Allen confident in IU’s linebacking corps #iufb

Indiana linebacker Tegray Scales makes an interception against Western Kentucky in 2015. (Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times)
Indiana linebacker Tegray Scales makes an interception against Western Kentucky in 2015. (Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times)
There are two qualities that Tom Allen requires from his linebackers:

Leadership and production.

With a seasoned corps of upperclassmen at the position, IU’s new defensive coordinator is confident his expectations will be met.

“From day one, I’ve challenged those guys to run the defense,” Allen said. “That will never change. That position demands leadership on and off the field.”

So in a defense that must answer pressing questions about its line play and secondary, Indiana’s linebackers hold significant importance. It is the most stable position on the defensive side of the ball, with proven starters in place and a collection of experienced depth players behind them.

With Allen governing IU’s shift to a 4-2-5 base defense, only two starters are necessary. Those spots go to Marcus Oliver and Tegray Scales, both of whom carry All-Big Ten potential into their junior seasons.

Allen is looking for playmakers to emerge, and Oliver and Scales are a couple players who fit that bill. Oliver gives Indiana an opportunistic face of its defense. He was also named IU’s Defensive Teammate of the Year in 2015 after becoming the first Hoosier since Matt Mayberry in 2009 to make 100 tackles in a season.

Scales is IU’s most impressive athlete at the position. He and Oliver both intercepted a pair of passes last year, while Scales added three sacks.

Production is no problem with these two.

“Just like I always tell our coaches when you’re recruiting and when you’re watching high school football, where do they put their best players?” Allen said. “They carry the ball or they put them at linebacker so they can either score touchdowns or make tackles. Those guys have got to be our most productive players.”

Moving from a 3-4 scheme to the 4-2-5 means plenty of production will be left on the bench.

Although Oliver and Scales figure to be Indiana’s only two linebackers on the field for the bulk of the snaps this season, there is flexibility to use one more depending on the situation. If there’s a need for more size, IU will substitute another linebacker for its hybrid safety.

“We’re basically starting a nickel,” IU coach Kevin Wilson said. “If we’re playing a traditional team that is in a lot of two tight (end sets), or I-formation with two backs, then that position is going to become a third linebacker.”

In that case, there are a few players who seem like naturals for the role:

One is T.J. Simmons, a senior who has started 35 of the 37 games he’s played at Indiana. Simmons’ starting job was one of the casualties of IU’s shift to a new defense, but he’s someone capable of adding a physical punch off the bench. He doesn’t have the quickness and athleticism to be an optimal match for Allen’s desire to play in space, but IU can mix and match where using Simmons makes the most sense.

Clyde Newton, one of IU’s most punishing tacklers, is also expected to rotate onto the field in a situational role. Although he’s spent nearly the entire month of August practicing as a short-yardage running back, he’ll play both ways.

Dawson Fletcher, a converted safety, has earned praise this month and will also be in the mix as a depth player. Chris Covington gives IU another athlete who can be used in pass rush situations, while youngsters Dameon Willis and Reakwon Jones have also authored strong camps.

“Dameon is a really athletic guy and plays with a lot of fanatical effort,” Oliver said. “He’s an exciting player. This year will be great for him to get that under his belt, how to handle adversity and how to handle the pressure when teams are hurrying up, or whatever it is. There are just some things you don’t get in practice. I think that’s the biggest thing for these guys.”

Should everyone in this group make the most of their opportunities, Allen will be quite the happy man.

Leadership and production. That’s what he wants and what he expects from his linebackers this fall.

“Linebackers have got to be great leaders and great young men who can get to the football and get that guy on the ground,” Allen said. “We have to be great, great tacklers. To me, those are the two key things.”