It’s been made abundantly clear to Indiana’s defensive line by this point that coach Tom Allen wants more from the group than he got a year ago.
That’s not to say that the IU front did a poor job necessarily. The Hoosiers led the Big Ten in both sacks and turnovers gained, which wouldn’t be possible if the IU front four hadn’t at least held its own.
But to reach it’s full capacity, Allen said, the Indiana defense needs to get production up front, which means it need defensive linemen to not just engage opposing offensive linemen well enough to keep them from getting their hands on the Hoosiers’ linebackers and defensive backs, but to flat out win some of those battles and get sacks and tackles in the backfield themselves. Last year, defensive linemen accounted for just 7.5 of the Hoosiers’ 27 sacks and 12.5 of their 47 tackles for loss, which is odd and a bit troubling considering the D-line is the closest group to the line of scrimmage.
“That’s just going to come with us having a different mindset this year as a defensive line,” said defensive end Alfred Lance Bryant, who has been working at the new hybrid Bull position. “Knowing that we weren’t good enough at that as a defensive line last year, as a front four knowing that was our weak spot. We gotta get this fix, do what we need to do and get those TFL’s and sacks.”
They need to improve there despite losing the most productive member of the front four. Defensive tackle Jerome Johnson moved on to the NFL after leading the linemen with 4.0 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. That’s a significant loss, but the emphasis on creating the production he did seems to be already having an impact.
New defensive coordinator Charlton Warren already shared much of the same beliefs on how to coach defense that Allen and the other members of the defensive staff have. The basic defensive principles under him will be the same, and the Hoosiers will still place an emphasis on creating turnovers, sacks and other big defensive plays.
But he brought with him a wrinkle all his own. Each day in practice, the Hoosiers tally what they call “havoc” stats — tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, sacks and plays that lead to those sort of outcomes. The numbers of those are combined and the player with the highest total figure is known as the Havoc Leader.
“It’s been a huge focus for our defensive line,” defensive line coach Kevin Peoples said. “And a huge focus for our entire defense.”
The second and third levels of the defense haven’t had a problem creating havoc, which is why linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen were named All-America last season. Those two combined for 9.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and five interceptions.
It’s therefore notable that in the first four practices when the Hoosiers tracked Havoc stats, that a defensive lineman came out the leader. In both cases, it was defensive tackle C.J. Person.
“It’s always hard to tell early in fall camp because we’re trying to stay away from the quarterback,” Peoples said. “But that’s a point of emphasis for us. So far, the defensive line has 50 percent of the havoc leaders.”
Person came off the bench as a redshirt freshman last season until the final game and finished with a total of eight tackles, including 0.5 for loss. He took that limited experience and used it to make himself considerably more explosive in the offseason and also figured out how to make the defense work for him.
“He’s just been working hard and trusting the defense, trusting the scheme,” said defensive end and Ole Miss transfer Ryder Anderson. “We talk all the time about how if you try to go out of your way, thinking about yourself trying to make plays and stuff, it tends to not come. But if you just trust the defense, trust the scheme and do your job, then you start running into plays. That’s what he’s been doing. He’s been trusting the defense, trusting the scheme and working hard like he has been all summer. He’s just seeing a lot of fruits of his labor. It’s starting to pay off. It’s been good to see him ball out.”
The Hoosiers also looked for playmakers in the portal and got a couple with potential in Anderson and defensive tackle Weston Kramer. They combined for 10 tackles for loss last season at Ole Miss and Northern Illinois respectively, and they’ve fit seamlessly into the defensive culture on the roster.
“Transfers are going to be a way of life in college football,” Peoples said. “Because of the culture coach Allen has created here, we can get a transfer to come and fit right in. If you don’t, then you stick out. We put a lot of research into those guys. The transfers we’ve brought in have been very good. It’s always a challenge to get people caught up, but our players have embraced them. Any time you can get another weapon on the defensive line, we’re happy about it.”
Along with the additional personnel, the Hoosiers also tweaked their formation slightly, creating the Bull position for a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker who lines up in a stand-up position near the line of scrimmage instead of putting his hand in the ground. That player can also drop in coverage, but he has some advantages coming off the edge as a pass-rusher. The Hoosiers have high expectations for that spot and what it can do for the rest of the line.
“Any time they can get that quarterback to step up or get him moving around in the pocket where they can get him off his spot, that helps the other three players (on the line),” Peoples said. “We used that spot a lot last year. We’re better now because we have one more year of coaching it, one more year of playing it. Then we got some new faces. I think the production with the whole defense will go up because of that position getting better and getting more production.”
And the combination of that position, the new personnel and the improved mentality should lead to an overall more productive defensive front, Peoples said.
“I do think we have improved drastically since last year,” Peoples said. “Where we’re at now compared to where we were last season as a defensive line is a lot different in my opinion.”