Anthony Cioffi was a valuable piece for Rutgers before coach Kyle Flood dismissed four defensive backs. In the aftermath, Cioffi’s importance skyrockets.
The junior from Springfield (N.J.) Dayton brings a versatility and an experience that is irreplaceable in a secondary hungry for bodies.
“[Cioffi] was really important before any of this happened,” Flood said Saturday after the 63-13 victory over Norfolk State. “Anthony has been a playmaker for us. He had an interception today which doesn't surprise me. Always on special teams and on defense he has always seemed to find himself around the ball. He has told me on multiple occasions that he could play on offense.”
Cioffi’s value comes in his versatility. A high school quarterback, he started for two years at cornerback before a late-spring move at free safety. He nearly beat out Delon Stephenson for the starting job in training camp, and then became the top guy by default after Stephenson’s arrest and subsequent dismissal.
“Whatever the coaches need me to play, I’m here for them,” said Cioffi, who picked off a pass on a wide receiver reverse throw. “I really love free safety but if I have to go down and play corner, it’s not going to be a crazy transition as far as moving someone else over. It would be smooth.”
The defensive backs meeting room will be short four people for the rest of the season. Their absences, however, are not a distraction, Cioffi said.
“It’s been fine,” Cioffi said on the dismissed defensive backs. “I just locked in and continued with the game plan. It didn’t change anything. I took the same mentality as I’ve taken everything. Each game is a test to go out and show what we have defensively. We just need to communicate better.”
Cioffi was a leader in training camp and his role becomes even more important as the most experienced defensive back on the field for the rest of the season. Come a long way since the wide-eyed true freshman against Louisville and UCF, Cioffi knows what it takes to play right away at defensive back.
“I was in their shoes before so it’s something that I’ve felt,” he said. “The upperclassmen like Zo (Lorenzo Waters) and Aik (Johnathan Aiken), what they did for me is what I want to do for the younger kids. It’s a process, and we’re doing a great job. Everybody’s locked in so you can’t ask for anything else.
“It’s a lot going on around you. The spotlight is on you. You get beat and give up a touchdown in practice, it’s OK. You correct it in film. Here, it’s six points and it changes the momentum of the game. All of the young guys are taking it well.”
Like his freshman season, Cioffi expects the opposition to see the secondary as a weak link and attack.
“We have to step up to the challenge,” Cioffi said. “Every year I’ve been here, offenses have gone after us. My freshman year, we weren’t so good and my sophomore year we stepped up. People kept trying to test us. It’s nothing new, and we’ll be ready this year.”