Next man up mentality continues in Rutgers secondary
Things went from bad to worse for the Rutgers secondary — as one game after losing starting cornerback Blessuan Austin for the season with a torn ACL — starting safety Saquan Hampton suffered a shoulder injury that could also keep him out for the remainder of the 2017 campaign.
"We're not sure yet on the length of (Hampton's) injury yet. But he'll be out definitely for a few weeks if not for the whole season. We're just not sure on that one yet," said head coach Chris Ash.
Hampton's absence sparked two personnel moves by Ash, one in-game move against Ohio State and another made during the bye week. Sophomore wide receiver Rashad Blunt switched to safety ahead of the game and came in on defense when the other starting safety, Kiy Hester, went out with an injury. Hester is not seriously injured and will play this week.
But Ash made a very surprising move after the game, moving sophomore wide receiver Jawuan Harris — the team's leading receiver last season — to defensive back.
"We're going to see if he can help us there," Ash said. "Obviously we've got depth issues in the secondary, and Jawuan's an individual that's got the talent and ability to potentially help us, if needed, at that position."
And despite being the team's leading receiver a year ago, Harris had seen a sharp decline in his standing with the receivers. After being suspended for the season opener against Washington, Harris registered just one reception for four yards in four games.
Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann noted that Harris's athleticism is one of the things that prompted the move, as this season it appeared Harris was lacking as a receiver and didn't have a future there.
"He's a really really athletic guy. Obviously to be a wide receiver you have to have some good quickness and speed and agility," Niemann said. "It'll just be a matter of him coming in and plugging in and understanding assignments and details of his responsibilities."
Putting it fairly, the expectation is that Harris won't have to see the field, because if he steps in at safety, cornerback or wherever it may be, that means another Knight starter has gone down.
The new starter in the secondary will be sophomore safety K.J. Gray, who will be replacing Hampton for the foreseeable future. Gray primarily played wide receiver in high school, but switched to safety at Rutgers and recorded an interception last year against New Mexico.
He also led the team in takeaways, recovering two fumbles on kickoffs to add to his interception, giving him three on the season.
While Gray has flashed ability, it remains unknown how he will hold up in coverage for an entire game.
Ash was very blunt about Gray's new responsibilities, noting that he is all the team has to put out there and will be a very important cog in the defense.
"We don't have more guys. K.J.'s the one that went in, and K.J. the one that will be in," Ash said. "We don't have any depth. We've got to play who we've got."
Junior cornerback Isaiah Wharton, one of the two original starters in the four-man unit left, noted that the bye week was crucial in preparing the young players for Saturday.
"Communication (has) been good. They've been making plays, flying around. we like it so far," he said. "We like the young guys back there and we feel like they should be ready."
Only time will tell if young members of the secondary are ready to step up, as their first extended action comes on the road against Illinois, a team that has played numerous true freshmen all over the field and is committed to a youth movement.
But the Illini sit at 2-3 on the season and are coming off a blowout loss of their own, a 45-16 result in the favor of Iowa.
"Coming out of the bye week, I feel like we're in pretty good shape mentally and physically right now other than a couple spots," Ash said. "But I like where we're at and excited to get back and play again."