Rutgers patchwork secondary exceeds expectations against Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Leading up to Saturday’s game against Illinois, things went from bad to worse for the Rutgers secondary. Already without starting cornerback Blessuan Austin and starting safety Saquan Hampton, the Knights learned that they would also be without starting safety Kiy Hester.
The lone remaining starter was cornerback Isaiah Wharton, who would take the field with what could only be considered a patchwork secondary. Across from him was sophomore Damon Hayes, who has plenty of experience for an underclassmen but has not performed close to the level Austin.
Behind them at safety were sophomores KJ Gray and Jawuan Harris. Gray was a wide receiver in high school and was not expected to have to play extended snaps at safety this early in his career. Harris, who is better know as the star centerfielder on the baseball team, just switched to safety from wide receiver over the bye week.
Head coach Chris Ash admitted he wasn’t totally confident about Harris at safety, but the stats don’t lie. Harris led the team with 11 tackles, picked off a pass for his first career interception and even forced a fumble.
“I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit nervous about it going into the game and how he would handle it,” Ash said. “He executed every call we made and made some outstanding plays today that helped us win this football game. I‘m really proud of him, very selfless of him to make that move to the defense from the offensive side.”
While Illinois quarterback Jeff George, Jr. put up good numbers -- 308 yards and 2 touchdowns -- the secondary made plays when it counted.
Gray came up with an interception in the second half to halt an otherwise successful Illini drive, snagging a tipped pass at the Rutgers 17-yard line. The way Illinois kicker Chase McLaughlin had been striking the ball, he saved at least 3 points with that play.
He credited the coaching and preparation for the plays that him and Harris made on Saturday.
“Once we have it mentally, then we can do it," Gray said. "It wasn’t no physical outmatch. Jawuan (Harris) came over. He had a week of preparation but he performed really well. It’s all about preparation.”
Ash noted that the defensive schemes were very vanilla, as the coaching staff did not want to throw too many things at a guy like Harris, who had never played the position in college.
Harris did note that he didn't have any nerves when dropping into coverage, but he just wanted to do some hitting to give him a feel for being on the other side of the ball for the first time in his career.
“I was fine as far as the pass game," he said. "I just had to get that first hit out of the way and once I did ,just try to keep making tackles.”
And while Hester is expected to return this week against Purdue, Harris could still see some time as a safety. But with Saquan Hampton out for an indeterminate amount of time -- potentially the season -- Gray is a full-time starter who will only continue to be a more important part of the defense.
And he's hoping that Saturday's interception won't be his last.
“Wonderful feeling," Gray said. "I’m ready to get more.”