Rutgers cornerbacks under pressure with loss of Blessuan Austin
If you were thinking of one player that the Rutgers football team's defense could not afford to lose, junior cornerback Blessuan Austin would most likely be at the top of that list.
And as it so happened, the Scarlet Knights lost their three-year starter last Saturday when he tore his ACL against Nebraska, an injury that will keep him out for the rest of the 2017 season.
In steps sophomore Damon Hayes, who despite his age, has plenty of experience on the Rutgers defense and will look to fill Austin's shoes as one of the two first-string cornerbacks.
"It's a blow for our team, but (an) opportunity for Damon Hayes to step up and be the full-time starter," said head coach Chris Ash in his weekly press conference on Monday. "He played in place of Blessuan and did some good things."
Like Austin and his now co-starter Isaiah Wharton, Hayes has an aggressive style of play. His skill-set perfectly fits Ash's defensive philosophy, as he gets up at the line of scrimmage and plays receivers in tight man-to-man coverage. Sometimes it leads to deep balls where he'll be flagged for pass interference, but that does not concern Ash, as he attributes that to the unit's aggressive attitude.
Last season as a true freshman, Hayes had a pick-six in a Big Ten road game at Minnesota, a play that brought the Knights within 1 point and nearly catapulted them to their first and only conference win of the season.
And according to cornerbacks coach Henry Baker, Hayes lacks no confidence, as he is one of the most vocal trash talkers on the team.
But despite all of the good things about Hayes, being a full-time starter in the Big Ten is something he will have to get used to — and fast.
He is tasked with lining up opposite Ohio State receivers like elite-speedster Parris Campbell or any of the seven other Buckeyes that have already caught a touchdown pass this season.
But Wharton, in his third year as a starting cornerback, said that Hayes is ready due to the increased role he played in the secondary before Austin's injury.
"Damon's ready," Wharton said. "We've been rotating. ... All three of us (before Austin's injury). ... We're all on the same page and Damon's ready."
With eight Big Ten games remaining in the season, the competition level will only increase, and Wharton noted that there is no hiding from the top receivers on the other team.
At Rutgers, the best cornerback won't follow the best receiver. Instead, they play their sides and trust the scheme.
"No one's taking the number one receiver. We play our sides and whoever throws it to each side, we gotta make plays when our number's called," Wharton said.
Losing Austin is definitely crushing for both the secondary and the defense as a whole, especially considering that Rutgers has the 34th-ranked passing defense in the country.
And now it's next man up for the Knights and after Hayes, there is not much experience. There is Kobe Marfo, who has little to no experience in Big Ten games and then there's converted safety Zane Campbell and true freshmen Tim Barrow and Edwin "Tank" Lopez.
The bottom line is there isn't much flexibility for Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, so Hayes needs to step up and stay healthy in order for the Rutgers secondary to continue its early success in the 2017 season.
"(We) got to continue to improve and develop but (I) really like Damon," Ash said. "(I'm) excited for him to go out and have this opportunity being a full-time starter."