During the 2015 Indiana football season, it got to the point of being unbearable. 47 points to Southern Illinois, 52 points to Michigan State, 48 points to Michigan, 44 points to Duke. The resistance was futile.
The tipping point was probably on October 17 at home against Rutgers. Indiana led that game 52-28 midway through the 3rd quarter. They lost 55-52.
That 2015 Hoosiers team could have easily won nine games with even an average to slightly bad defense. Despite having a high powered offense led by NFL caliber players such as Nate Sudfeld, Dan Feeney, Jason Spriggs and Jordan Howard, the IU defense continued to fail the program. Something had to change.
Tom Allen came to Indiana in January, 2016 to be the defensive coordinator. The year over year improvement was undeniable. It was shocking actually.
According to iuhoosiers.com, for the 2016 season, Indiana was the most improved team nationally in total defense (-169.4 ypg) and passing defense (-134.1 ypg), the sixth-most improved in third down defense (-12.2 percent) and the ninth-most improved in points per game allowed (-12.3 ypg).
In a cruel twist of fortunes, as the Indiana defense emerged to respectability, the offense took a step back after many of those stars moved on to the pros. In 2017, the defense had some hiccups, such as a performance against Maryland that cost IU bowl eligibility. But after a second respectable season that included stout efforts against Michigan and Michigan State, it feels safe to say that no longer is the Hoosier defense the leaking sieve that it had been for what felt like a generation.
BIG SHOES TO FILL
The 2018 season presents new challenges for Coach Allen and the IU defense.
This time around the biggest losses will be felt on the defensive end. Chris Covington was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. All-Big Ten performer Tegray Scales is with the Los Angeles Rams. Rashard Fant is with the Chicago Bears. Robert McCray III is with the Chiefs.
More top performers like Chase Dutra, Nate Hoff, Greg Gooch and Tony Fields have moved on too.
The guys that were the foundation of the defensive turnaround orchestrated by Allen are gone. In order to continue the northward trajectory of Indiana’s defense, a new crop of leaders must emerge, much like they did in 2016.
The good news is that they won’t have to start from scratch.
ANCHORS REMAIN AT EACH LEVEL
While many of the stars must be replaced, IU has the good fortune of having some veteran leadership returning at each level of the defense.
Senior defensive end Jacob Robinson started all 12 games last year and shared first among Indiana defensive linemen in stops, was second in tackles for loss (4th on the team) and third in sacks (4th on the team).
Safety Jonathan Crawford has NFL eyes on him. For his career, Crawford has started all 38 games at safety. He is the current Hoosiers leader in several categories including 209 tackles, 135 solos, 16 pass breakups, eight interceptions, five fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles (tied), 13 takeaways and two blocked kicks.
After an injury riddled 2017 season, you can expect to see Marcelino Ball and his dynamic abilities back and wreaking havoc at every level of the defense.
The biggest question coming into 2018 was at linebacker, where the loss of Covington and Scales left a huge void.
DAMEON WILLIS PROVIDES A MAJOR BOOST
Tom Allen broke some good news for the 2018 season at the Huber Farms event a couple weeks ago when he announced that linebacker Dameon Willis would be returning to play out his final year of eligibility.
Willis, who has graduated and went through Senior Day festivities last year, should provide the veteran leadership that appeared to be missing, at least on paper, at the linebacker level during spring practice.
While he has only started three games, his impact has been felt. Remember those two games last year where the IU defense specifically shined? Willis started in those games against Michigan and Michigan State. He has the talent, and now with Scales and Covington having moved on, it will be his turn to capitalize on a greater opportunity.
Suddenly, a position that looked to be an area of concern shows promise. Along with other key players such as Mike McGinnis, Reakwon Jones, Mo Burnam and Coach Allen’s son Thomas, the Hoosier defense will look to sustain, or even expand upon, their recent emergence.
No longer a leaking sieve, the task is still tall. Can the IU defense continue the trend that we’ve seen over the last two seasons? After what Coach Allen has accomplished during that time, we see no reason to doubt it.
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