Head, Bryant ready to boost IU pass rush

Through the incubator of spring and fall practices, two young pass rushers found themselves obsessed with beating one another.

Indiana’s Alfred “Lance” Bryant, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound redshirt sophomore from Fresno, Texas, would work his feet so nimbly, executing a spin move so tight. Then it was on James Head, a Florida product with an enviable 6-5, 258-pound frame, to spin himself tighter, coming out of his turn just a touch faster.

There are only so many yards from the line of scrimmage to the quarterback, but Head and Bryant have been counting the milliseconds, “racing” as they practice their pass-rush technique.

“I tell him, ‘Bet I get back there before you,’” Head said. “He bets he’ll get back there before me.”

That is the kind of work IU’s coaches wanted to see as Bryant and Head progressed toward the 2019 season. They were each talented, but, as is the case with most young players, not always consistent. In Saturday’s opener versus Ball State, they hope to reap the rewards of those practice bets.

A deeper, more mature corps of pass rushers could add another dimension to the Hoosier defense. Last season, they finished tied for 90th in sacks nationally with 22. The team’s leader in that category, then-sophomore defensive tackle Jerome Johnson, posted 3½.

Seniors Allen Stallings and Gavin Everett return with experience at end, but Head and Bryant are the next wave. Head, in particular, has been pushed by coaches to lead more with his voice than just his physical abilities. Bryant, his friend, has risen up the Hoosiers’ depth chart, showing glimpses of the prospect IU coach Tom Allen thought he had out of Manvel High.

“I’ve always felt like he had tremendous ability to bend, change directions, sink his hips, put his foot in the ground, and redirect,” Allen said. “Some D-line guys, that can be a challenge. Naturally, he has that.”

Of course he does.

Bryant not only comes from the Texas football mecca — he’s the son of a defensive end, Texas Southern alum Alfred Lamar Bryant. He didn’t quite get his father’s 6-5, 280-pound frame, but he did benefit from his tutelage.

When the smaller Alfred wasn’t practicing with his high school team, he was in the backyard with his dad, cones laid out. Bryant was “dipping and ripping,” bending around corners while trying to grab at tennis balls.

“Pass-rush moves, getting off the ball, placing the hands, little small things like that,” Bryant said, listing off his dad’s pieces of advice. “It’s paying off.”

Bryant averaged about 15 snaps per game as a redshirt freshman, flashing his savviness in the Maryland win with two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. His advances over the last year should make him an even more prominent piece in the Hoosiers’ line rotation.

It’s a position group that’s been searching for depth, particularly on the interior. Johnson can’t play every snap at three-technique, and junior college transfers Juan Harris and Demarcus Elliott will need relief at the nose (which freshman Sio Nofoagatoto’a could provide).

Line coach Mark Hagen has seen greater consistency from redshirt freshman Shamar Jones at the three-tech position. Classmate Jonathan King may be the most talented, but a lot like Bryant a year ago, he needs to be more consistent.

“There’s good days and there are days that aren’t as good,” Hagen said.

At end, there is a lot to like in Head and Bryant’s potential. Head had offers from Oregon and Michigan State when he chose the Hoosiers, so there is no doubt he’s an elite athlete.

But staying hungry is the most important thing in Hagen’s mind, and that’s something Head has taken to heart.

“Gavin, he’s a returning starter. I want to be better than Gavin,” Head said. “Allen Stallings, he’s also a starter. I want to get past those guys, really. Lance, we are good friends, he drives me.

“We just all have competitiveness in us. We want to drive each other better, but at the end of the day, we are still friends. It’s all cool.”

Now that the competition turns to an opponent, the Hoosiers can show how much they’ve grown. Defensive coordinator Kane Wommack started the week by acknowledging Big Ten teams usually have a line advantage over a Mid-American school like Ball State. That should make it possible for the Hoosiers to get pressure with their front four, when necessary.

At the same time, they can’t just pin their ears back. Allen thought back to previous matchups with the Cardinals and regretted how many rushing yards IU surrendered. Ball State gained 140 yards on the ground in 2016.

“In my mind, they ran the ball against us and they shouldn’t have,” Allen said. “And that’s a tribute to them. At the same time, I never left the game pleased with how we defended them in that regard. That, to me, is job No. 1, to stop the run, and then create those passing situations.”

And when the latter opportunity arises, Head and Bryant will be ready. Neither registered a sack as freshmen. They are looking to change that.

They have been preparing for their charge at the quarterback, clever and quick.

“I’m ready to go. That’s all I can say about it,” Bryant said. “Make some plays, get my name out there, and let’s win some games with this team.”

5 comments

  1. Did any of you watch the Clemson/Georgia Tech game? The Clemson front 4 were on the GT QB so quickly he was getting tackled while receiving the snap from the center. That front 4 simply out-quicked the GT OL. If IU had a DL with that kind of speed and dominance we wouldn’t lose a game.

    Here’s to hoping that the IU DL can be 1/4 to 1/2 as good as Clemson. That would be impressive enough for me.

    1. Clemson has an awesome front to be sure but lots of defensive lines are going to look impressive against Georgia Tech this season.

  2. IU’s pass rushers need to improve this year and become forces to be reckoned with by B1G teams not just OC teams. IU has been missing the devastating pass rushers since coach Allen has taken over, years before too, and having several this year would do a lot to improve this defense.

  3. Clemson might be able to beat a couple of this year’s weakest NFL teams! They have become the College Football Superpower, and that was no mid-major team they crushed last night.

    In relative terms, skill players aside, the quality of the Offensive and Defensive lines is really what tells you how good a team’s recruiting is.

    1. You know, every few years a loaded college team will inspire someone to make a comment such as that. When pro players or coaches hear that they have a hearty laugh. The last guy in the bench on an NFL team would absolutely tear apart 90% of the Clemson players. Men versus boys.

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