In his first spring as Indiana’s defensive coordinator, Charlton Warren didn’t have to worry much at all about installation. The defense is what the defense has been since head coach Tom Allen was hired as DC under Kevin Wilson in 2016 — a 4-2-5 formation with shifting responsibilities in the defensive backfield that make the Hoosiers difficult to prepare for.
Warren didn’t have to teach any X’s and O’s, so he spent his first 15 practices instead working on the basics.
“You saw a group that really focused on fundamentals and technique,” Warren said in a Zoom press conference Wednesday. “Tried to go to the basics of football, blocking, tackling, taking the ball away. And really instilling a lot of effort and hustle and juice into everything we did. It wasn’t much about scheme because obviously these guys know the scheme. We have an older crew that has played this defense for, what? Three years now. They know the scheme. While we did things to make ourselves better, the focus was more on technique and effort, and these guys responded.”
The Hoosiers lost just three players who started at least one game from last season’s roster — defensive tackles Jerome Johnson and Jovan Swann and safety Jamar Johnson — so they are pretty set and in some cases overcrowded in the starting positions. For instance, Marcelino McCrary-Ball is back after missing all of last season with an injury to play the Husky and Bryant Fitzgerald is back after starting every game last season. They still have three excellent corners returning in Tiawan Mullen, Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams and can move one of them into the nickel when the situation calls for it.
So this spring was more about finding out more about what is below the top line of the depth chart and seeing what Indiana’s younger defenders are capable of and giving Warren an understanding of what he has there.
“We had a focus on building depth this spring,” Warren said. “I thought we had a focus on building depth this spring. Getting a bunch of guys reps, changing the way we practice a little bit to get guys more reps, and I thought you saw our younger guys, with the extra reps, really step up and make plays and show understanding of the defense.”
And Warren does see a defense that, top to bottom, can make plays. The Hoosiers were the best team in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country last season in creating turnovers and Warren sees the same capacity to ball hawk in this group.
“Taking the ball away is always going to be paramount to having a great defensive unit,” Warren said. “We did things this spring where we charted the attempts and tracked the progress at every practice of how many takeaways we got. Our havoc rate is something that we talk about a lot every single day. We opened up our meetings with what our havoc rate was from the day prior. We talked about our percentage of a takeaway, sacks, tackles for loss, and pass breakups. There were not many days where we did not get those numbers, but if we did not we would do a drill to reinforce what we did not do. I saw great progress and a continuation of a wanting to go after the ball.”
He also saw a pass rush that remains strong even after the loss of Jerome Johnson, who was second on last year’s roster with four sacks. The Hoosiers led the Big Ten in sacks last season with 25, and they added a strong edge rusher in Ole Miss transfer Ryder Anderson who should be able to contribute to that figure this year.
“That was a big emphasis this spring, trying to find ways to help the D-line with movement,” Warren said. “Finding ways to move guys around. We just talked about moving this guy to shade or moving this guy to three-technique, getting more athletic. We generated a lot of those sacks with our plugs, our (line) backers, Micah (McFadden), C4 (Cam Jones.) We generated a lot of those that way as well. So I think it’s a good recipe to create sacks and negative yardage plays. I thought Ryder came in here and gave us some juice at the end position, had a really good spring. I think from a standpoint of technique, fundamentals and game planning, that was a big focus and our guys really responded well.”
Warren said he also had a good experience coaching linebackers for the first time. In Indiana’s defense, that means handling just two spots because Kasey Teegardin handles the Bull defensive end position and the Husky, but it’s still an adjustment from Warren’s career coaching secondaries and one that has gone well.
“I loved it,” Warren said. “I had a group that was hungry to learn, hungry to be improved fundamentally and in techniques and in big-picture concepts of being a linebacker and controlling a defense. They really took that by the horns and ran with it. They were sponges. They go out there and they play hard and they make plays as you would expect, but they coach each other. … I probably couldn’t ask for a better group of young men to break me in to coaching linebackers for the first time. It was awesome.”
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