IU’s D-line looks to respond to doubts #iufb

The questions that surround Indiana’s defensive line contain the kind of doubts Mark Hagen wants his players to embrace.

Do the Hoosiers have enough Big Ten-ready talent up front? Do they have enough depth to compete deep into the fall? Who replaces the production of the handful of upperclassmen who left the program after last season? Can anybody generate a consistent pass rush?

While those questions cannot be answered for at least another month, position coach Mark Hagen and defensive coordinator Tom Allen want their charges to play as if they are the answers.

“There are different ways to approach it, but I hope these guys have a little chip on their shoulder because I don’t think people have a whole lot of confidence in them,” Hagen said. “That’s fine. It is what it is. I hope they flip the script and look at it as nobody has much faith or much respect in us, and take the offensive that way.”

As Indiana shifts back to a four-man front under Allen, it is looking for a new crop of contributors to emerge this season. Two weeks into fall camp and IU’s coaching staff may have found some players with that potential.

Veterans Ralph Green III and Nate Hoff will anchor the line from the two tackle spots and sophomore Jacob Robinson will split time between playing on the edge and moving to the interior.

On the ends, redshirt freshman Brandon Wilson, along with junior Greg Gooch and redshirt sophomore Nile Sykes are all challenging to earn starting jobs. Gooch finished the spring as the first-team starter on the weak side and IU would love to have Sykes develop enough to form a solid 1-2 punch on the outside.

“With that group, we’re seeing them really kind of band together,” Allen said. “We’ve tried to make them realize that it’s gonna have to be a group effort and they’re gonna have to play well together. That’s how they’ve been practicing. Different guys step up different days. Different guys have showed the ability to make big plays at those key times.”

Big plays are part of what this unit is looking to replace.

Of Indiana’s 30 sacks last year, 17.5 belonged to the trio of Nick Mangieri, Zack Shaw and Darius Latham, each of whom has moved on.

Indiana’s returning sack leader is linebacker T.J. Simmons, who recorded 3.0 in 2015. With the switch to the 4-2-5 defense, Simmons may find himself in more of a situational role with Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver set to start at linebacker.

The lineman with the most returning sacks is Robert McCray, who made 1.5 last season. But McCray could miss half the season after injuring his shoulder last week.

His absence is part of the reason Robinson will see more time as a defensive tackle. Robinson has never played inside in the past and has only practiced as a tackle since the beginning of this month, but he’s willing to diversify his player profile to give Indiana’s line a bit more help.

“You’d like to be able to solidify him a little bit in one or the other, but I think his skill set is such that at the end of the day, he’s gonna do both,” Allen said. “It’s gonna be situational, as well. He’s a big end and a little bit undersized three technique (as tackle), but he’s so athletic and he plays so hard. He’s another guy that is completely bought in.”

Ideally, Kevin Wilson would like to have 10 linemen he can trust and rotate onto the field throughout Big Ten play. During his appearance on BTN Live last week, Wilson said the team might only have eight at the moment.

Of the bunch, only Green and Hoff are proven. In the latter’s case, Hoff must return to the form he showed during his first season in 2014, when he made 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss and ranked second among IU linemen with 29 tackles.

Last year, Hoff played in every game, but made only four stops.

“He fell off big time last year,” Hagen said. “I told him, ‘I don’t need a litany of what happened. We just need to get you back to how you were playing that previous season.”

Ja’merez Bowen, a former offensive tackle, could provide depth at tackle, but he’s still raw as a defender.

Mike Barwick and Derrian Meminger are also being asked to step up. Neither has played a down in two years at Indiana, but IU coach Kevin Wilson said this week that Barwick, a 6-foot 295-pound tackle is coming on strong.

Wilson has also liked the flexibility from redshirt junior Patrick Dougherty, who could add depth as a tackle behind Robinson. Hagen says 6-0, 250-pound walk-on Josh Brown has been a nice surprise on the edge.

It remains to be seen how much time incoming freshmen Allen Stallings and Jerome Johnson will see, if any. Stallings is on the weak side behind Gooch and Sykes, while Johnson is having a hard time getting practice reps on the inside behind the likes of Green, Hoff and Robinson.

“He got his first team action in the scrimmage this past Saturday,” Hagen said of Johnson. “The first play out there he made a tackle for loss. Really, really pleased with how he’s progressing.”

Progress will be the key for this group, both now and later.

So far, Indiana is receiving the requisite approach from a unit that must assert itself for the defense to show the necessary improvement.

“The effort piece is the one variable that they completely control, and I’ve been really, reallyl encouraged by their buy-in and the chip that they’re playing with in practice,” Allen said. “It’s very evident.”

2 comments

  1. Coach Wilson has commented time and again the problems the DL has caused the OL. He made similar comments last year and the DL turned out to be pretty good. I think the defensive front will surprise people with how disruptive they will be; if not it will be tough on the rest of the defense to play well. One thing with the 4-2-5 is the ability to bring pressure from many different players and directions making like tough for the OL.

  2. V- I don’t know. Last year there were articles about how the defensive backs were ready to prove all the doubters wrong. Then the season came and we had one of the worst defenses in all of football because the defensive backs where too young to compete. Maybe the d line will be ok but to expect more is probably not going to happen. KW has never had a defense that didn’t give up more yards and points then his offense produced. I hope one day we can have stories about how the defense is ready to live up to their lofty expectations rather than ready to respond to doubts. I just hope this year the offense scores more points then the defense allows. That would be a huge step forward and probably mean another bowl game.

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