Depth on defense has been major strength for Rutgers
Injuries happen all the time in football — it's just a part of the game. But for the Rutgers defense, the injuries have been much more than just a few nicks and bruises.
Starting linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams tore his ACL in the spring and will not play at all this season. Starting cornerback Blessuan Austin tore his ACL against Nebraska and will miss the rest of the season. Other starters such as defensive end Kemoko Turay, linebacker Deonte Roberts and safety Kiy Hester have all been banged up for a majority of the season.
And while that might deter some teams, the Scarlet Knights have truly embraced the next man up mentality.
Last year's leading receiver Jawuan Harris switched to safety and had interceptions against Illinois and Maryland while playing for Hester. KJ Gray, a sophomore safety who did not play that much on defense last season, has two interceptions while starting in place for starter Saquan Hampton, who has missed time with a shoulder injury.
The bottom line is that the Knights have made no excuses and the backups have stepped up when their names were called.
"There's not a drop off and that's how it is," said fifth year senior and starting nose tackle Sebastian Joseph. "(Head) Coach (Chris) Ash does a great job of preaching that. I'm happy that's the case. I don't want there to be a drop off. If we just keep that going, good things will happen."
Despite Joseph not being injured this season, he plays a position where there is a lot of substituting to keep guys fresh. He noted a series in last week's win against Maryland when he made a sack and was taken out of the game for redshirt freshman Julius Turner. Joseph noted that he was mad to be taken out of the game, but that went away when he saw Turner come up with the sack.
Turner is one of many younger players making an impact on the team in Ash's second year at the helm. Rutgers is notably much deeper across the board than a year ago, which has shown with the emergence of players like redshirt freshman center Michael Maietti, who filled in for an injured Jonah Jackson and equaled, if not exceeded, the previous level of play.
"It shows the maturity of the team, the maturity of the younger guys," Joseph said. "They want to be great. Nothing's wrong with that. Nothing's wrong with wanting to be great."
In the aforementioned secondary, where guys like Harris and Gray have stepped in and played well, next man up mindset thrives. There had been times where three backups would be on the field to start a game because of injuries.
But the former second-stringers have been quick to shed the "backup" tag, as their level of play suggests otherwise.
Junior cornerback Isaiah Wharton has been the lone starter in terms of the preseason depth chart, but has shown that him and sophomore Damon Hayes can be a formidable partnership on the outside, and the two have visibly gotten better each game they have been starting together.
Hayes played his best game of the season against the Terrapins, locking down star wide receiver DJ Moore for the majority of the game and helping to limit the Maryland offense. It is hard to imagine Hayes, or any non-starter, playing that well in a similar situation last season.
But Wharton noted that rotating Hayes in with the first team in camp has made him the de facto starter and Hayes has played like that for the most part. Wharton also added that the defensive backs have made sure that all of them, regardless of position on the depth chart, have prepared the same, resulting in everyone being prepared when their number is called.
"We've always had a next man up mentality," Wharton said. "We've made sure that the second string third string people, it doesn't matter who it is. They watch film with us...(When we do) extra work, we make sure everybody's there."