PULLMAN – For a decade Rutgers was the Harvard of the Secondary and getting a degree in defensive back was a surefire start to a career as a professional football player.
In 2012 five different members of the Scarlet Knights’ defensive backfield made it to an NFL training camp.
“Those guys played a lot of football and were starters for multiple years,” new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said during a press conference. “We remember the end of the road but there was a process to get them to that point.”
Without much in the way of an orientation period, last year’s young secondary showed it could still use some time in a remedial class, giving up a school-record 4,580 passing yards in Rutgers’ last season before heading off to the run-heavy Big Ten conference.
But before the Scarlet Knights can find sanctuary among their new ground-and-pound Midwestern rivals they open the season against one of the country’s most prolific passing offenses in Washington State.
To avoid a barrage of aerial scores in Seattle on Thursday night the Rutgers defensive backs will have to return to their stingy ways of previous seasons, such as 2011 when the Scarlet Knights finished No. 5 in pass-efficiency defense and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 51.8 percent of their passes.
“We’re all excited,” said safety Lorenzo Waters. “We all know it’s a big opportunity for us and our program and it’s our chance to show the world what we’re all about. I think we’re ready.”
It would be great for the Cougars if it takes the visitors at least one more game to figure it out. Last season the Scarlet Knights gave up 170 passes of more than 10 yards. No other opponent gave up more than 151.
Those struggles were primarily due to youth and inexperience. Three freshmen played significant roles, as did a converted running back. While the freshmen are a year older, injuries have again put the Scarlet Knights in the position of raiding the rest of the team to bolster the secondary.
“The guys that we put out there last year as freshmen, that were playing as true freshmen … they got a lot of great experience in games situations and that’s only going to benefit them,” Rossi said. “They’re still early in their progression, though.”
Starting cornerback Justin Goodwin was a running back less than two weeks ago, and he’s only a sophomore. Freshman corner Andre Boggs is expected to see significant action on Thursday.
The group will rely heavily on Waters, who has made 24 starts and is the current crop’s only connection to their successful forebears.
“(He) is really the quarterback of our back end and one of the reasons why I think we’ll be much improved,” coach Kyle Flood said at Big Ten media day. “He’s really the next in a line of what has been many really high-level players in our defensive secondary at Rutgers.”
Rutgers could play well in pass defense and still give up plenty of yards to WSU quarterback Connor Halliday, who threw for more than 500 yards twice last season and came close against Utah with 488.
Halliday has his top eight receivers back from last season, and added a freshman the coaches really like in inside receiver Calvin Green.
With such a high volume of passes, both teams are bound to make mistakes and whoever makes more will likely determine which team is celebrating at the end of the night.
That will probably be the Cougars if Rutgers’ secondary resembles the one that struggled last season. That’s why Waters is determined that he and his fellow defensive backs will make 2013 the exception and not the new normal.
“That was last year’s defense, that’s in the past,” Waters said. “We’ve moved on and this year’s a whole new secondary.”
Two freshmen absent
Freshmen Barry Ware and Deion Singleton are no longer listed on the WSU roster. While both signed letters of intent with the Cougars in February, neither have practiced with WSU in the fall. Coach Mike Leach said after practice that he was unsure if he could comment on their absence but that “we’re only worried about the guys that are here.”
Neither Singleton, a defensive back, nor Ware, a receiver, are currently enrolled at WSU and classes for fall quarter start today.