By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Aug. 1, 2014) – As bad as the experience seemed to be at times last year – and statistically it was a nightmare – Rutgers cornerbacks Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi insist they’re better off for what they went through as true freshmen.
Pressed into service in a secondary depleted by injuries and defections, both were forced to not only play but start well before they were ready -- and at a position that true freshmen rarely make an immediate impact.
At one point last fall, the Scarlet Knights were the only FBS school to start two true freshmen cornerbacks in the same game.
The payoff starts now.
“Looking back, it was a good experience,” said Barnwell, a 5-11, 186-pound sophomore. “I’m glad I was on the field early and I got a taste of the action instead of having to wait a whole year. I know the game speed now. I have a feel for the game and the speed. I’ve been through it now. I understand it now. That’s only going to help this season.”
Cioffi, who appeared in 12 games and started five last fall, said he saw the difference a year of playing can make on the first day of preseason camp today.
“I was one of the guys teaching the freshmen (cornerbacks), showing them what to do, because I know the defense better and I’ve been in games,” said the 6-0, 194-pounder. “It’s a big difference.”
Barnwell (Piscataway, N.J.) admitted he was like “a deer in the headlights” when he arrived at preseason camp a year ago at this time. And if the record struggles Rutgers’ secondary endured last year left Barnwell or Cioffi (Springfield, N.J.) scarred at all, those wounds have healed.
“We can do nothing but improve as a secondary,” said Barnwell, who appeared in 12 games and started four in 2013. “I think we got better as a whole as the year went on. We made strides you could see and then more over the spring. We take the adversity we went through last year and use it as fuel. We come out with a chip on our shoulder to get better because we don’t want the same results as last year.”
What happened last year was a perfect storm in some ways for the Scarlet Knights’ defense. The secondary was painfully young. The pass rush was inconsistent. And the AAC featured a steady diet of finesse passing offenses.
That’s not the case as much heading into the more physical Big Ten.
Yet both Barnwell and Cioffi know there’s still plenty of skepticism surrounding the secondary, with the Aug. 28 opener against Washington State, which led the country in pass attempts a year ago, offering an immediate test.
“Keep it coming,” Cioffi said of the doubts about the secondary. “We’re here. We’re not hiding. We have to perform. We know that. And we will.”
Barnwell echoed those sentiments.
“I love the attention,” he said. “I want everybody to question us. I want to be the underdog, because when we show up and show out everyone is going want to be on the bandwagon saying `yeah, Rutgers.’ I can’t wait to prove those doubters wrong.”