When senior wide receiver Janarion Grant remained on the ground following a 76-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter of the Rutgers football team’s matchup with Iowa last Saturday, the air seemed to be sucked out of High Point Solutions Stadium and only returned when he was given a standing ovation as he limped off the turf.
When senior defensive end Quanzell Lambert remained on the ground after making a crucial tackle to force the Hawkeyes into a third down, the energy among the 44,061 fans in attendance remained nearly the same as the Scarlet Knights came closer to achieving a key stop to keep their chances alive.
The Timber Creek High School product received a standing ovation as loud as the one Grant was given as he was carted off the field with a brace on his right knee, but the crowd grew silent shortly after as LeShun Daniels rushed 12 yards to gain a first down and seal a 14-7 win for Iowa.
Playing in Lambert’s place was Darnell Davis, a junior who started his career at Rutgers as a walk-on, received a scholarship under former head coach Kyle Flood, but is now back to playing as walk-on.
Davis was on the right edge of the defensive line on the play following Lambert’s injury — one that will keep him and Grant out for the season — and it was the right side that Daniels’ exploited as he rounded the edge on his way to the first down.
The play wasn’t Davis’ finest — he was contained by the offensive lineman across from him — but it was far from the level he’s been performing in the increased number of reps he’s been trusted with this season, one that rivals that of the player he’s replacing.
“Darnell has played several snaps of football already,” said head coach Chris Ash. “He's played outstanding snaps of football already and maybe not as many as Quanzell, but not far off and we didn't lose anything when Darnell was in there."
Davis is listed as the starter on the depth chart at the start of the week, but Ash admitted that the decision is not set in stone.
The team will evaluate all its options, including fellow junior Myles Nash and sophomore Jimmy Hogan.
“Next guy has to step up,” Davis said. “Quanzell is probably one of the most versatile players on our team. He’s a leader, not just on the D-Line, but on the whole defense, even the team and it’s hard, but we have to fill those shoes … He trusts us, we’re all brothers and we’re going to be alright. Just keep working hard and keep pushing.”
Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann added to the praise Ash gave to Davis, noting the number of reps he’s taken in game situations, but remembering that this week will be different in terms of volume.
“Well, Darnell’s played well. He’s had quite a few snaps under his belt,” Niemann said. “He’s played well but now he’s gotta play well more often.”
Davis will have a bigger increase in responsibility from one game week to the next than he’s likely ever faced in his career and what an opponent to do it against.
The Buckeyes rank top in the Big Ten in rushing, scoring and total offense, with running back Curtis Samuel averaging the most all-purpose yards per game with 173, almost a full 10 more than Grant’s 163.8 per game.
Ohio State’s other running back Mike Weber ranks second in the conference in rushing yards per game, falling 2 yards per game less than the Knights’ junior back Robert Martin.
Those numbers don’t scare Davis, though.
“They put their pants on just like we do,” Davis said. “We gotta play tough football. We trust in the coaching staff and if we do our job, anything can happen. Anything is possible, any given Saturday.”