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Rutgers works out kinks of three-man rotation at safety

Senior safety Anthony Cioffi played limited snaps after missing a tackle on Ricky Jones that led to Indiana’s second touchdown Saturday. He’ll be a part of Rutgers’ three-man rotation at safety against Michigan State. – Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez

The Rutgers football team’s 33-27 loss to Indiana last Saturday marked the first game all season in which strong safety Anthony Cioffi didn’t play in a large majority of a game. 

Having played in what his position coach Bill Busch estimated to be 500-600 consecutive defensive snaps, the senior was pulled five minutes into the game after failing to take down Hoosier wide receiver Ricky Jones, doubling what would’ve been an 18-yard reception to a 36-yard touchdown as the visitors retook the lead moments after the Scarlet Knights tied it up.

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Cioffi would not see the field for the remainder of the game, but despite the timing, it had little to do with the missed tackle.

“We were gonna have a rotation anyway, and what happened was, to be honest with you, the next three or four series when (sophomore safety) Kiy (Hester) was in, we didn’t give up any points,” Busch said. “I always tell guys, ‘I’m not gonna change a rotation after a three-and-out or a turnover or anything like that.’ I’m just not gonna change rotation in that spot right there.”

The change wasn’t completely negative for Cioffi, who had begun to pick up some knicks and bruises from the extended action he’s been seeing on Saturdays.

“It was good, but sometimes you really don’t want it. But it was necessary and it helped me out,” Cioffi said of the rest on gameday. “It was very tough (to watch from the sideline), but it was the call and it was the right one so it was just another day for me to get my body right.”

The Springfield, New Jersey, native was unable to help from the sideline as he watched Rutgers surrender a season-high 420 yards through the air to Indiana, a team known for its pass-happy offense under head coach Kevin Wilson. And the Hoosiers weren’t steadily moving the chains either — quarterback Richard Lagow completed passes of 18, 19, 22, 26, 36, 40, 41 and 42 yards.

But he was also able to admire sophomore safety Saquan Hampton pick off Lagow in the first play of Indiana’s second drive of the second quarter. It was the second consecutive, pick thrown by the Hoosier quarterback as he opened the second frame by getting intercepted by sophomore linebacker Deonte Roberts.

“I’m sure they’re saying they made a mistake, we’re saying we did the right thing. But both of those (interceptions) right there, we didn’t just fall backwards into them. The young men did the right thing,” Busch said. “Hampton’s was a tremendous play because of the scheme we were in and the ground he had to cover to get to it, and then obviously the encouraging thing was he had a huge return off of that to get us a lot of yards back.”

Another positive to take from the play is Hampton appeared to be back at 100 percent. The Hamilton, New Jersey, native missed five games due to an injury picked up in the season opener against No. 4 Washington and has been slowly regaining game form since returning against Illinois three weeks ago.

Back too was Hester, who was kept in the game for Cioffi due to his play. The Plainfield, New Jersey, native returned to action against Indiana after missing three games due to an undisclosed injury.

Cioffi said he felt better after Wednesday’s practice and all signs point to him not missing a beat in terms of appearing in Saturday’s game in East Lansing against fellow Big Ten East basement dweller Michigan State.

But while they’re all physically able to be on the field against the Spartans, the only way they can stay on it is to show something in their play that they haven’t been able to keep with their health — consistency.

“I think all have shown signs of quality play, and hopefully they’ll continue to do that and hopefully all three compete really hard and make it a really tough decision,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, of the three-man safety rotation. “Honestly, the best scenario is they all play well enough and practice well enough that they’re ready to contribute and do contribute. I think if you give them all reps in the game, it’ll make you better down the stretch, especially in the fourth quarter.”

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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