When Blessuan Austin enrolled early, he caught the eyes of the coaches in spring camp and impressed in flashes months later in training camp.
While the plan likely was not for Austin to see the field as soon as he did, a series of dismissals above him on the depth chart tossed the true freshman into the fire as a starter at cornerback for Rutgers.
Now he returns for his sophomore season as an upgraded version of himself.
“My body’s more developed,” said Austin, who started 11 games at cornerback last year for the Scarlet Knights. “My mind is more developed. I have a better football IQ — I have to say. I just feel really good heading into the season, better than I did last year.”
The upgrade stems from a serious spike in the weight room. Under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker, Austin added 13 pounds of muscle. His 6-foot-1 frame jumped from 185 pounds to 198.
Sharpened speed and agility accompanied Austin's offseason growth.
The result paid off in an all-around improvement of his athleticism, an aspect that directly applies to his physical approach at corner.
“It helped me out a lot, to be honest with you,” Austin said of Parker’s program. “Just putting on weight, getting us tougher, straining more, I should say.
“I definitely feel that way because coach Parker, he makes you put it on the right way. So along with gaining weight and things of that nature, we also do speed training to make sure that along with putting on that weight, you get faster at the same time.”
As the starter opposite of Isaiah Wharton, Austin tallied 33 tackles and two for loss. He also added a forced fumble and an interception, which he returned 50 yards for a touchdown.
In the new press-man philosophy head coach Chris Ash brought to the defense, a physical and lengthy corner like Austin expects tests. Under the guidance of defensive backs coaches Bill Busch and Aaron Henry, Austin said they made the transition seamless.
“They helped prepare us a lot — the unit and I a lot, as I should say — because it’s just two minds, two great football IQs just put together in one and they’re just helping us out becoming better football players,” he said.
Beyond the minds of the coaching staff, the inclusion of Michigan graduate transfer Ross Douglas in the defensive backfield adds a different mentoring voice.
“He brought his knowledge to the unit,” Austin said of Douglas. “Things he experienced, we can now experience because he experienced it himself. So he’s just a great, he prepares well. So he just sheds that knowledge on us and we just take it from him.”
Still young at the position, Austin soaks in as much as he can to elevate his game and attempt to avoid a sophomore slump. On the other island, Wharton provides another source for growth.
“It’s great,” Austin said of his relationship with Wharton. “We have great chemistry with each other. We know what’s going on in the field with each other. We’ve been through it all, so it’s just been a great experience.”