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Depth offers latest hope for IU defense

4/23/2014

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A recent Indiana practice came down to a winner-take-all snap in the red zone.

Redshirt freshman Kris Smith ended things by sacking Nate Sudfeld (at least unofficially, since there's no tackling the quarterback in practice). That led to a scene rarely witnessed around the Hoosiers in recent years: IU defensive players celebrating something they did to secure a victory.

Even that celebration didn't last long, as new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr made his troops run sprints and do up-downs after practice as punishment for giving up too many big plays earlier in the day.

Defense has plagued this program for years. Consider that Indiana has allowed at least 34 points per game in every season since 2008, with the lone exception coming in 2009 when it gave up 29.5 ppg. Washington State is the only FBS team to have given up more points per game in that time period, and the average for all FBS teams in that span is 26.3 PPG allowed.

Things haven't been trending in the right direction, either. The Hoosiers yielded a Big Ten-worst 38.8 PPG in 2013, the highest number in head coach Kevin Wilson's three seasons. Had the team played close to league- or national-average defense, it surely would have gone bowling instead of finishing 5-7 with an explosive offense that ranked 16th in the country at 38.4 PPG.

"It's not by design," Wilson told ESPN.com. "We've been able to hit a little bit better on our offensive recruiting. It's taken us time to get as many big defensive linemen. We've not had anyone stand out at linebacker since we’ve been here, and those guys impact a lot of plays. We've recruited numbers there. We've had juco guys who have played.

"We think we're starting to get it now. It's going to be our nemesis if we don’t. We need to start playing some competitive defense and get some stops."

Skepticism is understandable, given the rotten history. But with one big coaching change and a whole lot of experience returning, Wilson is hoping the tide starts to turn in 2014.

In January, he fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory -- not an easy decision, given the power of the Mallory name in Bloomington -- and hired Knorr, a former Wake Forest assistant. He has brought in a 3-4 scheme as the Hoosiers join Wisconsin as the only other Big Ten team using that as their base. Knorr, though, insists that it won't strictly be a three-man front.

"Any more, you've got to be pretty multiple," he said. "We're able to move our guys around and get them in gaps up the field, and we'll be able to pressure as well."

Knorr has the size up front to make the scheme work. Mountainous sophomores Darius Latham and Ralph Green got most of the first-string work at tackle this spring; both are listed at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds. Senior Bobby Richardson, who will return in the summer from an injury, is 6-3 and 290 pounds.

"This scheme is meant for us," Richardson said. "We're all pretty big, but we've still got our quicks."

Linebacker, the position Wilson mentioned as a particular bugaboo, could turn into a strength with David Cooper, Marcus Oliver and T.J. Simmons on the inside and Flo Hardin, Clyde Newton and converted defensive end Nick Mangieri on the outside. They've all played a lot and are noticeably bulked up this spring.

"We're more physical and running to the ball more," said cornerback Tim Bennett, who led the FBS with 20 pass breakups a year ago. "Coach Knorr believes in moving around and not letting the offense know what you're doing."

Wilson called the secondary "a position of development this summer," as projected starting safeties Mark Murphy and Antonio Allen missed contact drills this spring with injuries. But the Hoosiers lost only one starter on defense from a year ago -- safety Greg Heban -- and threw a bunch of freshmen into the mix once again. They also signed 15 defensive players in a well-regarded 2014 recruiting class.

Because of all that, Wilson feels like he has true competition on the defensive depth chart for the first time.

"Sometimes we had guys who've had the luxury of playing by default," he said. "It was easy to get your job, easy to get on the field. On offense, you had to fight to get on the field as a running back, wide receiver or a quarterback.

"Our defense has lacked that. Competition is what’s going to build our team, and through no one’s fault that’s been the void. You can say it’s talent, you can say it’s scheme. But it’s really been competition."

Wilson says he hasn't wanted his team to get divided the past few years, so when Indiana struggled, he'd often blame the offense for not scoring enough. While the Hoosiers have put up points at a rapid pace, that strategy hasn't led to victories. Everyone around the program is hoping the added depth and coordinator change can finally lead to more celebratory scenes like the one after Smith's sack.

"Our defensive problems are well documented and known," Wilson said. "We've got a chance to get better. But it’s all talk until we do."