In most ways, Indiana’s 2020 defense was everything Tom Allen wanted it to be.
Allen wants his defensive units to be difficult to game plan for, and the Hoosiers were. They caused havoc in both the offensive and defensive backfields, leading the Big Ten in sacks with 27 and interceptions with 17.
But one significant negative that stood out to Allen upon review of the 2020 season was the fact that the defensive line was simply ordinary and too often left plays for the linebackers and defensive backs to make.
Just 7.5 of Indiana’s 27 sacks were made by defensive linemen. Of those, 4.0 were made by defensive tackle Jerome Johnson, who left after last season for the NFL. Of the Hoosiers 47 tackles for loss, just 12.5 were made by defensive linemen, which is pretty remarkable considering their proximity to the line of scrimmage. Johnson was responsible for 4.5 of those.
“Last year was a little different than we’ve had in the past,” Allen said. “If you just go through and look at the production, I did like an eight-year study of this, different places beyond being here within the system, and our D-line wasn’t as productive last year individually as they have been in the past. To me that’s the challenge of that group, to make more plays. Jerome Johnson was very productive, but he kind of stuck out in regards to tackles for loss, sacks, creating negative plays. There’s some other guys that weren’t near as productive, even guys that played his same position. That was very obvious statistically.”
It was also obvious as he studied further and watched film to see the plays the D-Line wasn’t getting.
“The scheme is designed for the guys to make plays that are able to make plays,” Allen said. “Everybody’s got a free opportunity to be that guy. Like I even think one game we had multiple sacks that we missed. We had contact on the quarterback and didn’t get him on the ground. I think we left a lot of plays unfinished on the defensive line.”
The Hoosiers addressed the issue through the transfer portal in the offseason. Ole Miss transfer Ryder Anderson provides an immediate challenge for James Head Jr. at the defensive end position. Head finished with a very modest 1.5 sacks and 2.0 tackles for loss last season. The first figure was second on the defensive line and fifth on the team, but the second put him behind three defensive backs and in a tie with two more.
The Hoosiers also added Northern Illinois transfer Weston Kramer, who had 12.0 tackles for loss in four season with the Huskies. It’s not a huge number, but the defensive tackles who enter the season at the top of the defensive tackle depth chart — Demarcus Elliott and Sio Nofoagatoto’a, finished with 1.0 tackles for loss combined last season.
With Johnson gone, the Hoosiers don’t have a proven, consistent disruptor on the defensive front. Anderson could be such a player, but his 7.0 sacks in four seasons at Ole Miss were a relatively modest figure. Allen is hoping the Hoosiers make up for the lack of a D-Line superstar with depth.
“You’re going to be rotating two deep for sure.,” Allen said. “You can do the math on that. But, yeah, you got to have a whole bunch of guys. I would even go as far as to say you have to be almost three deep to be able to rotate those guys in. They’re under duress on every snap. That’s always been our philosophy here. A lot of places do the same thing. Getting a whole bunch of guys that can play, obviously you need 10, 12 guys you feel good about.”
He’s also hoping the schematic tweak the Hoosiers made toward the end of last season and have fully embraced this year makes a difference.
The Hoosiers still use a 4-2-5 scheme as their basic package, but last season they started experimenting with the idea of moving one of the defensive ends out of a three-point stance and having him stand up at the line to give him more versatility. They decided to stick with the idea full-time and created the Bull position. New defensive coordinator Charlton Warren said he was fully on-board when he arrived because his last program, Georgia, operated the same way.
“That’s what I’m used to,” Warren said. “The last couple of places I’ve been, we played with three down linemen and an outside ‘backer. That position is so versatile. It gives you so, as a coordinator, much flexibility and play call between coverage and rush and stunt. They migrated that position at the beginning of their season. And when I got here, I was all about it because if you asked me, that’s what I would base out of. It sort of worked itself out.”
To truly invest in the position, they made coach Kasey Teegardin in charge of it. Prior to 2020, he coached the safeties, but now works with both the Bull and Husky positions while also operating as special teams coordinator.
“We’re going to ask those guys to rush, play the run, drop in coverage, cover the back,” Teegardin said. “… We have expanded it a little bit off of the package we had last year. We’re going to ask them to do more because they’re more comfortable. Same theme schematically. We may say, ‘Hey, start at this alignment, go to this alignment.’ It’s going to cloud things up for the offensive coordinators.”
Teegardin said he also likes the difference in body types the Hoosiers have playing the position, which allows them to do more mixing and matching for various packages. In Alfred Bryant and Michael Ziemba, the Hoosiers have two options over 250 pounds. In Jaren Handy and D.K. Bonhomme, they have two options currently at 235 pounds or lower. Handy is 255 pounds on the depth chart, but Teegardin said he’s 235 and hoping to get to 240.
“It’s going to give our defense a lot of variance on a number of levels,” Teegardin said. “It makes our defense more athletic. You don’t have a 270 pound boundary defensive end like you had in the old days when you had those true 4-3 defenses with those two big bookends. Now we have guys who are a little more athletic. They give us some more variance. We can slide them inside if we want. Get some matchups and those type of things.”
The Hoosiers expect that to change the way the offense functions significantly. Even if it doesn’t, however, and the defensive line still struggles, the Hoosiers feel confident in their back seven, which includes a pair of All-Americans in linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who combined for 9.5 sacks last year.
“If they ain’t going to make them, the linebackers and the corners are going to make them because that’s kind of how we roll,” Allen said. “Our safeties are very, very active as well. It’s basically sic ’em, the first guy there gets rewarded.”
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