7 way-too-early predictions for Indiana's defense in 2022
Last season turned out to be the exact opposite of what Indiana was expecting from its defense.
The unit, which had been so good the year before, turned sour quickly in 2021, as the Hoosiers ranked dead last in the Big Ten in points allowed (33.3), 10th in yardage (384.1) and last in interceptions (5), after being one of the nation’s best in turnover margin the year previous. It added up to the Hoosiers finishing 2-10, including 0-9 in the Big Ten.
There were reasons (or perhaps excuses) for the collapse: Poorer-than-anticipated individual performances, mounting injuries, an offense that couldn’t sustain drives, lack of cohesion, to name a few. But now, for Indiana to recover quickly and be competitive again in the challenging Big Ten East, the defense must find a way back toward respectability.
Let’s take a look at 7 way-too-early predictions for Indiana’s defense in 2022:
New face(s) at DC?
Chad Wilt takes over as defensive coordinator.
But he won’t be calling plays on game days. That duty will go to Tom Allen, who had given up those responsibilities the previous 3 seasons, and for the first 2 of those, the Hoosiers had great success. But after the disastrous 2021, Allen decided to resume taking a more hands-on role on defense.
Will it work?
Eh, maybe. Wilt, who had spent the past 2 seasons as the defensive line coach at Minnesota, will be charged with installing a system that allows the Hoosiers to be more aggressive in their front. But hiring a coach, then not giving him typical responsibilities is a risky move; it’s not a magic pill that will fix all of IU’s problems.
Return to form
Tiawan Mullen likely expected to be prepping for his first NFL season right now.
It didn’t work out that way. After an injury-plagued 2021 season at Indiana, the senior cornerback is hoping to return to the form that made him an All-American as a sophomore.
The 5-10, 180-pound Floridian was feared in 2020, finishing the short season with 3 interceptions, 4 breakups, a forced fumble and 3.5 sacks. On an Indiana team that had one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, Mullen might have been the best player. But then 2021 happened, with the Hoosiers’ defense sinking fast, in part because Mullen couldn’t stay on the field, playing in only 7 games while making 4 starts. He’s plenty motivated now, having decided to return to IU for his senior season, planning for a rebound that will put him in position for next spring’s NFL Draft.
Again near bottom
Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season, racking up only 17 in its 12 games.
Don’t look for a big jump this fall, even though Allen addressed the deficiency this offseason, bringing in rushers Myles Jackson, a transfer from UCLA, and JH Tevis, via Cal, to try to give the Hoosiers an immediate dose of athleticism on the edge. While the pair — both former 3-star recruits, per 247Sports — give IU more experience, neither was a high-volume sack master at their previous stops. Maybe Indiana can get more production on the interior, where they also hit the transfer market hard (with Patrick Lucas and LeDarrius Cox, both of Ole Miss). At the very least, Indiana took a dive into the transfer portal and came back with SEC-level talent.
But wherever the production comes, Indiana must find a way to jostle the opposing quarterback more frequently. To climb into the top half of the Big Ten, IU would need a significant increase in productivity, an unlikely scenario.
For years, linebacker Cam Jones played second-fiddle to position-mate Micah McFadden.
But no longer; McFadden, a 5th-round draftee of the NY Giants, has graduated, opening the door for Jones to take over as the Hoosiers’ alpha defender. He has the credentials to be great. A team captain for 2 consecutive seasons, the 6-3, 222-pound Jones had a hugely productive season in ’21, even if it was somewhat overshadowed by McFadden. Last year, Jones had 64 tackles and a sack, and helped to create a couple of turnovers.
Previously defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, who moved on to North Carolina after only a season in Bloomington, liked to blitz McFadden from his linebacker position, giving IU really its only consistent pass rush. Perhaps under Wilt, Jones will get similar opportunities to attack behind the line of scrimmage. If so, then Jones will have a monster final season as a Hoosier.
Indiana could have a couple of solid, top-of-the-line linebackers.
Jones will be one. The other likely is Miami transfer Bradley Jennings Jr., who had a solid season for the Hurricanes in 2020 — he had 39 tackles, 3 sacks and 7.5 for loss in 11 starts at middle linebacker — before playing only as a reserve last season, before deciding to transfer. But at 6-1, 222-pounds, the athlete fits what the Hoosiers want to be defensively, hoping that Jennings Jr., can fly around and make plays. If he stays healthy — that was an issue at Miami — then he’ll have a big season in 2022.
Secondary a strength
Not only do the Hoosiers have Mullen, who should return to form as a senior, but they’ve got 2 more quality defensive backs in fellow corner Jaylin Williams and safety Devon Matthews.
It should give IU one of the better secondaries in the Big Ten East, which will be critical if the Hoosiers want to try to slow down some of the high-powered offenses in the division, like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and even Maryland. IU was hurt by the loss of nickel back Reese Taylor, who transferred to Purdue, and it needs to find a Bandit (the hybrid linebacker/safety) and depth is a question.
But if Mullen, Williams and Matthews stay healthy — that didn’t happen in ’21 — then the Hoosiers have a solid foundation.
The Hoosiers’ defense is going to struggle to hold up against a solid stretch of offenses it’ll face from late September to late October. In the 4 games, IU goes to Cincinnati, which averaged nearly 37 points per game last season (but does have significant personnel changes this year), plays at Nebraska (the Big Ten’s 6th-best scoring offense at 27.9 points per game) and hosts Michigan (2nd in B1G scoring at 35.8) and Maryland (4th, 29.3).
It’ll be that stretch that buries the Hoosiers’ defense, if the group doesn’t make significant improvements from last year.