Secondary Depth, Development are Reasons for Thanks with Rutgers Football

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Could DBU be back at Rutgers soon? With a young secondary that quietly made serious strides in its first year under coach Chris Ash and his staff, the future looks bright.

Even if it was before Isaiah Wharton's time, the sophomore cornerback remembers when Rutgers was known for a stacked defensive secondary

He wants to bring it back. With the likes of classmates Blessuan Austin, Saquan Hampton and Kiy Hester around him in the defensive backfield, Wharton has a point.

“I remember when we first came here, that was one of our goals — bring DBU back,” Wharton said. “We knew we had the talent. It was just a matter of putting in the work … we know we’re a real talented group and we hold each other to that. We work out together as much as we can, getting extra work. We just want to be a really good unit, a unit that this team can rely on.”

Evidently, all returning members of the secondary share that belief.

“We’re excited to that we all come back,” Hampton said. “We have a few years left of eligibility. We want to be that unit — as the McCourtys were — we want to be that unit that everyone talks about as well.”

In the span of a year, a freshmen-laden unit transformed into one of Rutgers’ strongest groups. The Scarlet Knights (2-9, 0-8) lack positives in year one of a rebuild under coach Chris Ash and his staff, but the pass defense is one area that saw serious improvement.

After three consecutive seasons where Rutgers ranked among the worst in the Big Ten — and the country — against the pass, the secondary took a leap in 2016. Rutgers chopped its 290.6 yards per game from last year down to an average of 194.7 yards ahead of its season finale Saturday at Maryland.

The defensive-minded Ash had oversight of the defensive backs at virtually all of his coaching stops along the way. His work with the secondary continues at Rutgers.

“I learned a lot from coach Ash — his techniques and everything, his background,” Hampton said. “He has a good background and history, so he brings that here with us. Obviously, we’re getting better from him.”

Although Ash floats around with the other position groups on defense, Wharton said his focus with the cornerbacks and safeties pays off.

“We know we’re held to a high standard,” Wharton said. “He’s constantly on us everyday when we’re in individual (drills). … So we’re starting to get a little more trust with him. That means a lot.

“He’s a great DB coach. So when it comes to just watching film, as far as craft stuff, he’s able to give us really good insight and then we can buy in and hone in on it, practice it, rep it more so we can become a better unit.”

While the four sophomores in the unit are the first to come to mind, true freshmen K.J. Gray and Damon Hayes made immediate impacts as replacements when their numbers were called.

Cornerbacks coach Aaron Henry said the competition in the secondary is the reason why all players within it continue to improve.

“I think all of them are very, very hungry,” Henry said. “I think all of them … want to play in the NFL. Every kid that comes through the program wants to play in the NFL. … Most guys come in here with that hunger. Because all of those guys are motivated by that, I think time will tell. And the more games they play, just naturally, they’ll be better at it and they do have plenty of time and hopefully we can bring some freshmen in here that can push them.

“At the end of the day, I like competition. I want competition because with this group or what not, if they’re not competitive with my two and three deep, I think we’ll be in trouble down the road.”

With four years as a starter at cornerback and safety, senior Anthony Cioffi offers his veteran insight at both positions before his Rutgers career comes to an end.

“I just told them to stay with it,” Cioffi said. “Obviously, there’s some doubts going in. We’re a 2-9 team, but a lot of kids are coming back and the defense is only going to miss a couple guys next year. So I feel like they’re going to be really solid.

“I’m just telling them, stay in the film room because that’s it, that’s the biggest tip you can get and everybody’s here taking heat to it. They’re understanding what it takes to play at a high level.”

For all of the optimism and promise that surrounds the future of the Rutgers’ defensive backs, defensive coordinator Jay Niemann underlined that all of them need to continue the climb.

“The key is consistency, I've already mentioned that and you don't necessarily improve your defense or your program just by having guys back who have played before,” Niemann said. “Those guys have to improve, otherwise your result doesn't change.

“So the thing for us obviously is to change physically by the time the season is over with, how we're getting through spring ball with coach (Kenny) Parker's strength and conditioning program and improve their football IQ and intelligence of the game itself and how it pertains to the positions they play. If those things happen, we will have a better result as we move forward into the next season.”

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