IU defense has lots to prove as spring arrives

Sunday was just the second day of Indiana’s spring practices. But as defensive coordinator Kane Wommack reviewed what his unit needed to accomplish, his words aimed toward a moment several months in the future.

“To me, continuing to improve our fundamentals, can get better at those things,” Wommack said. “Those things will be the difference when we show up to Madison in September.”

Wommack wasn’t bashful about what’s in front of the Hoosiers, their opener at Wisconsin, 180 days away. He wasn’t rushing past the memory of the last game IU played, either, that gut-wrenching 23-22 loss to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl, just 66 days ago.

A young, growing defense, which made so many strides in 2019 — especially in the bowl game, until the Volunteers scored two touchdowns in the final 4:21 — went into the offseason with a certain level of hunger. They are on the field for spring practices now, purposeful, driven.

They are as sharp as Wommack has seen in his relatively short career, the fewest mental busts he can recall on a Day 2 of spring practice. As they push toward their debut in Madison, the Hoosiers are riding whatever momentum they created last season, while also keenly aware of how much they can still grow.

“It’s always amazing to me, in spring, when that final click turns. But it’s almost night and day, from where we were even when we lined up against Purdue to what you saw, the maturity and growth, in that bowl game,” Wommack said. “Pound for pound, we probably played our best football in that bowl game against Tennessee.

“Even though we came up short, I think the momentum and the confidence our players got from that bowl practice and prep, and then to execute on game day … we showed up here, our guys, they are confident. They believe in what they are doing right now. They are bought in.”

As spring practices get underway, the defensive side of the ball may be the most intriguing because of all that returns. Linebacker Reakwon Jones and defensive end Allen Stallings have moved on, along with secondary players Andre Brown and Khalil Bryant. But pretty much everyone else returns.

There were moments where the Hoosier defense was less than stout in 2019, including an overtime shootout at Purdue. But they still improved in several metrics, putting IU in the top 50 nationally in scoring, total, rush, and pass defense for the first time since 1993.

The question is whether the Hoosiers can take another step, not only to become more consistent but possibly even emerge as a strength of the team, which was a level IU coach Tom Allen achieved when he first arrived in Bloomington as a defensive coordinator in 2016.

“As much as we did as a 2019 defense … they believe that the 2020 defense, right, has something to prove and play with a chip on their shoulder,” Wommack said. “That’s what we believe here. That’s Tom Allen defense.”

At every level, IU’s defense returns experience. Micah McFadden and Cam Jones are juniors-to-be with loads of playmaking potential. In that same class, defensive ends Lance Bryant and James Head Jr. have untapped potential as pass-rushers. Breakout freshman Tiawan Mullen is about to be a year older at corner.

Rising senior Jerome Johnson could be an interior force, along with rising junior Demarcus Elliott and sophomore Sio Nofoagatoto’a. And that’s not an all-inclusive list.

As far as position groups that have stood out physically coming into spring, Wommack pointed to his linebackers. They may only seem like modest gains, but Jones is up three pounds to 227 in his second year as a true linebacker. McFadden is actually listed three pounds lighter, at 229.

“They are like a wolf pack in that weight room right now. If you wanna work out with those guys, like, you gotta be on one,” Wommack said. “Just the attitude and the leadership, we have not had that since I’ve been here defensively in that unit, the way they look, the presence they give, both out on the field, in the weight room, locker room.

“It’s been the missing link in the last two years that we’ve had defensively.”

IU should also be more experienced in the secondary, where a couple of pieces are moving around. Junior-to-be Jamar Johnson, who flashed at husky throughout 2019, is getting some reps at free safety. On the other hand, another rising junior, Bryant Fitzgerald, has flipped to husky.

“Jamar … he’s one of our most instinctive players, he’s one of our best playmakers,” Wommack said. “Let’s get him in the backend and let him play everything top-down and make more plays than you can from that husky position.

“Fitzy is so good around the box, we are able to activate him a little bit more, coming off the edge, bringing pressure. He’s that hybrid safety/linebacker guy that we just wanted to get more active in the run game.”

Spring practice has also been an opportunity to get some midyear enrollees acclimated, including linebacker Ty Wise and defensive linemen Caleb Murphy and Damarjhe Lewis on Wommack’s side of the ball.

Lewis, a 6-foot-3, 291-pound freshman from Griffin, Ga., has stood out to the Hoosiers’ coaching staff.

“His get-off, his pop, he’s already making plays out there on the field,” Wommack said. “I always teach these guys, ‘Hey, man, you’re not going to know what’s going on, but just go make plays.’ Micah McFadden, he played his freshman season, I’m not sure he knew half the plays out there that he made.

“But just go make plays, and I think guys understand football players, right, that can show up in a situation like this, they catch a coach’s eye. And that’s what Damarjhe is doing right now.”

7 comments

  1. There have been questions about Wommack as DC but the truth is the defense improved over the 2018 defense despite so many young players. 2020 will be the true measure of his role as DC. IU has experience and talented defenders at all levels so how hard they play, tackle, rush the QB, and create take-aways should be improved in a major way. This 2020 defense should be a fun defense to watch. I like the moves that have been made with the players and it should improve the defense.

  2. It is good to hear Wommack emphasize defensive fundamentals. Because if IU starts out tackling like they did in last year’s first game, it could get ugly in Madison. Our tackling will be tested by those cheese-eaters.

    1. You’re right about that. If IU comes out like they did against Ball St in the opener last season, It’ll be a long game. Luckily, Jonathan Taylor is headed to the NFL and his replacement looks solid, but not the same gamebreaker Taylor was. Either way Wisconsin will still try to run the ball down the Hoosiers throats. I do think it’s a winnable game, but Wisc will likely be around a 14 point favorite.

  3. Fitz, Cam, Johnson & Johnson have nozes for playmaking. Now with another years maturity and younger guys with = or better talent pushing the depth chart the results bar moves higher. Allen and Wommack gotta be hiding grins.

  4. t, The Wisconsin game will tell us a lot about where the program is right now. I hope it is at the point it is ready to compete and defeat teams like Wisconsin. The team will have to prove it to us because we haven’t seen those wins for decades. IU has the offensive talent to get the job done if the OL becomes a dominate group that can match up with the best defenses in the conference.

    Defensively, IU has the players to really become one of the best in the B1G if they play like they did the first three quarters of the Tennessee game. I hope coach Wommack is right about the LBs developing into a force on the field. Our ST seem to be in good hands with our punter and kicker but we need to see the return teams become a threat.

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