Monday, February 10, 2014
Knorr embraces challenge of IU defense
By Brian Bennett
As far as football-related tasks go, Brian Knorr's appears to rank somewhere between monumental and Herculean.
Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson hired Knorr on Jan. 20 as his new defensive coordinator, in effect asking Knorr to stop the bleeding. The Hoosiers have finished last in the Big Ten in defense in each of Wilson's three seasons in Bloomington and were 120th out of 123 FBS teams in total defense last season, allowing 38.8 points per game.
And defense hasn't just been a problem on Wilson's watch, as that side of the ball has held back the program for several years. Knorr understands all that, and he's not walking away from it.
"I think it's a great challenge," he told ESPN.com.
Brian Knorr has improved defenses at such programs as Wake Forest and Air Force. Can he do the same for Indiana?
But Knorr also has some experience in helping turn things around on the defensive side. As the defensive coordinator at Air Force, he helped the Falcons go from four wins to nine in two years, and after taking over the Wake Forest defense in 2011, the Demon Deacons doubled their win total. Wake Forest finished No. 32 nationally in total defense last year before the staff was let go at the end of the season.
In his previous stops, Knorr also learned how to do more with less, which should come in handy at IU.
"At Air Force and even back when I was at Ohio University and Wake Forest, those places weren't getting the top kids or the top picks in recruiting," he said. "Coach Wilson and his staff have done a great job of getting some pretty good recruiting classes. But there still could be times where we're possibly undermanned a little bit.
"But I'm very confident from watching our guys and watching them work that we've got a good group that we can mold into becoming a much better unit."
Knorr will bring some immediate changes. He says he plans to base the defense out of a three-man front, though the Hoosiers may wind up playing a lot of four-man fronts because of the personnel on hand. Either way, he expects to present multiple looks to opposing offenses. Knorr will also emphasize takeaways, something his defenses have excelled at in the past.
But schemes and coverages only go so far. Wilson told ESPN.com on signing day that changing the mindset and culture of the defense is the most important job. Knorr agrees.
"Our players have been told over and over that they're one of the worst defenses in the league and in the country, so I think they're beat up a little bit confidence-wise," he said. "So the key is for us to restore that confidence and restore that challenge and set some standards we're going to abide by. With confidence, you gain a little bit of swag and start feeling good about yourself. To be able to have a good spring and have these guys feeling better about themselves would be the best thing for this defense."
Adding to the pressure of Knorr's assignment is how fast the Indiana offense has scored under Wilson. Last season, the Hoosiers had 35 touchdown drives that lasted 90 seconds or less. That means the defense is on the field a lot.
But Knorr also sees a defense that kept itself on the field too much by allowing opponents to convert 46.5 percent of third downs, one of the worst rates in the country.
"If we got a handful of more stops on third down last year, we'd have probably been in a bowl game," he said.
Indiana finished 5-7 last season, and a defensive effort close to mediocre would have gotten the team to just its second bowl game since 1993. Knorr doesn't have to field one of the nation's best defenses in order for the Hoosiers to succeed.
"But we lose some players on offense, so we've got to pick it up on defense," he said. "We can't just assume the offense will be as prolific as it was last year. We're going to set the mark to be significantly improved."
Indiana returns 10 defensive starters, which can be viewed as either a good or a bad thing. But at least Knorr has some experience to work with, and even in a short time on the job, he helped bring in some talented defensive recruits. Time will tell whether that will be enough to help him complete what looks like a monumental task.