telling them next play, next rep, you gotta do it over, you gotta be consistent.”
The injury woes have persisted this spring as Rutgers remains limited at cornerback.
Henry is working on teaching his pupils how to take care of their bodies in order to get them the most time on the field to continue their improvement.
“The only way we’ll get better at playing that position on the island, it’s a tough physical task, but the only way we’ll get better is to get reps,” Henry said. “We preach hydration, we preach staying healthy. You gon’ have freak accidents every now and then, but for the most part, when you talk about strains and stuff like that, a lot of that is in regards to taking care of your body and hydrating.”
The results on the field may not have gone the way they’d hoped last season, but picking up invaluable experience against top offenses in the Big Ten, including national semifinalists Michigan State, was enough for Wharton and Austin to have a positive outlook about their first seasons as starters.
Wharton believes the Knights have something to prove following the 2015 season, which adds another layer of motivation.
“It’s never a negative, you always learn something when you go through something,” he said of last season’s tribulations. “We have chip on our shoulder (now). Last year, we didn’t do as expected, but this year, it’s just a chip on our shoulder to go in and compete every day so we can get to where we want to be.”
Austin wasn’t expected to play as often as he did as the season approached last year, but when his number was called, he was more than ready to contribute.
“I don’t look at it as crazy at all,” he said of being thrown into the fire early in his career on the Banks. “Coming in here, you gotta expect to play and be put on the field at any given time. So we just took that on the chin and just treated it as a learning experience.”
Henry is working with Ash to change Rutgers' defense to a press, man-to-man coverage style as the Knights work to remove the bad taste from last season.
They’ll have both eyes looking ahead at a promising future Henry is looking to guide them towards, using the lessons they learned in the process.
“If you dwell on the past, often times, you could repeat it,” Henry said. “Do I want them to take notice of the past? No doubt, I do, but I want them to stay focused on the future because it could be very, very bright if they do what I ask them to do.”