Head taking next step this spring

James Head knows what he wants from his Big Ten experience.

The sophomore defensive end is aiming to prove himself as one of the league’s best pass rushers.

That pursuit began a year ago, when Head enrolled early to compete in Indiana’s spring practices. The work continued into the fall, when Head appeared in 11 games during his freshman season and authored some eye-opening moments in the process.

This spring, Head is looking to take his biggest step yet. As a versatile pass rusher, who’s spent time at both the strong- and weak-side spots, the 6-foot-5, 264-pound underclassman has an opportunity to claim a major role inside Indiana’s defense this fall.

At the midway point of spring practice, he’s off to an encouraging start.

“He continues to develop, and we’re on him hard because we have high expectations for him,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “(Defensive line coach Mark Hagen) coaches him really, really hard and he’s responded. The want-to and the effort has always been really good for him, and it’s just, to me, about taking that next step.”

What is that next step? There’s not simply one task for Head to master. He has to improve his run fits and generally show greater consistency in his pass rush technique, but those are things that the Hoosiers believe can and will come in time.

Indiana’s defensive coaching staff has been eager to maximize Head’s potential from the moment he arrived. And judging from his offer list — Michigan State, Oregon, Tennessee, South Carolina and Mississippi State were among the schools that pursued him — Indiana’s coaches weren’t the only group intrigued by his skill set.

After an injury limited him at the end of the fall camp, Head began to illustrate his potential for the Hoosiers in 2018. He jumped into the defensive line rotation and posted 17 tackles, including three for loss, with three hurries last fall.

“Freaky body,” defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “(He’s) still figuring it out. There’s times when it’s like, ‘Dang, this guy pulls the trigger and he can roll.’ There’s times that he still looks like a baby deer. He’s gonna get only better with his development in the weight room because he’s got such a big frame that it takes a longer time for him to develop that. But you see the flashes already and he’s starting to execute his job.”

For IU, Head’s value goes deeper than simply pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

As much as the Hoosiers like to rotate players along the defensive line, Head has the ability to fill a few roles. Depending on matchups, he can play strong- or weak-side end. He also has the frame and athleticism to cover tight ends and running backs in space.

Head did some of that last fall, including on one particular play in the Hoosiers’ Nov. 17 loss at Michigan that still sticks with him this spring.

On a 3rd-and-nine at the Michigan 21 in the third quarter, Head picked up tight end Zach Gentry on a route down the sideline. Although Gentry hauled in the 41-yard pass, Head was there with him, just a step behind.

That Indiana even had a lineman athletic enough to take on that kind of coverage felt like a revelation.

“That play, I could’ve done more,” Head said. “But that’s the stuff I can bring to the table, being able to cover tight ends and stuff like that. I feel like if I could take that play back right now, I could cover it better.”

Allen believes Head will have more opportunities to do so this fall.

“We put our defensive ends in situations where they have to have some of those responsibilities and run with tight ends, at times,” Allen said. “If you ask a kid to do something he can’t physically do, that’s on us as coaches, but we try to recruit the guys that can do the things that give us more flexibility. Any time you can hide who’s gonna take certain guys or eliminate or add people into a pressure, or drop guys out of a pressure because of athleticism, I think that really helps us a lot.”

One comment

  1. Head impressed me last year about his talent level to play B1G football. The play against Michigan really stood out to me as it showed his speed and athletic ability which will be better this year. I am looking for some of 2019 class coming in to play and show they belong in the B1G. A number of the 2018 class showed they won’t just be adequate in the B1G but potentially significant players over the next several years.

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