One of the biggest holes Indiana has to fill on its entire roster on either side of the ball is at safety, where the Hoosiers lost one of the best in the Big Ten.
Of all the Indiana players who declared their entry into the NFL Draft, Jamar Johnson might be taken the highest. He was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media and second team by the coaches in 2020 when he recorded 43 tackles, four interceptions and four pass break-ups in just eight games.
But the Hoosiers are still solid with veterans at both safety spots to go with returning corners Tiawan Mullen, Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams. Devon Matthews is back at strong safety after he recorded 40 tackles, a sack, an interception and six pass break-ups, and Raheem Layne is back in action after he missed the entire 2020 season due to injury. The Hoosiers’ secondary was largely responsible for making Indiana the Big Ten’s leader in interceptions last season, and they don’t expect to see a drop-off back there in 2021.
Layne was already in the midst of a position change when he was injured, having moved from cornerback to safety in spring practice in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit after three years as an effective perimeter player. In three seasons there, he recorded 82 tackles including 2.5 for loss and six pass breakups. Even though he couldn’t play in 2020, he still studied the position as if he was going to play every week.
“Raheem is a smart young man,” Indiana safeties coach Jason Jones said. “Even when he was injured and he was going through his rehab, he still came to every team meeting and every position meeting and took notes as if he was going to play. When spring ball moved around, he looks like he’s been there the entire time. He makes some mistakes from time to time, but it doesn’t look like he’s out of place. He understands what we’re doing. He is really doing a great job of communicating and just directing traffic back there.”
Matthews also is getting better at the directing traffic part of the position. Built like a wide receiver at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he’s always had the athleticism for the spot and he also has exceptional study habits. The next step for him, Jones said, is to have a better understanding of the whole defensive scheme.
“He did take a great step last year just locking in and understanding the defense,” Jones said. “My challenge to him is that, now you understand what’s going on in the back end and what’s going on between the safeties and the Husky and the two corners. Now let’s take a look at the big picture and understand what the linebackers are doing, what’s happening up front, see the entire picture. He’s a smart young man. He understands that. We can put a lot on his plate, we can give him different options where he can get us into checks based on what he reads. He’s embracing it.”
He also wants Matthews to embrace the idea of being a vocal captain. He’s generally always done the right things in regard to learning and understanding his position. Jones wants him to be better at explaining the game to younger players and keeping veteran players aligned as well.
“He’s a guy who leads by example,” Jones said. “He’s a gift. If we have a 6 o’clock meeting he’s going to be there at 5:45. You look at his notebook and he’s got notes on the front page and the back page. He’s going to always be on time, go to class and do the right things. My challenge to him is to get him to be more vocal because that’s just not him by nature. You have to tell him to grab the younger guys and bring them with you when you workout extra or watch film and when you’re on the field be loud and be vocal. That’s something that’s not natural for him but he’s embracing it and he’s trying to do it.”
If he and Layne can develop a chemistry, that would certainly help Matthews be more vocal and that’s something he said they’ve been working on by spending extra time together so they can combine to direct traffic from the back end of the defense.
“We work well together,” Matthews said. “We watch film together. We either go to his house or go to my house. Our chemistry is definitely up there. We’re going to be good for the season.”