Indiana's Middleton ready for end game

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Greg Middleton never pulls up when he's closing in on a quarterback, and he doesn't pull punches when grading his performance from 2008.

"I had a horrible season, honestly," Middleton said.

Most Big Ten defensive ends wouldn't categorize four sacks, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a pass breakup as horrible. But Middleton knows he can do better, a lot better, and he's got the evidence to prove it.

As a true sophomore at Indiana, Middleton led the nation with a school-record 16 sacks, the fourth-highest total in Big Ten history. He recorded six multisack performances, recovered two fumbles (one for a touchdown), forced a fumble and broke up four passes for an Indiana team that ended its 14-year bowl drought.

His out-of-the-shadows season, predictably, brought in accolades. He was a third-team All-American, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection and a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award. Middleton entered last fall as a preseason All-American named to a host of watch lists for national awards.

It was easy to be Greg Middleton. A little too easy.

"You have a guy that has success that early in his career, he was a true sophomore, just a second-year player," Indiana co-defensive coordinator Brian George said. "At times, it's hard for a young guy like that to handle all that success and respond and be able to follow it up.

"But the good thing about Greg, he was mature enough and it was important enough to him that he rededicated himself."

It didn't take a major coaching consultation to get Middleton on track, and he has elevated his game once again this spring as he prepares for his final season at Indiana. After a strong winter in the weight room, the 6-foot-3, 285-pound Middleton is standing out on a line that will be critical for a Hoosiers defense that ranked last in the Big Ten in 2008.

"Right now, I'm just putting in more effort than last year," said Middleton, who was suspended for the 2008 season opener and never found a groove. "I wasn't happy with the [2008 season], so I knew I had to work harder, harder than I ever have."

That could mean bad news for Big Ten quarterbacks this fall. Indiana's defensive struggles during this decade are well documented, but quarterback sacks are one area where the Hoosiers excel.

Although Middleton's pass-rushing numbers dipped significantly last fall, fellow end Jammie Kirlew made a similar rise, recording 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. Kirlew finished second and third in the Big Ten in those categories, respectively, and earned second team all-league honors.

The obvious goal now is to get both Kirlew and Middleton clicking at the same time.

"It makes a huge difference," George said. "If you have one guy, the offensive can kind of scheme to contain that guy and single-block everyone else, but when you have two guys coming off the edge that are pretty good, you really can't scheme to one side or the other. You have to play it straight, and that's what we hope to have them do this season."

Kirlew is sitting out spring practice following sports hernia surgery, but he should be fine for preseason camp.

Indiana's strength at the end spots could help ease some major concerns at defensive tackle. George, who doubles as defensive tackles coach, doesn't have any players currently practicing at tackle who have been in a game on defense (returning starter Deonte Mack is out for the spring following hip surgery).

Middleton doesn't sound worried.

"Me and Kirlew are just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "We have a lot of depth on our line right now, especially some sophomores and juniors who are ready to play and getting some extra reps. Everybody's getting looks, everybody's working hard, so it's going to be interesting to see who makes plays in the fall.

"Everybody's a threat now."

Sacks shouldn't be an issue this fall, but Indiana must improve against the run after finishing 10th in the Big Ten last fall (171.7 ypg). Middleton, whose tackles total dropped from 50 in 2007 to just 18 last fall takes a "sack mentality" on every snap but knows the coaches want him to play the run first before worrying about rushing the passer.

George praised Middleton for recognizing his own shortcomings last fall. Looking in the mirror was a big step, but Middleton also saw his career clock winding down.

"I want to go out with a bang," he said. "We don't want to go through [2008] again. It was painful being on the losing end. Previous to that year, we went to a bowl game. I think we might have been a little too high on ourselves, but as a team, we were humbled. A lot more people are hungry and ready to prove that we're a better team than we showed."