LBs growing into leadership role for IU defense

From the very first day, Indiana’s linebacking crew has been one unit.

Micah McFadden, Cam Jones, James Miller, and Aaron Casey, they were literally part of the same recruiting class. Thomas Allen, just a grade older, was redshirted and became a part of the core five.

In that five rested the future of IU’s defense. Full of potential, and a lot of growing pains to be had, as Hoosier defensive coordinator Kane Wommack would admit. But as IU’s linebacking crew came into this past offseason, something long wished for happened.

“We all kind of came in together, young linebackers,” junior Cam Jones said Friday, “but now we are like leaders of the pack.”

In the spring, Wommack called them a “wolfpack,” specifically, to describe their collective presence in the weight room. While the offseason was tossed upside-down by the COVID-19 pandemic, they have returned to fall camp with a similar edge to them. They are running the defense, making the calls, flying to the ball.

Not since the days of Tegray Scales have the Hoosiers had this kind of leadership from the linebacking corps.

“Gosh, we’ve been talking about that since I got here, about some actual leadership in that room, and I think we’ve finally got it,” Wommack said. “To me, when the going gets tough and the adversity hits, those are the guys that can get us through, and maybe turn the script on some of these close games that we’ve lost over the years.”

There were certainly times in 2019 where the linebackers starred. McFadden, an instinctive player, led the team with 61 tackles, including 10 for loss. Jones, a violent hitter, exploded through more than a few ball-carriers. Allen was steady and gritty, as always, until a shoulder injury at Nebraska sidelined him.

It may feel like long ago, but IU’s bowl performance versus Tennessee may have been the defense’s best performance of the season. At the same time, the Hoosiers finished the year ranked ninth in the Big Ten in total defense. There was room to grow post-2019, and the linebackers had a special role to play.

“Coach Allen and Coach Kane, they put the pressure on us as linebackers and told us what we needed to get done,” Jones said. “We knew we had to fix ourselves first before we could fix anything else. So we made that our No. 1 priority. And once that got going, we got everyone else going along with us.”

The linebackers’ attitude switch was somewhat a conscious effort. It was also just a product of time.

McFadden played in all 12 games as a freshman but was in his first year as a starter in 2019. Jones, sliding over from the hybrid “husky” position in IU’s 4-2-5, was in his first year as a full-time “stinger” linebacker last season.

“This year, now that we are honed in to what is exactly happening with the defense, it’s much easier to get everybody lined up, to communicate loudly out there, and be confident in what we are doing,” McFadden said. “Overall, as a full group, we are getting more guys collectively into that role, to be able to communicate loud and be a leader on the field.

“So, I would say it doesn’t really matter at this point. We have five dudes who can really play out there, who can all play together.”

McFadden believes the linebacker group is truly five deep, highlighting Casey as a player who has flashed. Wommack said the entire defense seems to be doing less reacting and more anticipating, putting players in a position to make more plays and less busts.

“Last time we were able to go live reps was on Jan. 2 against Tennessee, and I thought we did some really good things in that game,” Wommack said. “The experience has shown up in fall camp to this point, in terms of our communication, and our ability to anticipate and react a little bit faster than we were before. I think we’re also limiting the explosive plays because of our experience.”

Jones, specifically, believes he’s moving faster than a year ago, which would be a frightening proposition for opposing offenses. But he has to be both fast and under control.

“I know last (fall) camp, Coach Kane was telling me to slow down, and then I slowed down. And then, at that point, he was like, ‘It’s too slow,'” Jones said, laughing.

“I found the middle point of what he expects out of me and I’ve been learning the defense, learning what I have to do, and what everyone else is going to do, so I can succeed.”

Elsewhere on the defense, the Hoosiers have suffered some early losses. Marcelino Ball tore his ACL last week in practice and is out for the year. Wommack also said Friday that defensive back Raheem Layne is out following a previous surgery, though he wasn’t clear on how much time the senior might miss.

Ball, an athletic, fifth-year player, will certainly be missed. But McFadden expressed confidence in the players who will take his place, namely redshirt junior Bryant Fitzgerald and sophomore DK Bonhomme. Jones called Bonhomme, in particular, a “ball hawk.”

Given the nature of this season, it may be necessary, more than ever, not to dwell on who is missing.

“We gotta expect that might happen to even more people, the way the NFL looks, and just how this whole season is going to run,” McFadden said, “but we are going to take the punches and roll with them.”

“Eleven strong” is a mantra IU coach Tom Allen has been preaching. Jones recalled it Friday. And for the 11 on the defensive side, whoever they are, the linebackers will lead the way.

“We need everybody on the field on the same page. We hold it to a high standard,” Jones said. “We gotta get everybody running to the ball, making plays, tackling on the ball. And it’s a lot of starters coming back. We know the expectations of what we have to do for this season and moving forward.”

One comment

  1. Much like the DBs will look better as a result of an improved DL the LBs will look better too. The defense in the bowl game looked very good for three quarters and need to learn how to finish games strong. The LB corps, much like the other groups, has experience coming into this year to play much better and create problems for B1G offenses. There is talent in the LB room and it will be fun to see how they develop this year and who will be the go to guys when the game is on the line.

    The defense needs to move into one of the top three in the B1G and LBs will have a big say if that happens this year. If the defense can make a move to that level then this could be a special year for IUFB.

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