Even after Blessuan Austin held his own as a true freshman thrown into the fire, he had his work cut out for him to retain his title as a starter at cornerback.
The summer additions of Michigan grad transfer Ross Douglas and junior college transfer Kobe Marfo tested Austin, but the sophomore stepped up. Austin rose to the challenge.
As the final week of training camp nears its end and the Sept. 3 opener at No. 14 Washington looms, Austin said he feels ready but still sees room for improvement.
“(The secondary needs to work on) sharpening our techniques,” Austin said. “The technique is never too perfect, so it’s always things to work on as far as your footwork and your eye discipline when we press, hand placement. It’s many things to work on.”
By experience, Austin knows the diligent details that go into preparation for a 12-game season. He enrolled early last spring from New Berlin (N.Y.) Milford Academy with the intent to contribute immediately. Soon enough, he became a starter along with fellow freshman Isaiah Wharton.
In similar fashion, coach Chris Ash recently recognized both for their efforts earlier in the week. They joined the ranks of other knighted players deemed game ready ahead with the season right around the corner.
“It means a lot to me,” Austin said. “It just showed me that my hard work pays off practicing hard and you’re noticed for the hard work you’ve been doing in practice on plays you make. So again, it’s a wonderful thing.”
As defensive backs coaches Bill Busch and Aaron Henry tweak the mannerisms of the secondary at the requests of Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, Austin welcomes the changes.
The workload increases as they translate practice drills to game situations, but Austin said the style of play on defense fits his approach.
“I definitely take on the challenge,” he said. “But like I said before, playing press-man, we did a little bit of press-man last year. And at our height, at our weight we just love playing press-man, to be honest with you. So for (the new staff to come in and put it in the defense), I mean, we love it.”
Austin added that the daily tasks of facing a variety of wide receivers — from the size of 6-foot-6 Carlton Agudosi to the speed of Janarion Grant — intensifies the learning curve.
“I mean, I think the secondary and the unit as a whole, we’re in a good place,” Austin said. “But like I said before, there’s always improvements to make. It’s just taking more steps and more practices toward being game ready.”
How much progress was made will be evident soon enough.
But in the footsteps of the successful Rutgers defensive backs that came before him, Austin wants to see the unit return to prominence.
“Being in this unit, you have to have high expectations and it’ll be a special thing for us to get back to that name as DBU,” he said. “I mean, that would be a great thing for us.”