Doug Mallory and Mike Ekeler will try to accomplish something no one has done for at least a decade.
Make Indiana's defense respectable.
The Hoosiers' defensive struggles have kept the program from turning a corner in Big Ten play. Indiana has ranked 75th nationally or worse in total defense in nine of the past 11 seasons.
New coach Kevin Wilson hopes Mallory and Ekeler change the trend soon. Mallory, whose connections to the Indiana program run deep, returns to Bloomington following coaching stops at New Mexico, LSU, Oklahoma State and Maryland. Ekeler comes to Indiana from Nebraska, where he coached linebackers, and rejoins Mallory, with whom he worked at LSU.
I caught up with both men last week while they were recruiting and discussed their vision for the Hoosiers' D.
How would you describe your philosophy for this defense going forward?
Mallory: Mike and I both come from the same background. We're going to run a system that will more than likely be what we did at LSU. Both of us have evolved since then and certainly we'll get input from other guys on the staff, but we're going to base out of a 4-3 and try to be multiple, but be simple for the kids. Everything we're going to start with is just fundamentals: the ability to defeat a block, the ability to get to the football and the ability to be productive at the end of a play, whether it's tackling or making a play on the ball. I think the first thing we'll do after we finish up the recruiting class is study the offenses here in the Big Ten and modify our system toward that. And then from there, as we get to know our current players and the incoming players, we're certainly going to have to modify it to their talent.
Ekeler: We worked together for three years at LSU and last year, Doug brought his staff to Nebraska. We're so similar. We may have done a few different things last year that we haven't in the past, and he's done a few things, but the whole package, we're already on the same page. As far as terminology, as far as schematically, we're already there. Our general philosophy is No. 1, our defense will be known for effort. It's not lip service. When you watch Indiana football, you're going to see 11 guys out there playing with passion and flying around and playing harder than anyone else. We want to [be] multiple but simple. You've got to be good at what you do. You base out of a 4-3 and you're an over and under team, you have a lot of pressures out of both fronts and you can sub personnel and it changes up a little bit.
We're seeing more and more co-coordinators throughout college football. What are some of the benefits of having the shared title?
Mallory: Two guys are going to have a title, but I want to make sure we're getting input from every member of the staff. Every defensive staff I've been involved with, everyone's given input to formulate game plans as the week goes on. It's going to be a group effort. When it comes to calling the game, it's going to be Mike and I, and even then, there's constant communication. I don't know who's going to be in the [press] box and who's going to be on the field, but we'll be constantly communicating, the ability to make the call, the ability to make an adjustment. I think it's a system that can work.
Ekeler: We're already on the same page coming in with coach Wilson and Doug. And then you have Corey Raymond, who was on the same staff at LSU for three years. Toss in Mark Hagen, who visited us quite a bit when we were at LSU. And then Jerry Montgomery comes in and has a little bit different background, more of a two-gap system at Iowa as a player and then did similar things at Wyoming. It all melds together well.
Why do you think it has been such a struggle for Indiana on defense?
Mallory: I really don't know. I know they've been very successful on the offensive side on the ball. I haven't spent a whole lot of time viewing what they've done in the past. I've watched a little bit of tape, but watched it more trying to evaluate the type of offenses that they were facing. I had an opportunity to work here from '94-97 with my dad [former IU coach Bill Mallory]. He had had some good defenses here back in the late 80s and early 90s. You look at any championship football program, and you've got to be able to play good defense. It's going to be a main point of emphasis this spring.
Ekeler: I haven't been here, so I really don't worry about the past. I just worry about the here and now. I've been part of some unbelievable defenses. So has Doug and so has the rest of our staff. We know what it takes, so it's just about laying that foundation. All I'm worried about is what's going to happen today and what's going to happen tomorrow.
When there has been a sustained period of struggling, is there a greater need to go back and look at what went wrong?
Mallory: No. I really don't worry about what's happened in the past. We've got a good plan. Kevin's done a tremendous job of putting the staff together. Every guy that he's hired has been involved with championship style programs. We all know what it takes to win and be successful. It's just a matter of us being on the same page, and hopefully that's going to filter down to our players.
Ekeler: Not at all. Players are players and we've got good players here. We have players who are eager to learn. We believe in what we've done defensively, and it's got a proven track record. It works. It's just a matter of teaching it and developing an attitude on defense and developing a culture where guys trust one another, they trust us and we'll just get after it. As far as anything that's happened in the past, that's history. We're going to make some new history, and that's all I'm focused on.
What do you look for when you're out there recruiting for this defense?
Mallory: The first thing in recruiting, you've got to evaluate the character of the individual, make sure he's a good quality person. And then make sure football's important to him. I look for a guy who's got the athletic ability to play whatever position we're recruiting him for. And a lot of intangibles come in. You'd like to have a kid that comes from a winning program, a guy that's been coached hard throughout his career, a guy that's going to take the coaching, a guy that will compete with tremendous effort. So you look at the talent, the size, the weight, the growth potential.
Ekeler: Obviously, the talent factor is No. 1. But then you factor in, is the guy tough? We want tough football players, hard-nosed guys. And then, does he love the game? I always ask the kid, 'If you couldn't play football anymore, how would that make you feel?' And if the kid is like, 'I don't know what I'd do, I love the game, it's everything to me,' those are the guys we want. Because when you come to college, that really separates guys. It's pretty much a job when you get here, and you've got to love it. If you don't love it, you can be good, but I don't know if you can ever be great. It's very similar to what the NFL scouts look for. They don't want to invest millions of dollars in a young man who somewhat likes the game. You've got to love it.