Warren finds role with third-down defense
When Wayne Warren finally intercepted his first career pass against North Carolina, the Rutgers football team’s junior safety said it felt routine.
The Scarlet Knights defensive line flushed UNC quarterback Bryn Renner from the pocket and Warren casually snagged the ball after junior defensive tackle Scott Vallone tipped it.
But after more than three years of waiting, Warren still could not claim his first interception.
“[Vallone] says it’s half a pick. He got the tip,” Warren said. “[Junior linebacker Khaseem Greene] said if he’d have seen it, he would have picked it. I was fortunate to be in the right spot at the right time.”
The powers that be did not bless Warren with the same fortune as a freshman, when the Salisbury, Md., native still dealt with the lingering effects of an ACL tear he suffered as a high school senior.
The injury slowed Warren down, he said, and the 6-foot-1 safety watched from afar during his redshirt season.
By all accounts, he had quite the seat.
Former Knight Joe Lefeged, now with the Indianapolis Colts, roamed the secondary for the better part of four seasons in Piscataway, and Greene spent last season there, as well, picking off three passes.
“Wayne is a very athletic, intelligent player,” said junior safety Duron Harmon. “I know if I have any questions, I could look over to Wayne and ask him because he’s been here a year longer than me. He knows the defense inside out. It makes me very comfortable to know that he’s the person coming in.”
Harmon knows Warren’s role in the defense quite well, partly because he earned the same title last season as the first safety off the bench on passing downs.
Although Harmon operated in a prototypical safety look and Warren lines up in the Knights’ dime package on third downs, the similarity is still there, Warren said.
“Year in and year out, I’m working, trying to get better and better,” he said. “Sitting behind people and not moping, not saying, ‘Man, I should be playing.’ I take it as a privilege and an honor learning from every guy I’ve been behind, trying to do what they’ve done, but … bring my own style.”
Warren continues to find new wrinkles in the defense and is still learning, he said.
He earned playing time in seven games in 2009 before seeing the field during all 12 last year, but now has a tangible role in head coach Greg Schiano’s defense.
Part of the adjustment from owning the special teamer tag to a safety seeing legitimate action involves moxie, Schiano said.
“He’s a talented guy. He just hadn’t had that opportunity to succeed on the field,” Schiano said. “I think every time he goes out there and makes some more plays, he feels like, ‘Hey, I belong here.’ And he does belong.”
Part of Warren’s subtle transition dealt with the ability to hone in on the pass, usually as one piece of a six-member secondary in the dime look.
Reacting to the pass on third down against UNC allowed Warren to be more instinctive, leading to his first interception in a Rutgers uniform.
But the threat of the run always looms, Warren said.
“It gets tricky when you get in that third-and-two, third-and-three area because they can throw the ball or they can run the ball,” Warren said. “Whenever I get on the field, I’m like, ‘Man, I’m in on third down. I don’t want to be the guy on the field when they get the first down.’”
Through two games, the Knights defense allowed its opponents to move the chains on third down just 33 percent of the time, and its revamped dime package is a major catalyst.
For Warren, who bided his time behind three safeties before this season, the onus is being on the field long enough to ensure the defense gets off it.
“We’re learning everything. Every game it gets better,” he said. “We’re just up for the challenge, and we’re excited for these big challenges. I don’t think we’ve really been challenged to the point to be able to show people what we really can do back there.”
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