Better or worse? Previewing Indiana's defense in 2022
Indiana’s once-proud defense was broken in 2021.
Yes, injuries played a part, as did an offense that repeatedly set up opponents with beneficial field position. The main culprits, though, were a lack of execution and poor productivity. In short, the defense didn’t play well. A unit that was arguably one of the best in the Big Ten, and perhaps the country, in 2020 was equally as bad in ’21.
What will it be in 2022?
Coach Tom Allen is counting on it being improved. The 6th-year boss is taking a more hands-on approach to his defense, like he did early in his tenure as head coach, and will do so with new coordinator Chad Wilt, who takes over after being the defensive line coach at Minnesota. They’ll face a lot of challenges. Indiana ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (33.3 points per game) and 10th in yardage (384.2), and a group that was among the nation’s leaders in turnovers gained in 2020 had only nine in ’21.
Perhaps another quick fix: 10 newcomers from the transfer portal that IU hopes will have an impact. Let’s compare the Hoosiers now vs. then:
Pressuring the QB: Worse
A majority of the Hoosiers’ pressure came not only from one position last season, but from one player: Micah McFadden. And with the former All-Big Ten performer now with the New York Giants, Indiana has a ton of production to replace. Where will it come from?
It’s a good question without a clear answer.
Indiana had only 17 sacks last season, which ranked dead last in the Big Ten, 6.5 of which came from McFadden, a linebacker. The entire defensive line combined for only 5.5, a pathetic rate that was a big reason why the Hoosiers didn’t turn opponents over at a similar rate to 2020. If the Hoosiers are to take a big jump forward again — and return to Allen’s ideals for his defense — then the pressure needs to be fixed.
In an effort to do so, Allen added 3 veterans to the D-line via the transfer portal: End JH Tevis (Cal), along with tackles Patrick Lucas Jr. and LaDarrius Cox (both of Ole Miss). But none seems like the perfect elixir to what ails the Hoosiers; Tevis, who represents perhaps the most-likely candidate, had only 3 sacks in 15 starts during his 3 seasons at Cal.
Maybe linebacker Cam Jones or new position mate Bradley Jennings Jr., who had 3 sacks in 3 injury-plagued seasons at Miami, can bring more pressure from the second-level of the defense, similar to what McFadden did in ’21. But to truly improve in ’22, IU must be more active in its front four.
Run defense: Even
The Hoosiers ranked right in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in rushing defense last season, allowing 147.3 yards per game, 8th-best in the conference.
It could see a slight improvement if Wilt makes it a priority (as he should) and the Hoosiers can replace the versatile play-making ability of McFadden. IU feels like it has depth on its defensive line, particularly on the interior, with returnees like Demarcus Elliott and Sio Nofoagatoto, along with the newcomers.
If Jones, who has been a solid linebacker alongside McFadden, can take another step forward, then maybe he becomes the D’s biggest play-maker, at least in the front 7. Wilt also has high hopes for Jennings, an athletic linebacker who was productive at Miami when he was healthy.
Pass defense: Better
If there was an overwhelming disappointment for the Hoosiers’ defense in 2021, it was in the secondary, where injuries — and poor performance — tore up what had been an outstanding group the year before.
The biggest key is Tiawan Mullen. The former All-America cornerback was barely ever at 100% last season, when he played in only 7 games (4 starts) because of a seemingly endless series of injuries. But if he’s physically right, the 5-10, 180-pounder is one of the best in the Big Ten. In the Covid-shortened ’20 season, Mullen had 3 interceptions and 38 tackles. The year before, he had 13 pass breakups.
The other cornerback, Jaylin Williams, is solid as well, and maybe better than that, after having 11 breakups last season. And veteran safety Devon Matthews returns too, giving the defensive secondary yet another playmaker. There’s depth also, including Noah Pierre, Bryant Fitzgerald and former transfer Jonathan Haynes.
But none of the personnel in the back half of the defense will matter much if the front half can not pressure the opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. And that’s where the Hoosiers, who had only 5 interceptions last season and allowed 236.8 yards per game (11th in the Big Ten), face their biggest hurdle.
Special teams: Better
New Zealander James Evans will try to build upon a solid freshman season that saw him average almost 42 yards per punt. If he can gain a little more power this season, then one would think the Hoosiers can better their punt coverage unit, which saw the average punt distance drop to 38.4 per attempt, the 4th-worst in the conference.
Indiana ranked last in the conference in kickoffs last season, and it gave up a return for a touchdown, leaving plenty of room for improvement in its coverage units.
Indiana might be marginally better in 2022, but still land very, very far away from where it would like to be.
And that sure seems like it could be the case.
It’s likely that Indiana’s offense will be more consistent this season and that the Hoosiers will stay healthier — how could they not — but the defense has a low ceiling if it can’t pressure the quarterback and turn offenses over. And both of those answers are highly questionable.