For the first time since 1987, Indiana has an All-American linebacker in Tegray Scales.
Now, the Hoosiers need to identify someone to play next to him.
The early departure of Marcus Oliver has created an opening this year at Mike linebacker. Nearly three weeks into spring practice, IU feels it has plenty of options.
There’s Chris Covington and Dameon Willis, a pair of upperclassmen who enjoyed moments of success in 2016. Junior college All-American Mike McGinnis has also acquitted himself well to his new surroundings, while others in Indiana’s linebacking corps are looking to surface once the spring meets the summer — if not long before.
“This is a developmental process,” linebackers coach William Inge said. “As a team, we want to make sure that we can develop all the guys at the positions. For us, getting guys reps and making sure we’re perfect in our reps, that’s one of the goals we have for us in our position. Getting them reps is paramount.”
In Oliver, the Hoosiers lose a proven playmaker who earned a reputation for chasing down ball carriers. He’s the program leader with 12 forced fumbles, and in 39 career games, he also made 255 tackles and 24.5 tackles for loss.
He left a high standard for his replacement to meet, but the Hoosiers seem confident a worthy successor is already in their midst.
There’s Willis, who started for Oliver in the Foster Farms Bowl, capping a season that saw him appear in 12 games. At 6-foot-1, 227 pounds, he carries a similar frame to Oliver and started to show more flashes as a reliable contributor during the second half of last season.
Covington is an impressive athlete, who began his college career at quarterback in 2014. After returning to linebacker, Covington also surfaced as a potential future playmaker in the IU defense late last season.
He started along with Scales and Oliver in a November game at Michigan, finishing the year with 29 tackles, 19 solo stops and two sacks.
“We’ve been very pleased with his growth and his development and his understanding of the system and the structure,” Inge said. “he’s been a great driver in leading our defense.”
That’s an important component to all of this. Leadership was a trait coach Tom Allen forced out of his linebackers immediately upon his arrival as defensive coordinator last spring.
Oliver rose to meet that challenge, and Scales did, too.
For his upcoming senior season, Scales returns as the face of IU’s defense — the program’s first All-American linebacker since Van Waiters — having led the nation with 23.5 tackles for loss and 93 solo tackles.
From his view at the lead of the pack, Scales likes what he sees around him — especially with regard to the position competition heating up next to him.
“You got Chris coming in. Last year he had quite a few reps,” Scales said. “Mike McGinnis, T.J. Simmons. You got young guys like (Thomas Allen) and Kenny Arnold, young guys coming in and competing. That’s going to make our room better.”
Scales joked that the fellow linebackers are calling Simmons “fresh legs” after he redshirted last season. Simmons is a veteran of the Big Ten, having logged time in 37 career games and making 73 tackles during his junior season in 2015.
The Hoosiers want to tap into that experience — and utilize his presence — this spring and fall.
“TJ has a personality of knowing and understanding that he can control some things — his effort, his attitude, his passion and the love of the game,” Inge said. “When he shows up to practice, his personality literally infects five or six guys around him right off the bat just because he’s so happy. When you can control that and you know that you can do the things that you want to do, great things are going to come. Great things are going to happen.”
The Hoosiers hope the same can be said for their linebacking corps as a whole as the competition continues.