At 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds, Isaiah Wharton checks off on the physical requirements for a cornerback in the new defensive philosophy at Rutgers.
As head coach Chris Ash and his staff drill concepts of press-man coverage and rugby tackling in an effort to revive a unit that got torched for 462 total yards per game a year ago, a youthful secondary acknowledges its own room for improvement.
Wharton is no exception.
“A year in the Big Ten under your belt is big,” said Wharton, who started all 12 games last year as a redshirt freshman. “I’ve played against a lot of great competition. So, I mean, now I know what I’ve got to look for. I know how much harder I have to practice during every week because practice — however you practice during that week is how you’re going to play.
“I mean, as a young kid … you don’t really believe it. But you do have to just prepare, the preparation. And that’s one thing I learned taking into this season — how to prepare. And I feel like that’s going to help me a lot.”
While Wharton progressed through the fall after an unexpected shakeup in the secondary threw him into the fire, there were more downs than ups for him and his fellow freshmen. Rutgers ranked 118th in the country in pass yards allowed (275.9 per game) and opponent pass efficiency (152.51).
The results from 2015 were hard to swallow for Wharton, but the adjustments and experience give the defensive backfield reasons to turn the page and look ahead.
That thought process begins at the top with cornerbacks coach Aaron Henry, who pointed to the potential for Wharton and fellow sophomore Blessuan Austin this year and beyond.
“From where we were when I got here to where we are now, oh, (Wharton and Austin) have moved mountains so far,” Henry said. “… I still think they’ve got a ways to go, man, I still think they’re young. I don’t think they’ve reached their prime at all yet. I still think they’re very eager to learn.
“I’m just trying to make them smarter players in the classroom because if I can make them smarter players in the classroom, their skillset is going to speak for itself. If I can make them smarter players in the classroom, they’re going to be that much better of a football player on the field.”
To get there, Wharton said he embraces the increase in reps necessary to master press-man coverage.
“Every corner likes playing press-man,” he said. “So, I mean, you get to compete each and every play. So that’s why you got to go so hard in practice, to be real technically sound like I said because one bad play at corner could be tragic. So you got to be sharp each and every play.”
Coupled with the new emphasis on rugby tackling, the secondary could end up faster and safer.
“It’s safer, so it allows you to play a lot faster,” Wharton said of the rugby tackling approach. “You run a lot faster because you know you’re not going to just stick your head across someone’s leg and get hit or nothing, so it’s just a lot safer way to play and to play a lot faster.”
How much Rutgers improves its pass defense relies on the transition from practices to games.
“Coach Henry was actually talking about that today,” Wharton said. “I mean, at corner, it’s one on one. It’s going to be a lot of 50-50 balls and, I mean, sometimes it’s going to be just a good throw and catch. It’ll be great coverage, but you just got to look past that. You got to have a short memory. You got to be real confident at corner.”