Spotlight Knight: Christian Izien
Amid all the turbulent changes within the coaching staff and the strong possibility that two of the Rutgers football team's top student athletes, sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski and junior running back Raheem Blackshear, have not played since September, several new faces have emerged from the second tier of the depth chart.
While true freshman running back Aaron Young has appeared as the clear understudy for Blackshear in the backfield, redshirt freshman strong safety Christian Izien has made a name for himself as one of the young secondary starters on defense.
Izien first cracked defensive coordinator Andy Buh's lineup against Indiana two weekends ago, starting in place of fifth-year senior strong safety Malik Dixon. Dixon sat atop the depth chart for the opening five games of the season, but did not see the field against No. 17 Minnesota in their 42-7 loss, this past Saturday.
Izien, a Far Rockaway, New York, native, has come a long way to earning a starter's spot atop the depth chart in the secondary. Last season, he saw time in the first third of the season on special teams before redshirting the remaining eight games. He did not account for any tackles, interceptions, fumble recoveries or any defensive statistic in a short four-game span in 2018.
It almost seems incomparable to view Izien's defensive numbers between his short season and the current season. He went from having zero tackles (in four games) his first season to having 35 total tackles through seven games played this season, including two starts.
The setting for his first career start was in unfamiliar territory on Oct. 12. Between Bloomington, Indiana, and Indianapolis, there are miles of cornfield, something new for Izien, who grew up in one of Queens, New York's, urban neighborhoods.
Against the Hoosiers, Izien was unfazed by the new setting, totaling six tackles, including two individual tackles and making his presence known.
He was rewarded with another start, this time at home, in the Scarlet Knights' (1-6, 0-5) homecoming game against the unbeaten Golden Gophers (7-0, 4-0) at SHI Stadium, in what was his best game through 11 games into his young career.
Izien followed junior linebackers Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyshon Fogg as Rutgers' top tacklers with nine. That's two below Fogg and four below Fatukasi's totals against the Big Ten West opponent.
Izien was also 1 of 2 Knights to make a tackle for a loss, tackling Minnesota's Chris Autman-Bell for a 3-yard loss in the second quarter. Autman-Bell actually finished with negative yards, a testament to Izien's ability to read the offense from the secondaries role.
Rutgers' secondary is one of the youngest units on its roster. While the linebacking front features upperclassmen like Fogg, Fatukasi and junior linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams, their secondary is anchored now by Izien and sophomore free safety Jarrett Paul — two underclassmen who have burst onto the top spots in their respective positions.
Both played on special teams last season, with Paul appearing in all 12 games of 2018. There are many parallels between the two safeties, technically in the same class, the Class of 2021. Paul is also from one of New York City's five boroughs (Brooklyn) and went to school at Paramus Catholic.
Like his fellow safety, Izien attended high school in New Jersey. Unlike Paul, he finished his senior year at Erasmus Hall High School, which is located in Paul's native Brooklyn, in the Flatbush area.
Izien attended St. Francis Preparatory School in his hometown of Queens for his first two years in high school, before venturing across the Hudson River to North Jersey powerhouse program Pope John XXIII Regional High School, located in Sparta, New Jersey.
With the Lions in the Garden State, Izien was lined up as a wide receiver on offense, totaling three touchdowns and 216 receiving yards. He also doubled as a running back, marking 47 touches on the ground along with 287 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
While in the fall season he donned pads and ran routes on the football field in the fall, the 5-foot-10-inch Izien bunted opposing runners on the track in the spring. He competed in the Penn Relays, the oldest event for track and field held at UPenn's Franklin Field in Philadelphia, in his only season with the Lions.
In the 4x100 relay, Izien and his Pope John team consisting of Sam Darrell, Elorm Akasreku and John Novak, compiled a 43.56 time on April 29, 2017. He also was a sprinter on the outdoor track team.
Izien, who is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, was ranked as the top 20th high school recruit by 247Sports. He was also selected to the All-City team while being honored as the Defensive Player of the Year, when he was with Erasmus Hall.
As Liberty comes to the Banks for the inaugural meeting between the Knights and the FBS Independent team, Izien will prepare for his third straight start under interim head coach Nunzio Campanile.
"I credit my defense. I credit my guys on the other side of the ball," Izien said about his increased role on the defense. "I credit our scouts every week giving us the opportunity to see a good look."
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