When he arrived as a fresh-faced and impassioned coordinator last spring, Tom Allen felt obligated to bring the energy for his defense each day at the start of practice.
He doesn’t feel that way anymore.
Now, Allen sees his players bringing focus without needing reminders. For a defense that feels it can improve upon last year’s remarkable turnaround in 2017, that’s as good of a sign as any two practices into Allen’s first spring as Indiana’s head coach could provide.
“I felt like I always had to set the tone for everything,” Allen said.” Now, there’s players doing it. There are other coaches doing it and the standard has been set. The expectations have been set. They’re not satisfied. We had a good year last year, but we want to be a great defense.”
There are pieces in place to build to that point during the coming months. Already, the starting point is higher for a defense that enters a new year ranked No. 1 nationally in returning defensive production by college football statistics guru Bill Connelly.
Of course, the Hoosiers will miss the leadership of middle linebacker Marcus Oliver, who declared for the NFL Draft after his redshirt junior season, and the production of defensive tackle Ralph Green III, who graduated and is also hoping to latch on with a professional team.
But there’s a lot to like in a unit that gave up fewer explosive plays, made more open-field tackles, improved 75 spots in total defense to No. 45 in the country (380 yards allowed per game) and returns All-American linebacker Tegray Scales to the core of the defense.
“It’s a lot of production, but I also make sure we that we’ve got to perform again,” said second team All-Big Ten cornerback Rashard Fant, who chose to return for his senior season rather than turn pro. “It’s a new year. All those numbers are from last year. We got it going and (are trying to) hold that standard again, but we can even get a little bit better, myself included.
“I know it starts with me and Tegray. We have to better ourselves and we know everybody else will follow. Just continue to get better knowing we’re older. We can be even smarter and make even better decisions on the defensive side because we’re older and it’s expected of us. It’s exciting to see, this new year, what we can do.”
After Indiana’s second practice of the spring on Sunday afternoon — and still a couple days away from the team’s first padded practice — Allen was most concerned with making sure his players were lining up correctly, fixing their eyes on the proper targets and executing assignments in drills.
Already, however, Allen said he’s been encouraged to see the way Jonathan Crawford has approached a greater leadership role among the safeties, and how hybrid safety Marcelino Ball has acclimated to his first spring as a college player.
Defensive end Greg Gooch, too, has captured Allen’s attention.
“Gooch, to me, would be one that I think is different from a maturity, leadership (perspective),” Allen said. “Really, really pleased with the way he’s handled himself both in the workouts and in the first two practices. Those guys jump out at me on defense.”
Allen is also paying close attention to Mike linebacker, where Oliver starred during the past two seasons. Dameon Willis and Chris Covington should both factor heavily into the competition, but Allen isn’t looking for merely one player to step forward into Oliver’s former role.
“I really feel like I want to come out of spring ball with several guys that we feel good about,” he said. “That’s one of our goals. It’s one of our objectives of our spring to finish up with that, a really good depth chart, especially at that Mike spot where we feel we have several options of guys who can rotate in there and do a good job together and find a guy who wants to take over and run this defense.”
Already, too, Allen has found several players willing to take over for him by bringing the necessary energy and focus to practice every day.