Better or worse: Previewing Indiana's defense in 2021
Indiana’s turnover statistics are staggering.
In 2020, the Hoosiers collected 20 turnovers in 7 regular-season games, turning those into 65 points. They had at least 1 takeaway in 15 straight games and an interception in 10 straight, streaks that weren’t snapped until the Outback Bowl, when turnover-plagued Ole Miss miraculously held on to the ball for 60 minutes during its upset victory over IU.
Even with that dud, Indiana has forced at least 1 turnover in 36 of its last 39 games. If there’s a primary reason why the Hoosiers are on an upward trajectory under 5th-year coach Tom Allen, it’s that he’s recruiting the athletes necessary to turn IU’s defense into one that is feared in the Big Ten.
And although some of the personnel changes in 2021 — DT Jerome Johnson and safety Jamar Johnson, both first-team All-Big Ten last season, are departed — there’s a lot to like. Although Jamar Johnson is on to the NFL, the secondary again should be fantastic, led by All-American Tiawan Mullen and fellow second-team All-Big Ten cornerback Jaylin Williams.
Micah McFadden, one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten and one of the 4 IU first-team league members in ’20, surprised many when he decided to return to Bloomington for his senior season. He’s one of the most experienced players in the Big Ten, and was a big reason why Indiana’s defense gave up only 20.3 points per game last year, the 4th-best mark in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers were solid vs. the run last season, allowing only 137.1 yards on the ground, good for 5th in the conference. And although opponents averaged 241 yards passing — IU ranked only 10th of 14 — the Hoosiers more than made up for it with all the turnovers. Their defense had 17 regular-season interceptions, tops in the Big Ten and the country.
The numbers will be hard to beat, yet IU might be able to do so.
Let’s play better or worse.
Pressuring the QB: Even
Although Indiana didn’t have a defensive lineman with more than Jerome Johnson’s 4 sacks last season, the Hoosiers still led the Big Ten in quarterback takedowns, with 25.
Because the defense could bring the heat from everywhere. And now, in his first season as the coordinator, Charlton Warren will try the same model. McFadden, the linebacker, had a team-high 6, with Mullen, a cornerback, adding 3.5 and linebacker Cam Jones, who also returns for his senior season, tacking on 3. Eight other Hoosiers had at least 1.
That kind of attack caused opposing quarterbacks fits, including Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who threw 3 interceptions to the aggressive Hoosiers last season.
The Hoosiers might get a boost, as well, by the expected return of husky (IU’s hybrid linebacker/safety position) Marcelino McCrary-Ball, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury but had 2 sacks and a team-high 6 QB hurries in 2019.
All that said, IU would still like to see development out of its edge pass rush, where it got a combined 3.5 sacks from primary defensive ends D.K. Bonhomme, James Head Jr. and Jonathan King. Perhaps newcomer Jaren Handy can be the answer. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound junior had 10 tackles and a sack (against Alabama) for Auburn last season, but thinks a transition to IU will be a better fit and will equal more production.
Run defense: Even
The Hoosiers want to keep players fresh in their defensive front, and they have the depth to be able to do so, even if their best interior lineman, Jerome Johnson, left.
The rotation, which went as many as 8 deep in its 4 positions last season, is one of the reasons why the Hoosiers were able to keep opposing running games in check. IU finished its regular-season as 43rd-best in the country in rush defense, the first time it had been in the top 50 nationally since 1998.
The Hoosiers are hoping a veteran transfer can add another body and help make up for the loss of Johnson; Weston Kramer, a 6-foot-2, 290-pounder from Northern Illinois, might vie for time. A 2-time All-MAC player, Kramer had started 17 of the last 18 games for the Huskies in the last two seasons, picking up 40 tackles, including 5.5 for loss.
Pass defense: Better
Hard to imagine Indiana’s pass defense could be improved, considering all the sacks and takeaways it had last season.
But it’s highly possible, maybe even likely. The Hoosiers return Mullen and Williams, two of the best cornerbacks in all of the Big Ten who combined for 7 interceptions last season. Plus, nickel back Reese Taylor, who had a pick, would be a starter on almost any other team in the league.
Sure, IU has to replace Jamar Johnson, but it has options. Veteran DB Raheem Layne might be the most likely, although he missed last season with an injury and will be transitioning from cornerback, the position he last played in 2019. But he’ll have a veteran beside him, senior safety Devon Matthews, a third-team All-Big Ten member who had 40 tackles in ’20.
And there’s the return of McCrary-Ball, who tore up his knee during training camp last fall. If he can return to form, he gives Allen and the Hoosiers another ball-hawking and versatile defender.
Special teams: Worse
Considering Indiana’s improving depth over the last several years, it’s likely that its coverage units will continue to hold opponents down.
The Hoosiers gave up one 55-yard kick return last season, to Rutgers, but allowed little else, especially on punt returns, where the longest against them was only 13 yards.
Indiana’s potential problem could be that it’s working in a new punter, after the graduation of Haydon Whitehead, a 4-year player whose average of 41.4 yards per attempt ranks third in program history. But James Evans, a native of New Zealand who trained at Australia’s ProKick (the same as Whitehead), appears poised to step in. Still, it’ll be hard to replicate Whitehead’s productivity — he averaged 43.4 yards per boot last year — which was a big part of IU’s defense.
Although Indiana has a new coordinator and must replace a couple integral pieces of its defense, Allen has built a D that can be good for more than a season.
Its performance in 2020 wasn’t a mirage.
Indiana has some of the Big Ten’s best players at critical positions, particularly linebacker and in the secondary, and has the depth in the defensive front to stay fresh. Maybe it won’t create as many turnovers as last season — sometimes, the ball just doesn’t bounce your way — but it’s likely to be a difficult group to move against.