Greene overcomes injury history, later emergence at Rutgers to become one of program’s top defensive players
For a moment Saturday in Pittsburgh, all eyes were on Khaseem Greene, but not the way he is accustomed to. Members of the Rutgers football team’s training staff stood over Greene, who had suffered a nasty head-on collision with Pittsburgh punt returner Cameron Saddler.
Steve Beauharnais crouched down to see him. Pitt running back Ray Graham, Greene’s half brother, met Greene at the 35-yard line.
“I just had to shake it off,” Greene said Monday. “Once I did that, I was right back out there.”
No series of events have encapsulated Greene quite like that sequence.
Given recent efforts from the NCAA and NFL to minimize the impact of head injuries, speculation remains if Greene should have returned to the field. Team trainers OK’d Greene’s status, and that was the last word Greene needed.
The senior linebacker has tied or held sole possession of team highs in tackles, sacks or interceptions during each of his four seasons in Piscataway.
He recorded a Big East-best 141 tackles last year en route to earning conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors.
And he is the emotional leader of a defense that ranks fourth in the nation in scoring.
But Greene’s ability to beat the odds has always been his calling card.
“He’s the guy, he’s the playmaker,” Beauharnais said. “He’s the guy everybody relies on.”
They could not rely on Greene in the spring, when a gruesome ankle injury Dec. 30 in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State sidelined him. Despite Greene’s prodding, Flood held him out of contact drills until training camp.
Greene entered the season on the heels of a banner 2011 campaign in which he became a playmaking linebacker the Scarlet Knights sorely needed. Beauharnais was forced to return to the middle following failed experiments to find a proper replacement.
So Greene, following a move from safety, continued to make plays. Only Beauharnais could not tell if Greene actually meant to do so.
“He kind of just glides to the ball without even really reading anything,” Beauharnais said. “When he first started out, I didn’t know if he had his eyes in the right place, but he always ended up in the right spot because his natural instincts just take over.”
But more of Greene’s preparation went largely unseen.
Beauharnais did not work with Greene much immediately after Greene’s 2011 position change because of the newness of the Knights’ offseason schemes.
So Greene ran with the team’s defensive backs. He lifted weights with Rutgers’ defensive linemen. And he became the poster boy of former head coach Greg Schiano’s defensive overhaul.
“He’s always the same person,” said junior linebacker Jamal Merrell. “That’s something I really take from him. Just stay the same person no matter what you do, no matter if you have the highest accolades or the lowest accolades.”
It is a trait Greene likely learned at Elizabeth (N.J.) High School, where he was a lightly recruited safety. He earned offers from only six schools, according to Rivals.com, but only one other — Connecticut — plays in a BCS conference.
He watched Rutgers’ program-defining 2006 game against Louisville on TV.
The Cardinals step onto the High Point Solutions Stadium turf again nearly six years later, and Greene finds himself in the thick of the Knights’ BCS hopes.
“We don’t want a share [of a Big East title]. Sharing is not a good feeling,” Greene said. “I know firsthand from last season, sharing Big East [Defensive] Player of the Year. It was horrible. It was almost sickening.”
It is part of a deeper conviction Greene and the Knights share.
They experienced an 18-point loss at UConn last season, shattering their chance at a first-ever share of a Big East title. They settled that score last week, when Louisville’s loss to the Huskies softened the blow of Rutgers’ shortcomings at Pitt.
More is at stake tonight, but Greene has faced worse odds.
He spent a prep season at Avon Old Farms (Conn.) before finally arriving at Rutgers in 2008, when he promptly redshirted. Forced to deal with constant contact after moving from safety, he bulked up to 230 pounds during the last two seasons.
And a collapsed ankle against Iowa State nearly threatened his NFL aspirations.
“I just trust my training,” Greene said. “I trust what I work hard in the offseason to do, and that’s be the best football player I can be.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.