Brandon Shelby had work to do this offseason.
Indiana lost a lot at cornerback after the 2022 season ended. Both starters, Jaylin Williams and Tiawan Mullen, graduated and moved on to NFL opportunities. The three main reserves — Chris Keys, Brylan Lanier, and Lem Watley-Neely — all entered the transfer portal and left IU.
The Hoosiers have had a lot of continuity at cornerback throughout Shelby’s 13 years coaching the position in Bloomington. There’s nearly always been at least one IU veteran in the room in that time. But that’s not the case heading into 2023 — Indiana’s cornerback room is full of new transfer portal additions and underclassmen with extremely limited experience.
So during spring camp and summer, Shelby had to lead off with some basics.
“They’re learning our terminology, how we do things, how we communicate. And so you start from the very beginning. ‘This is a football. This is where you line up,'” Shelby said. “And then you get into not only knowing the schemes and checks, but picking up the game — how we want you to think it out, how coach G (safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri) thinks it out. ‘Why are we calling this? When are we calling this?'”
That development is critical for IU, as playing time is as open at cornerback as it is anywhere on the team. Transfer portal additions such as junior Jamier Johnson (Texas), redshirt junior Kobee Minor (Texas Tech) and redshirt junior Nic Toomer (Stanford) are pushing for roles, and younger players like redshirt freshmen Jamari Sharpe and James Monds III have also performed well.
JoJo Johnson working quickly
Johnson committed to IU out of the transfer portal after spring camp, so he arrived in Bloomington a step behind the players who were here for spring ball.
The Merrillville native spent 2021 at Notre Dame, but missed the entire season with an ACL injury. He played last year at Iowa Western Community College, and had to finish his coursework there before he could transfer. So he also missed summer workouts in Bloomington — he got in just before the start of fall camp.
But despite all that missed time, the redshirt sophomore has still managed to stand out during the first two weeks of preseason. During his press conference on Wednesday, IU head coach Tom Allen said Johnson “has already turned some heads.”
Shelby praised Johnson’s athleticism, but said he’s still getting up to speed on IU’s defense and the playbook. That’s a byproduct of missing the amount of time Johnson has. But Shelby is excited, nonetheless, by what he’s seen from Johnson so far.
“He’s a very talented young man when it comes to the athletic part of it. Now, we’ve got to get it to where he can play fast, think, go out there, make the checks, and be confident in what we’re doing,” Shelby said. “I expect for him to be a contributor this year and help us meet our goals.”
Emphasis on takeaways
Earlier in Allen’s tenure at IU, one of the team’s staples was forcing turnovers on defense.
The Hoosiers led the Big Ten with 20 takeaways in 2020, and tied for second in the conference with 26 in 2018. Allen has long emphasized the importance of takeaways, even dating back to his 2016 season as IU’s defensive coordinator when the Hoosiers recorded 23.
But IU has regressed in this area. Its defense has forced 21 takeaways in the last two seasons combined, ranking last in the Big Ten in 2021 and 12th in 2022. IU, over the last few years, has come up with fewer big plays on defense while allowing more to opposing offenses.
Shelby said the secondary is focused on turning things around in the takeaway department this year. That comes down to coaching, he said — ensuring the defensive backs are reading plays correctly.
“That’s where we are trying to get to right now is, ‘Where are my eyes? What am I thinking?’ And make sure that our checks aren’t all over the place. We have to group them better; we have to get that better as coaches. We’ve done that this offseason, so hopefully those guys understand that the things that were challenging a year ago, we’ve made it a lot simpler,” Shelby said. “We’ve made it where they can go out there and when they see this particular picture they can make a check, it won’t change, and then they know where the challenges are. It ain’t changing every week.”
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