PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — After Rutgers gave up a school-record in passing yards last season, the defensive backs knew what to improve upon entering their first season in the Big Ten Conference.
It started with a Super Bowl party. Not long before the big game, senior safeties Lorenzo Waters and Johnathan Aiken held a players-only meeting for the defensive backs. The objective was simple. The unit needed to get closer off the field.
"On a team, you have to hang out with each other," Aiken said. "Last year, they had cliques. Only time we saw each other was in the Hale (Center). Now you see (players at) each other's houses playing video games."
It's a vast difference from last year's unit.
"It's hard to play with guys if you really don't trust them," sophomore cornerback Nadir Barnwell said. "I felt like last year was a 'me' kind of team and an 'I' kind of team."
The results showed. A young secondary with three new starters gave up a school-record 4,580 yards passing.
The performance came after a decade of dominance by Rutgers' secondary, ending with a 2012 unit that had five players make it to an NFL training camp.
Heading into 2014, Rutgers is relying on a year of experience and a closer unit focused on the style of their defense. They didn't fare well against pass-happy offenses, including senior quarterbacks in Fresno State's Derek Carr and SMU's Garrett Gilbert. The struggles continued against two first-round NFL draft picks in Central Florida's Blake Bortles and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater.
"We just had a tough time adjusting a little bit," Waters said. "But being in the Big Ten, this is a conference that well suits our defense."
The Scarlet Knights defense has been one of the best in the nation in stopping the run and causing turnovers in the past decade. While undersized, Rutgers features a speedy front seven.
The secondary returns all but one starter, safety Jeremy Deering. But the group will have to impress new coordinator Joe Rossi.
Waters seems to be the only one with a starting job. Aiken is challenging Delon Stephenson to start at free safety, while Barnwell, Anthony Cioffi and Gareef Glashen are among those aiming for time at cornerback.
"We got the talent," Aiken said. "Guys actually starting to understand the schemes. Guys actually learning to trust each other and we trust the coaches. So once you follow the ladder to success, you're on your way. You can't fail."
The first test will come against Washington State before heading into a conference where most have already written them off.
Aiken said the secondary needs to prove itself.
"Not even just because of last year," he said. "Just going into the Big Ten, everyone is counting us out. Our motto is something to prove. Every day we take that task and work on it. The season is going to come so we're just proving to our coaches that we can play and then we can show it to everyone else later."