Better or worse? Previewing Indiana's defense in 2020
Tom Allen is hoping a year older means a year better for Indiana’s defense.
How that equates statistically, now that IU will play only Big Ten opponents, remains to be seen. But the 4th-year coach thinks the Hoosiers are closer to having the playmakers — and the depth — to consistently compete against league opponents every week.
Since 2016, when Allen was the defensive coordinator under Kevin Wilson, IU has seen gradual improvement in its defense, up to last season when the Hoosiers were about as consistent as possible, ranking 9th in the Big Ten in points allowed (24.4), yards (352.2) and rushing yards (138.5). They were a tick lower in passing yards, 10th at 213.7, (but fewer than a yard from 9th).
Overall, it was a big climb from 2018, when IU had allowed 5.5 more points and 70 more yards per game.
There’s reason to think the Hoosiers could continue to build in 2020. Allen, who gave up defensive coordinator duties to Kane Wommack before last season, sees 9 starters return to IU’s defense, although there’s still some youth considering it has only 3 seniors.
Of particular focus heading into this odd COVID-influenced 2020 Big Ten-only season is getting more opportunities for what is likely to be a more potent offense. Last season, IU generated only 17 turnovers, ranking it among the 4 worst defensive units in the Big Ten.
What’s in store for 2020? Let’s play better or worse.
Pressuring the QB: Better
A good way to create more turnovers would be to get after the quarterback.
Accumulate sacks, or at least pressures. That’s a priority for Wommack this season. In 2019, IU collected 27 sacks in 13 games, a 2.1 average that ranked — again — 9th in the Big Ten.
Where’s extra pressure this season come from? Ideally, the Hoosiers would like to get their experienced front 4 into the backfield more often, and that means increases in production from interior lineman Jerome Johnson, among others. Johnson, 1 of those 3 senior starters, is the Hoosiers’ active leader in sacks, at 9.5, after a junior season in which he tied for the team lead with 5.
While getting 5 sacks from an interior rusher is great, that it was tied for the team lead — with graduated end Allen Stallings IV — isn’t. IU needs to get more perimeter rush, while also making up for the departure of Stallings, and that’ll fall to players like senior Michael Ziemba, James Head and Alfred Bryant. But that trio has combined for only 20.5 career TFLs and 3.5 sacks.
Maybe graduate transfer Jovan Swann provides a big boost; the 6-2, 270-pounder, a native of Greenwood, Ind., led Stanford with 5.5 sacks last season before transferring back home.
Perhaps the Hoosiers can generate pressure too, by bringing an extra man. Perhaps that’s from the Husky position — IU’s hybrid linebacker, nickel back — where senior Marcelino Ball, with good size at 6-0, 220 pounds, could get more time in the box, as IU looks to take advantage of his play-making ability. Last season, Ball had a team-high 6 quarterback hurries, including a couple of sacks.
Run defense: Same
IU doesn’t lack for size and experience in its defensive front.
At 6-3, 311 pounds, junior Demarcus Elliott, honorable mention All-Big Ten last season, can take up space on the interior. And at nose tackle, Elliott has a quality, and now experienced, backup in sophomore Sio Nofoagatoto’a.
Johnson, the tackle, is another 300-pounder, and backup C.J. Person, who played in only 4 games last season and redshirted, is there as well.
If the front can clutter up the line of scrimmage and occupy blockers, then it’d go a long way toward improving the Hoosiers’ rush defense. But the Hoosiers need more productivity out of their linebackers. Junior Micah McFadden returns after an honorable mention All-Big Ten season in which he led IU with 60 tackles, 10 for loss. But Indiana will need to find a replacement for Reakwon Jones, one of its more experienced players who graduated after totaling 55 tackles last year.
Pass defense: Better
Indiana thinks it has the personnel, at cornerback in particular, to make significant strides in its pass defense this season.
Its top 3 cornerbacks have youthful experience, including sophomore Tiawan Mullen, a 247Sports True Freshman All-American last season after leading the Big Ten with 13 pass breakups, and junior Jaylin Williams, a returning starter. Junior DB Reese Taylor will push for more snaps this season, however, after settling in at cornerback last year. The former high school quarterback played multiple positions before finding a permanent home at corner last year.
Wommack says he wants better coverage players at safety this season, a reason a couple of players — Raheem Layne and Jamar Johnson — moved from cornerback. It’s in an effort to help the Hoosiers’ pass defense, after it gave up nearly 214 yards per game last season, and perhaps more important allowed 20 touchdowns while collecting only 7 interceptions.
In 5 games last season, the Hoosiers gave up at least 290 yards passing, offsetting 3 outings that they allowed 94 or fewer, including Rutgers’ 1-yard passing vs. IU in mid-October.
Special teams: Same
IU got a boost late last season when the NCAA granted Australian Rules Football punter Haydon Whitehead a 6th year of eligibility.
The 25-year-old Ray Guy Award candidate was honorable mention All-Big Ten last season, after averaging 42.5 yards per punt, good for 5th in the Big Ten, and after pinning opponents inside their 10-yard line on 14-of-51 chances, the 5th-best mark in the FBS.
Considering it returns a bulk of its productivity from last season, Indiana is anticipating improvement in 2020.
The Hoosiers need to now because they won’t be able to feast on a soft nonconference schedule before the big boys come rolling into town. But in his 4 years, first as the DC then the past 3 as IU’s head coach, Allen has built a solid foundation ready for a new challenge.