When the game was on the line last Thursday against Washington State in the fourth quarter, there was one key defensive play to set up the go-ahead touchdown for the Rutgers football team.
The play didn’t happen on defense, but senior Johnathan Aiken, who was beat out at free safety in training camp by sophomore Delon Stephenson, forced a fumble on a punt after the Scarlet Knights failed to score with about seven minutes left and trailing, 38-34.
Aiken wasn’t finished, though.
After junior running back Paul James scored the eventual winning touchdown, Aiken had a key pass breakup on 4th-and-13 with under a minute left to give Rutgers the ball back to run out the clock.
For his performance in the game, Aiken was rewarded Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week —the first award a Rutgers player has earned in its new conference.
As notable as the award is, head coach Kyle Flood was quick to credit Aiken’s attitude, not only his athletic ability. Flood said even though Aiken lost the starting free safety job, his work ethic kept him going.
“I think it is a tremendous testament to the selflessness of a football player,” Flood said. “I think that’s critical as you go through the season. Everybody in the building has to put the team first. John had a great opportunity to do that in Week 1, took advantage of it and made plays when he had the opportunity on special teams and on defense.”
The honor won’t interfere with his progress and won’t cause him to take any plays off in practice or games, Aiken said.
Instead of focusing on the winning the award, Aiken said he wants to continue to get better and compete for playing time.
“I just think that [the award] is a story to my testament,” Aiken said. “I stick with it, I fight and, when my coaches put me on the field, I just want to prove to them that I can play and be good.”
Junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said that Aiken’s performance against the Cougars is due to his competitive nature as a player. Hamilton agrees that Aiken is competing for a starting job and turned heads with the plays he made.
“[Johnathan Aiken] is a great guy and a great person to be around,” Hamilton said. “He’s a competitor, and I think that’s the best thing about him and the best part of his game. Coach Flood always talks about how there are five plays in a game that decide an outcome of the game, and Johnathan made three of them. When you force a fumble and have two fourth down stops, that’s big. He deserves every accolade he receives.”
With the week of practice coming to a close, Aiken knows there are a few things the secondary needs to work on before the Howard game.
“Pass defense, swarming to the ball throughout the game because against Washington State we came out hot and firing and kind of fell off a little bit,” Aiken said of what the defense can improve. “That’s when a lot of our mistakes happened. I think if we can stay focused, stay ready and have each other’s back, that’s the number one thing we need to do.”
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